M*A*S*H, the 1970 satirical black comedy, which dipped a poison pen in so many sacred cows that had been pretty much off limits and taboo in cinema before it, celebrated its 45th anniversary on January 25th, 2015.
Set during the Korean War of the 1950s, M*A*S*H had right on its sleeve an allegorical backdrop to so many current events of the late 1960s such as Vietnam, life in general during that tumultuous time, and anti-establishment sentiments, feelings, and bents. Done sometimes with an almost cinema verite documentary style, one of the end results of the unique approach taken by the directorial maverick film legend Robert Altman, M*A*S*H was the kind of film that had been unseen before in Hollywood. Running with an almost ragtag, loose visual style, it’s almost voyeuristic in the ways we see the comedy in the film and the film in general, and there are plenty of laughs: ranging from slapstick to witty to punny to sublime and ridiculous, there’s all styles and temperatures, from cool to downright raunchy in some respects. Eyebrows must have certainly been raised when the old guard audience of old guard Hollywood first laid their peepers on the film at certain sequences without question. But all the while, it’s the kind of film that is sort of winking at everyone and everything, 100 percent conscious of what it is; there’s a reverberating feeling that hits the tinderbox every time and creates incendiary types of experiences for the viewer when they watch it.
Starring Donald Sutherland and Elliott Gould as ace surgeon Captains Benjamin “Hawkeye” Pierce and “Trapper John” McIntyre respectively, they both became superstars on the tails of the success of this film, and it’s easy to see why. There’s a relaxed vibe between the two of them and their characters in general, like two Groucho Marx clones in a way, lobbing one-liners back and forth to each other as if they were on a tennis court. There’s also that sort of cool that Groucho crystallized so well, that self-confidence that almost belies on comedic arrogance. Sutherland and Gould do wonders with the Academy Award-winning script by Ring Lardner Jr. (based on Richard Hooker‘s novel, MASH: A Novel About Three Army Doctors), who publicly complained that Altman revised much of his script, as was Altman’s wont to do, as even here he displays the extreme penchant for a sort of spontaneity ad-libbing that derives from creating the scene and having characters be as natural to real life as possible, even in surreal worlds, which M*A*S*H sometimes finds itself in, even though it takes place in a real war time setting, mid-20th Century, in South Korea.
Where the film becomes decidedly real is during the surgery scenes, which are done in a way like taking the characters to another galaxy, a constellation where things almost halt for a second under an Altman whistle and become serious, as if we have to be reminded that there’s even a war going on in this film and that’s the reason for the M*A*S*H unit (which stands for Mobile Army Surgical Hospital). And even though there is semi-clowning going on during the extremely tough and complex tasks at hand, the scenes are shown unapologetically, and with an extreme “you-are-right-there” feel. The visual and makeup effects employed on M*A*S*H during its making in 1969 still hold up immensely, and it’s the dutiful and surefooted overall direction of Altman in these scenes that are somehow, almost bizarrely, able to exist with comic set pieces that are akin to an adult version of The Three Stooges (especially in the movie’s wonderful football game sequence, which contains an utterance of the word “fuck” which is generally considered the first usage of it in a Hollywood motion picture). While amidst the tomfoolery in so many other scenes, there are also these surgical set pieces in which Altman exposes us to real, raw human pain, and bloodied, sullied visuals as a horrific by-product of war. It’s a subtlety in the directing style of Altman that makes these kinds of jarring shifts in tone work completely and so effectively, and it’s a sort of ace-up-the-sleeve style the director would use pretty much for his entire career thereafter in his subsequent films (McCabe and Ms. Miller, Nashville, Short Cuts, etc.).
With Tom Skerritt (as Duke, partner-in-crime to Trapper John and Hawkeye), Robert Duvall (as the can’t-relax-even-for-a-second-and-thus-becomes-the-comic-foil-for-others Frank Burns), Sally Kellerman (as the perfectly neurotic, earnest and early Madeline Kahn styled Margaret “Hot Lips” O’Houlihan), and Gary Burghoff (as the intuitive Radar) rounding out the supporting cast, and with a talented troupe of character and B-actors such as the late, great Roger Bowen as Colonel Henry Blake and Altman ensemble stalwarts such as David Arkin as the just-can’t-get-it-right inane Sgt. Vollmen, John Schuck as a sexually insecure dentist who is a key part in the film’s “Last Supper” centerpiece, and Rene Auberjonois as Father Mulcahy, the semi-center of balance in the film, M*A*S*H was irreverent before the term was even affixed to it, before the term even existed in Hollywood. Coming to theaters just at the turn of the decade, which would be a 1970s which stayed as turbulent as the late 1960s did early on, with Vietnam still out of control, Watergate still to come, and energy crises and gas shortages on deck, it took a film like M*A*S*H, which with its high bravado and sort of Animal House hijinks before Animal House even existed, (National Lampoon was to debut its magazine later that year in 1970) to jolt the American public into a sort of comedic daze. It was a cinematic amphetamine in many ways and remains as equally challenging and envelope pushing as any of the other films that were released around that time which were cut from the same sort of cloth as the overall blueprint of M*A*S*H and how it changed the Hollywood game and redefined its archaic rules, like Midnight Cowboy, I Am Curious Yellow, and films to come in 1970, like The Boys in the Band and The Honeymoon Killers.
M*A*S*H was, is and remains, a sight for the weary senses; a fun, intense, silly, masterful, and insightful work that may appear slightly dated today in some visual regards, but that’s no matter whatsoever. 45 years on, the messages and the emotions a crazy, zany film like M*A*S*H manifests in the viewer are universal and time repellent. And of course, it spawned one of the most classic, successful, and long-running television comedies of all time. Ultimately, M*A*S*H is not only a classic comedy, but one of Hollywood’s cinematic masterpieces as well, and a first of many to come, by Robert Altman.