OK, here were go. Where it all began. Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H.
Critics are often asked what they would deem the most influential, and by extension important, American film of all time. Some go the academic route, and answer Citizen Kane, while others go populist, and say The Godfather. Then, of course, you have the romantic softies, for whom Casablanca can be the only possible response.
All worthy choices, to be sure, but for me, it’s hands down M*A*S*H. I can only imagine what it must’ve been like, seeing it for the very first time, back in January of 1970. The opening credits feature the now iconic song “Suicide is Painless,” a beautiful if melancholy tune, as we watch helicopters bringing visibly bloodied bodies from the front to the titular tented unit – our setting for the next two hours. An immediate cut to: Corporal Radar O’Reilly, who clairvoyantly responds to orders from his C.O., Lt. Col. Henry Blake, before he even gives them. Their dialogue is a smash-up of words, comprehensible, yes, but a jolt to the cinematically-attuned ears of the era, when delivery of lines was a neat and tidy process. These guys talk like real people – and nobody had ever, in American film, heard that before. It was nothing less than a sea change for the medium, its reverberations still felt, to this day, nearly fifty years later.
As we establish time and place – a M*A*S*H during the Korea War, although it’s not exactly spelled out for us – a first-time viewer would witness yet more groundbreaking sights. Our protagonist, Hawkeye Pierce (Donald Sutherland), steals a jeep to get to his unit, and proceeds to swill martinis while ogling the nurses and make some snarky remarks about his tentmate’s religious zealotry. He talks coolly, calmly, yet hardly with the disposition of a United States solider, or at least the kind we’d heretofore seen in the movies.
And as Altman pans and zooms, using a verite style that must’ve looked amateurish by Hollywood standards, he takes us into the operating room. There, surgeons and nurses operate, with in blood-soaked, graphic detail (for 1970), all the while cracking blue jokes and off-handed comments. Clearly an obscene job, and the underlying message is that perhaps they need to be obscene to perform it, and maintain their sanity. Again, a daring conceit for its time; certainly John Wayne would not approve.
And through it all, Altman keeps up a sharply arch sensibility – he knows it’s a comedy, and it is just that. PA announcements mentioning medical terms are painfully mispronounced, a well-endowed dentist becomes the talk of the camp, Hawk and Trapper swill scotch and martinis during their spare few minutes of free time…. And if these hijacks are often scatological, and not politically correct by today’s standards, so be it. People weren’t always politically correct back then. Especially in the army. Especially during a war.
So I can only imagine what Fox execs must’ve thought of this dingy, irreverent lampoon. (Altman reveals in his commentary that he “flew under the radar” as there were two other, bigger war films going on at the Fox backlot.) They either wrote it off as an “experimental,” minor film, the way Columbia dismissed Dr. Strangelove while it was in production, or they were shocked and appalled by what they saw, hoping it would die a quick, painless death. Even stars Donald Sutherland and Elliot Gould wanted to get Altman fired, mistaking his unorthodox style for amateurism.
But in the end, Altman got the last laugh, as M*A*S*H raked in 81 million at the BO (back then, that was a blockbuster), and scored a few Oscar noms, including Best Picture. A Vietnam-War-weary public needed some social relevance to go along with their war comedy, and they got it. M*A*S*H is graphically bloody, and simultaneously hilarious. The laughs are real though, gleaned from real human the real human stress of life saving, and you pay for them. (This was Altman’s beef with the TV series, an opinion that I respectfully disagree with; the show after time dealt head-on with the horrors of war, while maintaining the anarchy of the movie.)
Befitting a film, and director, of this nature, M*A*S*H is episodic. (Likely one reason why the premise did so well as a TV series.) Once all the characters are established, the following storylines occur:
· A dentist (the aforementioned well-endowed one) considers suicide after failing to perform sexually with a nurse. Hawk and Trapper give him a “funeral” and offer him a “black pill” to do the deed. It’s a ruse, of course, so that they can coax another nurse to bed him and restore his erective faith. The nurse gets discharged from the 4077th, numb from ecstasy.
· Hawk and Trapper must go to Japan to save the life of a Congressman’s son, injured from a grenade at the hand of a buffoonish colonel. Managing to ruffle the feathers of every regular army type along the way, they get arrested by the MP’s and only get out when they blackmail the colonel with compromising photos.
· Hawk and Trapper operate on a severely wounded GI, needing A positive blood pronto or he may not make it. Radar comes through by giving his own blood.
· Korean houseboy Ho-John gets drafted by the Korean army, despite Hawk and Trapper’s efforts to drug him s he can fail the exam.
· Duke bets that Hot Lips is a natural blonde, and arranges her shower tent to fall so his claim can be proven.
· The corporal from another M*A*S*H, initially visiting the 4077th to address Hot Lip’s grievances, sets up a football game between the units, with 5,000 at stake. Hawk and Trapper procure a ringer, a drafted pro-football star, unaware that the other side has done so as well. The 4077th wins by four points.
And, at the end of it all, Duke and Hawkeye get their discharges. The PA announcer, acting as a clueless Greek Chorus throughout it all, announces the credits. All for now.
Of course, the reason Hawkeye and Trapper get away with all their nose-thumbing and hedonistic forays is because they’re damned good surgeons, and everyone knows it. That’s why wet-noodle commanding officer Henry Blake can only slap them on the wrists for their respective malfeasances. They didn’t sign up – the army needs them. It’s all summed up in the immortal exchange:
Hot Lips: “I wonder how someone of such a low character ever got to such a high position in the army.”
Father Mulcahy: “He was drafted.”
But the salient theme remains, one very much in vogue since Joseph Heller’s Catch-22: the only way to depict the insanity and irrationalism of war is through insanity and irrationalism itself. (And M*A*S*H can add one more requirement: vulgarity.) The bloody scenes in the film are indeed bloody but never gratuitous, presented in the typical Altmanesque fashion of just another day on the job. And it looks real too; no stage blood here.
All of this – the blood, the frankness, the language – works perfectly in concert to make M*A*S*H the groundbreaking film that it is. But it would be nothing without the artistic lens that Altman imparts. His camera movements shy away from nothing – they gravitate towards the incidentals of the human experience. If “every cut is a lie,” as Truffaut opined, then Altman is possibly the most honest director out there. And that style – the overlapping dialogue, the voice-overs, the montages – is never confusing, only revealing, and it might seem to the untrained eye to be easy to do. (It’s not; just watch any John Cassavettes movie and you’ll see what I mean.)
M*A*S*H is Altman’s first masterwork (he had three, for my money), and as such this is the de facto beginning of the New Hollywood movement, or at least it was the era’s ground zero. Nothing would be the same again, and the Altman style exhibited here would spur on and help influence the signature directors of the 70s with their own styles. All of them – Scorcese, Spielberg, Lucas – were influenced to some degree by Altman; even Coppola , director of The Godfather, owes his sense of cinematic realism to the man.
After M*A*S*H, films felt more real, more authentic, and if they didn’t, you felt cheated for the fakery. Film critic Owen Glieberman said this about Altman – that he spoiled him. That every other film felt phony. A lie, a cheat. That’s not how people talk, that’s not what people do. Owen, I know exactly how you feel.
It all started here.
My rating system has a four-star limit, so my rating, regretfully, is only: