American Movie Classics' Backstory series turned it's eye to MASH and revealed a humurous and interesting
background to a humorous and interesting film. The transcript of the show is below.
Movie scene in mess tent:
Captain Hawkeye Pierce.
Good afternoon Lt. Dish.
Good afternoon Captain Hawkeye.
Captain Hawkeye Pierce, I had a TWX about you. It seems that you stole a jeep up at Headquarters.
Oh, no, no. No, sir. No, I didn't steel a jeep. No, it's right outside. Right there.
So it is.
Released in 1970, MASH launched a full frontal attack on the Hollywood establishment and the public by daring to mix
shocking realism with dark humor.
Movie scene in O/R:
Scratch my nose. There. A little harder please...
It also called into question issues of morality, sexuality and the United States involvement in the Vietnam War. Directed by
Robert Altman, the film centered on the sexually charged antics at a moblie army surgical hospital, as doctors and nurses
try to retain their sanity amidst the brutal realities of war.
ROBERT SCHICKEL, FILM CRITIC
In MASH, decent-minded people muddle through the best they can, kind of clinging to their humane virtues, uh, clinging if
they can to their sense of humor. You know, letting that humor out in the form of transgressive, rebellious acts.
Movie scene in Swamp:
Well, I came over to tell you that I've, um, decided I'm going to committ suicide.
MASH's tour of duty began in 1968 when veteran screenwriter Ring Lardner, Jr. came upon a novel that told the slightly
fictionalized exploits of an army surgeon during the Korean War. Having just emerged from 15 years under the Hollywood
blacklist, Lardner very much connected with the book's anti-establishment tone. He took the novel to his former agent, Ingo
Preminger, who quickly pitched it to executives at 20th Century Fox.
RICHARD ZANUCK, PRODUCER/FORMER STUDIO EXECUTIVE
He says, "You stop everything. You must read this over the weekend. I will sell my entire agency if you buy this book and
make me the producer." From the moment I read the book I became, you know, enamored of this subject. I just thought
it was fun -
Movie scene in mess tent
(To Maj. Houlihan)
Well, hi Hot Lips!
- entertaining -
Movie scene in Col. Blake's tent
This isn't a hospital! It's an insane asylum!
Movie scene in tent
I can not give absolution to a man who's about to committ suicide.
I called him up and I said, "I've got an office for you on the third floor. Sell the agency." And he did, all in the same day.
And Ring Lardner, Jr. wrote the screenplay.
But MASH hit its first major obstacle when no fewer than 15 directors rejected the offbeat project.
We went through a list of others who didn't understand it or didnt get it or were afraid of it or didn't like it. Altman came in
and, uh, seemed unruly enough as a human being to be able to understand the subject matter.
A veteran TV and commercial director who recently made the move into features, Robert Altman was gaining a reputation
for being both daring and innovative. His use of improvisation, overlapping dialogue and documentary style camera work
had earned him both praise and pink slips. In MASH, he saw the perfect opportunity to combine his visual style with his
political beliefs. So much so that he agreed to take on the project for the relatively slim salary of $75,000.
I did everything that would...I could do that would confuse the audience or make the audience feel that this was in Vietnam.
So we took all references to Korea out.
Amid the political turbulence of the late 1960's, younger movie goers were shifting their sights to films with liberal,
anti-authoritarian themes. Ironically, the studios behind these films were often run by men of staunch conservative politics -
and 20th Century Fox was no exception. Although production chief Richard Zanuck appreciated the originality of MASH,
he was equally involved in making two more traditional war dramas that were in production in that same year: "Tora! Tora!
Tora!" and "Patton". Robert Altman knew that if he was going to make MASH the kind of subversive, anti-war comedy he
had in mind he would have to keep studio scrutiny to a minimum.
We were a minor film. The budget was only, I think, three and a half million. Fox at the time had two other wars going on,
they had "Tora! Tora! Tora!" and "Patton". So the, uh, they were concerned about those. And I was aware of that and
I said I've got to go on the back lot there, keep a low profile and nobody pay attention to me.
To help keep his film under budget, Altman staffed his movie with mostly unknown actors, a choice he also believed would
help to enhance the picture's realism. Cast as Hawkeye Pierce, the film's skilled but insubordinate surgeon, was a promising
Canadian born performer named Donald Sutherland, who had sparkled in a small role in "The Dirty Dozen" two years before.
But by 1969 the actor was struggling, out of work and nearly broke.
I had no career. I had nothing. I couldn't afford a cup of coffee. They offerred me the job and the money.
Screen test scene in front of tent
HO JON, [KIM ATWOOD]
Good morning, Captain Trapper.
TRAPPER JOHN, [ELLIOT GOULD]
(Lying down with hangover)
Will you cut the bows!
But I don't understand what you mean.
The bows, the bows, the bows - you don't have to bow to me. And you don't have to call me Captain. You're not in
the army so don't call me Captain.
Playing Trapper John, Hawkeye's friend and willing co-conspirator, was another relative newcomer, Elliot Gould, fresh off
making the counterculture sex comedy "Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice".
Bob Altman asked me if, uh, I would play Duke, the American southerner. I said this part of Trapper John, I...I have the energy
and the spirit and heart for it and if you could see me in that, that's the part I'd like to play. And, so, uh, fortunately Mr. Altman
cast me in that part.
Ultimately, 14 of the movie's 30 speaking roles were played by actors making their feature film debuts.
If you look at the titles of MASH you'll see that it gave Elliot Gould, Donald Sutherland, dah, dah, dah. And then it said, "And
introducing..." and it was about 10 or 15 names.
Film and television actor Tom Skerritt was chosen to play Duke Forrest, Hawkeye and Trapper's laid back sidekick.
Robert Altman had been my mentor. He hired me to do several "Combat"s. He, uh, taught me a lot about filmmaking. And I
call him up one day and he gets on the phone and he says, "Skerritt...Yes! Yes!...I'll call you back in a couple of hours." So
a couple of hours later I was in MASH. Go figure.
To play Hot Lips Houlihan, the MASH unit's put upon nurse, Altman originally envisioned an older actress. But 32 year old
Sally Kellerman impressed the director so strongly that he hired her on the spot.
I said why couldn't she do this and that and he was just sitting there smiling at me. And he looked at me and he
said, "Why couldn't she?" And I went, "Huh?" And he said, "Well, why don't you take the chance. You could end up
with something or nothing."
With an adventerous director and an acting team of relatively raw recruits, MASH finally had its marching orders to begin
production on April 14, 1969. But the studio had little inkling of the production battles that were about to come and the
guerilla tactics their unorthodox director would resort to in order to achieve his final, creative victory.
When Backstory returns, MASH's cast members receive a new kind of basic training. And Robert Altman reveals the method
to his madness.
Movie scene in mess tent
(To Hot Lips)
I'm gonna go...go back to my bed. I'm gonna put away the better part of a bottle of scotch. And under normal
circumstances, you being normally what I would call a very attractive woman, I would have invited you back to share
my little bed with me and you might possibly have come.
(Hot Lips gasps)
But you really put me off. I mean,
you're what we call a regular army clown.
(Hawkeye walks away)
I wonder how a degenerated person like that could have reached a position of responsibility in the Army Medical Corps.
He was drafted.
As MASH began production at Fox's Century Ranch in Malibu California, it wasn't long before life imitated art. Soon actors
started bunking down in tents around the set and inhibitions began running wild.
It was a very crazy camp. It was a very mad set. Robert Altman allowed us to be foolish and carry on.
Movie scene in tent
No! No! No! No food! No food! Bring sex!
A political liberal with a strong contempt for authority, Robert Altman hoped that a new generation of film goers were ready
for his unconventional ideas. But to the studio financing his film, the director's methods seemed more like the work of an
Movie scene in Tokyo operating room
I demand an explanation!
Somebody get that dirty old man out of the operating theater.
Dirty old man? I'm Col. Merrill!
I'm Dr. Jekyl actually. This is my friend, Mr. Hyde.
Bob Altman as far as I know is the only one who knew what was going on in terms of the picture he was creating and
We thought Bob should probably be committed to an institution for the mentally unbalanced.
Another member of the MASH team who was less then enthused with Altman's freewheeling approach was Ring Lardner, Jr.
In fact, the veteran screenwriter was furious when he learned that Altman was encouraging his cast to change and even add
Movie scene outside. Radar and Henry talking over each other. Their fast and furious dialogue is compared
onscreen to the script's far more sparse dialoge.
We didn't shoot the text of Ring Lardner's script. It was all improvised.
I don't think we really read the script much after the first or second time.
Movie scene in tent
Now, we have our slack periods, but when the action starts you'll get more work in 12 hours than-
How many nurses do we have on the base, sir?
I suppose the thing that probably rings still in my ears about it is the, uh, is the soundtrack.
Movie scene in tent. Henry and Hawkeye continue conversation, each talking over the other.
There's this constant mumble in the background, people stepping on lines; technique that kind of pushes realism to its outer
Another of Altman's innovative screen techniques was the use of a zoom lens. It allowed him to get tight close ups without
moving the camera.
I went around...he kept telling these improvisational actors that he floats the camera, you don't know when he's going to point
the camera at you. You don't know where the mike's going to be. So kind of work out routines. That got everybody
feeling like they were part of the shoot.
We didn't understand Bob Altman at all. He was obviously nuts, you know. It was wonderful. But we were serious. We
thought he was crazy.
Donald and me met with our agent to say that we didn't know that this guy was really right.
Movie scene outdoors
Hawkeye, that man has 5 times the manpower to draw on than we do.
Sure, so we get ourselves a ringer.
Donald and Elliot went in about a quarter of the way through the picture and tried to have me fired, because they said I was
going to ruin their careers. But I didn't ever have an inkling of that.
There was a rift between them and Altman. But Altman used that for the film. And they unwittingly gave great inspiration to
the film. So the rift worked.
Home video made during the movie
What the picture's about and, uh, it keeps getting more clear to me all the time, is the insanity.
In addition to being innovative, Altman was also intent on being outrageous, politically subversive and irreverant.
Home video, Altman going over the "Last Supper" scene
Put Don next to Elliot, next to him, so he can lean over...to start with the finger thing.
Start of scene of Painless' Last Supper
For this scene, he even copied one of the world's most venerated religious paintings, Leonardo Da Vinci's "The Last Supper",
as part of a darkly humorous farewell dinner.
Continuing scene of Painless' Last Supper
For the sequence in which Hawkeye Pierce and Trapper John surprise Hot Lips Houlihan in the shower, Altman had to
resort to both creativity and cunning.
Movie scene outdoors
Knocko, the pictures of my kids have come...the pictures of my kids have come. Hot Lips would you like to see pictures
of my kids?
I'm not the slightest bit interested.
I certainly didn't want to be naked in the shower, you know, under any circumstances.
Movie sequence of Hot Lips being unveiled in the shower
The first time she did it she was on the ground before the flap went up. And we said, "Well, this is not...we gotta do it once
more." And so Gary Burghoff and I stood up next to the camera and dropped our pants.
I looked up and there was Gary Burghoff standing there stark naked.
And she froze for a minute...and then she covered up and hit the deck.
As shooting on MASH continued, the cast and crew began to get a better idea of how Altman's wild vision was taking shape.
And the director finally began to win the trust of his suspicious stars.
Well, it was chaotic, uh, but it was chaotic under the umbrella of his vision.
It was all very seemingly spontaneous and, uh, just no fear. There just doesn't seem to be any fear on the set with Bob.
On June 11, 1969, shooting on MASH was completed, 3 days ahead of schedule and nearly a half of million dollars under
budget. But although the biggest part of Bob Altman's battle had been won, new skirmishes were about to erupt in the
editing room. For months, Altman had kept studio interference to a minimum, but during post production 20th Century Fox
executives began to pay attention. And when they saw what the director had been up to, tempers flared at the front office.
Bob was getting reports back from the studio that they think that this was the worst thing that the studio ever made.
Oh my gosh, they weren't even going to release it.
The dispirited Altman knew that his episodic movie needed more work. A cohesive film now had to be made out of the
countless hours of cinematic chaos.
I just knew I had a big problem in editing it. Because it's not really a linear film. There's not a plot to follow. I thought the
picture was flat.
Eager to find some thread to tie his many loose ends together, Altman searched for a solution.
That thought hit me of those speakers and I said, "Wow, this is it!"
Movie shots of various loudspeakers making announcements
The loudspeaker, that wasn't part of our film. That was something that he added in the cutting room afterwards. It was
Movie shot of loudspeaker calling, "Attention"
Amazingly, most of the commentary heard over the loudspeakers was taken word for word from Korean War almanacs and
Movie shot of loudspeaker making announcement
Now armed with a workable framework and style, Robert Altman was finally ready to put MASH to the test. But the studio's
doubts were only growing due to the film's unprecedented mix of comedy and carnage.
Movie scene in tent
(Attending man squirting blood)
All of the marketing people at 20th Century Fox were scared to death that the operating scenes were absolutely too
gruesome, that the audiences would just get up and throw up. Leave.
They said all these bloody scenes in the operating room, they're going to have to come out. And, uh, I said, "Well, there goes
our picture if they do that. Then we have a sniveling, insignificant comedy."
Movie scene of Operating Room as lights go out. Cries of dismay are heard.
Standing firm in his support for the beleagured Bob Altman, producer Ingo Preminger battled the Fox executives to force them
to show a director's cut to a preview audience. Relunctantly, they agreed. MASH was now about to be placed before the
fickle movie going public. But would a Vietnam weary nation be ready for a comedy war picture that didn't look or sound
like anything they had ever seen before? Robert Altman and the studio were about to find out.
Coming up, MASH's director faces a firestorm of criticism and earns an army of fans.
Trailer for the movie
This is the story of two indispensable military surgeons. They have the Army over a barrel. But do they take advanatage of
In September 1969, the makers of MASH nervously waited as their film was previewd before an audience of San Franciso
movie goers. After a tense 20 minutes, Robert Altman and his creative team found out if their film was going to be a
groundbreaking success or a career halting failure.
That audience went nuts. I mean, they literally were on their feet, on the chairs, and they were just crazy about that.
They just loved the picture. They loved the outrageousness of it.
Movie scene in tent
I want sex! Take her clothes off and bring her to me!
But despite the preview audience's ecstatic reaction, writer Ring Lardner, Jr. was in a state of shock and rage over the
liberties Altman and the actors had taken with his script.
Ring Lardner, Jr. said to me, "How could you do this? There's not a word that I wrote in the picture."
He said, "Well, you've ruined my film." And really, it hurt my feelings. Ring was old school, this wasn't the way he thought
things were done. And he was very upset about it.
Fortunately for Robert Altman, Ring Lardner, Jr. was in the minority. On June 25, 1970, MASH opened in theaters. And it
signaled a new era in film history.
The talk was: this is something new; this is something completely different; here's this director, Robert Altman, and, uh, he's
"whole new thing".
Two hours before the theater opened there was a line up around the block.
MASH went on to earn over $80,000,000 at the box office. It was hailed as a landmark film. And its striking parallels
between the Korean War and Vietnam resonated with audiences and with critics. For Robert Altman, both his production
techniques and his politics had been vindicated. In 1971, MASH was honored with 5 Academy Award nominations.
Ironically, the only Oscar MASH won went to Ring Lardner, Jr. who, despite his objections, had received sole
He's responsible really for the tone of what MASH was. And had that not been in the script I wouldn't have done it.
But in spite of the collaborative spirit of the production, it was director Robert Altman who had successfully marshalled the
seemingly chaotic contributions of his production team into a single creative vision.
I had no dream or inkling that the picture was going to be as significant as the picture became. Thank goodness I was wrong.
Two years later, the trailblazing film spawned an even greater commercial success when MASH became a beloved
television series, one lasting an astounding 11 years on network television.
Movie scene of Painless' "Last Supper"
I just want to say one thing: nobody ordered Walt to go on this mission, he volunteered for certain death.
That's what we award our highest medals for.
That's what being a soldier is all about.
MASH is a classic that we'll be able to see another 20 years from now and it's still going to touch us as much as it did then.
It will always affect people in the same way: the madness of war and how to survive it.
MASH dared to laugh in the face of war and death. Just as its maverick director dared to laugh in the face of Hollywood
convention, it endures as a liberating salute to the strength of the human spirit and the rebel in all of us.
Movie scene outside of tent