Ring Lardner Jr. (far right) with eight others of the Hollywood 10 charged with contempt of Congress in 1947
Robert Altman at the Cannes Film Festival, 1970
USA (116 mi) 1970 ‘Scope d: Robert Altman
USA (116 mi) 1970 ‘Scope d: Robert Altman
Hot Lips (Sally Kellerman) angrily to Hawkeye Pierce (Donald Sutherland)
I wonder how a degenerate person like you could have reached a position of responsibility in the Army Medical Corps?
Father Mulcahy (René Auberjonois)
He was drafted.
And then there was…Korea, which flashes at the opening (at the studio’s insistence) to distinguish it from the Vietnam War, which was in full battle mode at the time this film was made, offering Altman’s own commentary on the military experience, sort of his own cinematic CATCH-22 (1970), both films satirizing American wars, which were ironically released in the same year. The director’s cynical views are based on his own World War II experiences in the Air Force, flying over 50 bombing missions in Borneo and the Dutch East Indies. Still to this day, this remains Altman’s most popular and certainly his most commercially successful film, shot for $3 million, a half a million under budget so as not to draw attention or unnecessary interference from the studio brass, who never really knew what was happening, and grossing close to $90 million dollars, all but saving the studio, according to Altman. The film’s popularity spawned an extremely popular TV show (starring Alan Alda) that ran for over a decade in the post Vietnam era, which used the same opening helicopter sequence, theme music (without the lyrics), with actor Gary Burghoff as Radar, and at least initially C. Wood as General Hammond, reprising their roles for television. Altman’s son Mike wrote the lyrics to the theme song “Suicide Is Painless” at the age of 14, and reportedly made more money from the movie than his father, who reportedly made only $75,000. Altman’s criteria for the song was that it had to be the “stupidest song ever written” called “Suicide Is Painless,” but found the task of writing stupid lyrics at age 45 too difficult for himself, assigning the task to his son who reportedly wrote the lyrics in five minutes. The song is now ranked at #66 on AFI’s top 100 songs in American cinema, AFI's 100 Years...100 Songs. Many more people remember the television show M*A*S*H (1972–1983), with 99 Emmy nominations breaking all network records, without ever having seen the movie, where Altman detested the television show (which lasted four times as long as the war itself), feeling it was the antithesis of what he hoped to achieve with the film, which was questioning the United States involvement in Vietnam, as America was never attacked or in danger, as it was in a politicized, artificial state of emergency left over from the rabidly anti-communist days of Senator Joe McCarthy that had little meaning to the ordinary people on the street.
The politically subversive tone of the film struck a nerve with audiences in the late 60’s when people were feeling rebellious and anti-war, where the dark humor fit the times, much like the mocking tone of Kubrick’s DR. STRANGELOVE (1964) towards the Cold War. Movies with liberal, anti-authoritarian themes were all the rage in the late 60’s, like Bonnie and Clyde (1967), THE GRADUATE (1967), Rosemary's Baby (1968), MIDNIGHT COWBOY (1969), Easy Rider (1969), or The Wild Bunch (1969), a time when the studios were still run by powerfully staunch conservatives. To make a film like this within the Hollywood studio system of the times took some clever subterfuge, where Altman describes the journey as having escaped mostly unscathed without anybody noticing, where he did his best to keep a low profile, as 20th Century Fox was more concerned with their other big budget war movies being produced at the same time, PATTON (1970), which went on to win 7 Academy Awards, including Best Picture, also the 4th top grossing movie of the year, and TORA! TORA! TORA! (1970), the 8th top grossing film, while MASH surprisingly topped them both at #3, while also winning the Palme d’Or Best Film at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival. The origin of the film was Richard Hooker’s 1968 book MASH: A Novel About Three Army Doctors, a pen name for Dr. H. Richard Hornberger, a former military surgeon whose book fictionally recounts the exploits of three insubordinate Korean War surgeons, revealing how they comically resort to zany antics in order to maintain their sanity during the insanity of war. Screenwriter Ring Lardner, Jr, a former communist, was one of the blacklisted Hollywood Ten during the late 40’s and early 50’s era of McCarthyism, notable for serving a year in prison for contempt of Congress by not naming names of other alleged communist sympathizers, dismissed by Darryl Zanuck, the head of 20th Century Fox studios in 1947, where the blacklist was not lifted until he as given co-writing credits for Norman Jewison’s THE CINCINNATI KID (1965). His interest in the novel, as he identified with the blasphemous nature of anti-establishment tone, prompted the interest of the same studio that blacklisted him, ironically rehired by Zanuck’s son, Darryl Zanuck, Jr. Supposedly a list of about 15 directors (including Stanley Kubrick, Sidney Lumet, Bud Yorkin, and George Roy Hill, among others) turned down the project until it was finally offered to Altman, something of an unheralded novice at that time with a reputation for going against the grain of studio wishes. His work in television on the gritty war-oriented show Combat (1962–63) was notable for its anti-war flavor, which got him fired as the networks hated it, so here he gets the chance to reprise the same subversive elements again in a movie.
One of the film’s revelations is the historical accuracy about doctors being drafted out of medical school, some after only a year or two in medical practice, where they were whisked off to the front lines in helicopters and placed somewhere close to the battlefront in one of these emergency mobile hospital units. As soon as their boots hit the ground, they’re thrust into immediate action where they’re up to their elbows in blood, amputations, and death, where they routinely worked 16, 18, or 24-hour shifts, with one doctor reportedly working 80 straight hours due to the continual onslaught of maimed, wounded, and dead soldiers. Some of these medical students didn’t even know where Korea was on a map, and knew nothing about the army, as they had absolutely no military training, but their surgical skills were in high demand in the early 1950’s. Because they came from a non-military background, they tended to be eccentric, non-conformists who enjoyed tweaking the noses of authority. This irreverence led to the tone of the book, as these doctors didn’t respect rank, they respected competency. Always placed close to the front lines, as that’s where the casualties were, these MASH (Mobile Army Surgical Hospital) units were constantly on the move, sometimes twice daily, reportedly as many as 27 times in 11 months. This aspect was not depicted in the film, but it did show how desperately they needed blood and basic hospital supplies, a point noted in Herbert Kline’s searing Spanish Civil War documentary HEART OF SPAIN (1937), Heart of Spain + Photo League Shorts, with the filmmakers living with a mobile medical clinic and filming it in operation, saving wounded soldiers on the front lines through blood transfusions. Because of how valuable these doctors were, the reality was they couldn’t take them out of duty for minor military infractions, as they were needed to save lives. The Korean War was the first use of helicopters to transport the dead and wounded out of battle zones, as there were no passable roads, where the symbol of helicopters turns out to be an interesting parallel between both the Korean and Vietnam Wars, as the helicopter has come to personify both wars. It was also the first war that routinely treated all wounded patients, friend and foe alike, where the doctors made no distinction. One constant in the MASH units was lurking behind every off duty moment was the arrival of more helicopters, where there was a neverending demand for the services of doctors.
Shot on back lot of 20th Century Fox studios in the Lake Malibu area, recently flooded just before shooting began, so the green foliage was quite pronounced, giving the film what could possibly be a lush Southeast Asian look, though in the background are the Santa Monica Mountains outside Los Angeles. This is a curious little war film with no guns, no battle scenes, and is perhaps more anti-authority than anti-war, as the war itself is never in view, but instead features three doctors and a continuous line of casualties, blending comedy and carnage, where at the heart of the film are the bloody operating scenes that take the place of the battlefield operations. Confined to their tiny geographical area, this medical unit remains psychologically confined or imprisoned by their so-called safety zone, where there are few, if any, quiet or silent moments, while they’re also restricted by the ineffectiveness of the military order and chain of command that seems to have little plan or interest in actually winning the war or understand the ramifications of any of its arbitrary rules. In a Vietnam weary nation, where the parallels between the Korean and Vietnam Wars resonated, audiences loved the outrageousness of it, expressing shocking realism with scathingly dark humor. Highlighting exaggerated issues of morality and sexuality, the film shows the grimness of war through the scandalous behavior of the characters who got through the war with the use of bizarre humor, which led to continuous acts of rebellion, especially the two lead characters who are flown in, Donald Sutherland as Hawkeye Pierce and Elliot Gould as Trapper John McIntyre, two out of work actors that resuscitated their professional careers by playing perversely unruly surgical doctors that dealt with life and death every day on the operating table, developing a mocking tone towards army rules and regulations, which meant nothing to them, eventually building a community of characters onscreen that exist in opposition to military authority, perhaps hoping to have a similar influence with offscreen viewers. Gould especially seems to be channeling Groucho Marx (“Say the magic word and win a hundred dollars”), where a gong sounds after the joke punch line where a drum roll plays in stand-up comedy, where the film is a series of crude bathroom jokes and barroom humor, the more obscene the better, as according to Altman, there was nothing more obscene than patching up these wounded young men and sending them back to the front lines again, which is the true insanity of war. 14 of the 30 speaking roles were novices who had never worked on a movie before, where Altman hoped their fresh faces would enhance the film’s realism, as they could act naturally instead of offering a grand dramatic acting “performance,” which tend to be overwrought, which is exactly what Gould initially portrayed in the beginning and had to be toned down by Altman. And if you want to see what a perfectly crafted, toned down performance looks like in an Altman film, look no further than Elliot Gould as Philip Marlowe in The Long Goodbye (1973). As is typical in Altman films, though not known by the actors at the time, there is a constant mumble in the background with people stepping on each other’s lines through overlapping dialogue, where Altman favors a more freewheeling, improvisational style to rigidly sticking to the actual script. Ring Lardner Jr. was furious how his dialogue got lost on the set, and felt sabotaged by Altman, though he was the only one to win an Academy Award for his Best Adapted Screenplay, where Altman always followed the tone that was established in his irreverent, wildly hysterical script.
Both Sutherland and Gould couldn’t understand why Altman was paying all this attention to the extras in minor roles when they were supposedly the starring lead characters, questioning his sanity, complaining to their agents and the Fox producer that they wanted Altman out, as they felt he was an irresponsible madman who had no idea what he was doing, as there was such a chaotic atmosphere on the movie set. Little did they know how magnificently Altman creates order out of chaos, as that is his signature style as a director, a reputation only further enhanced throughout his brilliant career. Altman tends to get everyone involved on the set, even the minor characters, as no one knew who was miked or where the focus of the camera was during each shot, so everyone had to remain on high alert, as if the camera was on them, and it wasn’t until they saw the final edit that they had any idea what the overall vision was for the film. In this manner, a wonderful sense of camaraderie develops on the set, as Altman loves to use an ensemble style where everybody matters. Altman is known for embellishing the screenplay, in this case, making it more exaggerated and outrageous, creating a total farce, where the only way to survive the madness of war is by laughing in the face of certain death. For most of the new faces, Altman raided San Francisco of all its acting talent, digging up all these personalities, where actors are given such wide latitude to offer uninhibited expression in their performances. In order to pay for all the extras, Altman had to go through the script and give each of them at least one line, as otherwise the studio wouldn’t hire them. One of the surprises of the film to the participating actors was the use of loudspeaker announcements that are interspersed throughout, like chapter headings, offering absurdly amusing war commentary, announcing what movie will be shown, what food establishment is suddenly off limits due to heath regulations, or a change in some military regulation, often followed by some ridiculous sounding Japanese song, written by musical composer Johnny Mandel who also scored the music to the theme song. This decision to add a stream of messages occurred during the editing of the film, adding cohesiveness to the comical set pieces and helping to keep the chaos in order, where some were taken word for word from Korean War Almanacs and military manuals, where they also discovered (and used) an actual prayer in the army hymnal for blessing an army vehicle, in this case the stolen jeep that both brought Hawkeye Pierce to the MASH unit while also sending him back home.
One of the more farcical elements in the film is the meeting of the two strictly by-the-book soldiers, Major Burns (Robert Duvall), an old school, Bible-reading surgeon of questionable medical skill, ridiculed relentlessly by both Hawkeye and Trapper, and Major Houlihan (Sally Kellerman), brought in as the new head nurse, who finds the contempt for Major Burns an appalling example of military protocol. When the two devise a plan to write a letter of complaint for such a deplorable example of army morale, they can’t take their hands off each other, leading to an infamous bedroom scene where Radar places a microphone into their tent so their sexual antics can eventually be broadcast throughout the camp over the loudspeaker. Houlihan gets the nickname “Hot Lips” afterwards, based on her own sexual ferocity on display, while Major Burns is goaded mercilessly into a ridiculous fight, where he’s sent home afterwards in a straight jacket under psychiatric evaluation. The sexual taunts toward women aren’t the least but subtle, but are crude in nature and continue throughout the film. While some find this an example of Altman’s misogynist nature, it’s more reflective of how women are treated in the military, showing the attitudes that existed then and now, especially with those giant male egos involved. Despite the exaggerated satiric absurdity on display, the distrustful, anti-authority tone was reflective of the mood of the country, which was also growing tired of hearing the endless military assessments of successful missions that only sounded more and more absurd when so many dead soldiers continued to return in flag-draped coffins. The script was about the Korean War, but all the criticisms were aimed at Nixon and the war regime. The studios themselves felt the display of blood and guts was excessive, that it would be too grotesque for audiences, but those were the scenes that provided the authenticity of soldiers maimed and dying, which reflected the reality of a protracted war. All the attempts to take advantage of their recreational time only grow more deliriously bizarre, going to ridiculously comic heights, like Hawkeye and Trapper turning the helipad into a driving range, wearing flamboyantly snazzy attire just to hit golf balls, where Trapper grows annoyed when an actual helicopter lands, “Wish they wouldn’t land those things here when we’re playing golf,” yet the extravagance of these outrageous stunts are continually contrasted against the bloody carnage of war.
One other notable development involves John Schuck as Captain Waldowski, the Painless Pole who provides dental expertise, known for being the most endowed member of the male species throughout the entire Asian front, where soldiers actually line up to get a peep when he’s taking a shower. When he has an in-bed performance crisis, which completely contradicts his Don Juan prowess, he’s ready to admit life’s not worth living anymore, that the only option is suicide. A black capsule is the method of choice, suggesting a quick and instant (and painless) death. On the day of the shoot, Altman changed the original plan and after a break for lunch, had an entirely new set design, also an enlarged photo of Leonardo Da Vinci’s painting The Last Supper, lining up his characters in a similar looking, brilliantly staged scene, creating an homage to Buñuel’s VIRIDIANA (1961), which also creates an unforgettable beggar’s banquet Last Supper moment set to Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus.” This scene is set to the movie theme song, beautifully sung by Kenny Primus, who performed in a Broadway production of Cats for perhaps twenty years, where Hawkeye has to convince the always likable Father Mulcahy (René Auberjonois) to offer the last rites, who of course considers suicide a mortal sin and an abomination. But according to Hawkeye, he’s not really committing suicide, he’s only “intending” to commit suicide, drawing a distinction, where a little church intervention might actually prevent the poor soul from actually going through with it. The solemn ritual is carried out with a great degree of gravity, eventually lying down in a coffin, removing his gum, and washing down the poison pill (actually a sleeping pill) with some Scotch, with everybody bringing mementos to take with him to his grave. Bud Cort as Private Boone is deeply disappointed, reminding him that “You’re throwing your whole education away.” While the method worked for Hitler and Eva Braun, Painless has an altogether different reaction, requiring the therapeutic services of an attractive nurse known as Lt. Dish (Jo Ann Pflug), where apparently Mulcahy’s prayers were answered.
There’s also the infamous Hot Lips shower sequence, where the group sits around and drinks martinis in folding chairs as if they’re having a country picnic, but they’re waiting for the nurse’s allotted time to use the shower, where as they arrive each woman is casually pulled away in some needless conversation, leaving Hot Lips alone in the shower, where one side of the tent is set up to collapse on demand, leaving the poor woman naked on display in front of the entire unit, where she’s so infuriorated afterwards that she runs to the commanding officer shouting “This isn’t a hospital, it’s an insane asylum! And it’s your fault, because you don’t do anything to discourage them!” Certainly one of the memorable moments, as they do behave like animals, where it’s typical of the adolescent bathroom behavior exhibited throughout, where this vein of ridiculous humor is the lifeblood of the movie. Adding to that is the infamous football game, where two military units make obscene bets over a football game. Shot in Griffith Park in Los Angeles, the opposing team is actually a collection of professional and semi-pro players, including 6’ 8” defensive tackle Ben Davidson and tiny punt return specialist Noland Smith (aka Super Gnat), who opens the game with a touchdown, both stars from the Kansas City Chiefs, while the MASH squad enlists the aid of Fred Williamson as “Spearchucker” Jones, another Kansas City Chief defensive back player (both Davidson and Williamson also played for Oakland, but Altman knows them through his Kansas City connections) in his first film before leading a long and active career in the movies, starring in blaxploitation films during the 70’s and 80’s, where he’s still working today. The game itself, when looked at from today, could easily be perceived as racist, where just the name “Spearchucker” was a lot for Williamson to overcome, but Fred is always a cool dude and he rises above the indignity of the occasion, as does the humor, which includes players on the opposite team smoking a joint, one of the few mainstream films of the times besides Easy Rider (1969) to freely acknowledge smoking dope, and the first use of the word “Fuck” in an R-rated film, where Painless makes a crack on the scrimmage line across from Ben Davidson, telling him “You’re fuckin’ head is coming right off,” which gets him run completely off the field. With Hot Lips as a surprisingly enthusiastic cheerleader, putting everything she has into every cheer, even as she remains clueless about football, the game turns into a demolition derby pile up of MASH unit injuries, where Altman has a chance to add more battlefield metaphors. There’s perhaps no way to avoid the existing racism among the troops that existed then and now, but Altman’s over-the-top portrayal is joyously crafted, grounded in ribald humor.
While the movie features a single Korean character, Kim Atwood as Ho-Jon (who learns to mix a perfect dry martini), though that is apparently not a Korean name, and features populated street scenes in Seoul, Korea with people uncharacteristically (and amusingly) wearing Vietnamese hats, in reality MASH units were saturated by Koreans working as cooks, hospital attendants, where they were regularly assigned to clean up afterwards and keep the surgical areas and medical instruments clean. Also, nurses, like doctors, were equally indispensable during the Korean War, though almost all were volunteers. While it’s likely none would have actually been as openly harassed as Hot Lips, but the high percentage of rape of women in the military, where more than 20% of currently serving female veterans will be sexually assaulted according to the statistics from the recent Kirby Dick documentary 2012 Top Ten Films of the Year: # 5 The Invisible War, keeps the situation a hot button issue to this day. Nurses from the Korean War era do report placing a Korean woman with a baseball bat in front of the shower door when it was reserved time for nurses to shower. The last MASH unit in Korea, by the way, was decommissioned in 1997. At the time the film was released, it opened in New York during a January winter blizzard, yet there were lines around the block to get in. A theater in Vancouver ran the film for more than a year in an era that proceeded the building of Cineplex theaters, so it was extremely popular with all audiences, including GI’s, where the military initially banned the film from playing in military bases, thinking exactly like Hot Lips and Major Burns that it would lead to poor morale, but they quickly rescinded the order when soldiers were leaving the bases in large numbers and going AWOL to see the movie. The war was still going full blast when it was released, where the bold and audacious tone just fit with the times, expressing a little bit of the insanity in the air, a war film where the only guns fired were on the football field. The film also expresses the bittersweet emotions that overcome soldiers when they’re informed they can go home, where there’s a guilty feeling about leaving others behind when the war was still raging. As a result, there’s no real end to the film, as the lingering war was not over. The Vietnam War would not officially come to an end until April 30, 1975, the year Altman released Nashville (1975), a film some consider his greatest work. By that time Altman had made eight consecutive uniquely original visionary films that alone would have placed him among the great legendary directors of all time, but it also established him as one of the few great American auteurs with such a distinctive style to his work, where he continued to make films for another thirty years.