"My God, they shot him!"

All about the making of M*A*S*H


An Introduction


Howard Karren
Senior Features Editor, Premiere Magazine

In 1970, the United States forces in Vietnam invaded Cambodia. Back home four student protesters were shot dead at Kent State University. And the Acadamy Award for Best Picture went to "Patton", a reverent portrait of the World War II general and military zealot. Also nominated that year was M*A*S*H™, a black comedy about a Mobile Army Surgical Hospital set during the Korean War. It had less to do with the Korean War, of course, than it did with the generation that was born during the years it was fought.

How else can one explain Elliot Gould's groovy moustache? The free-wheeling and uninhibited attitude about sex-squares be damned? Pot-smoking football players and guiltless anti-clericalism? Its heroes' golf clubs notwithstanding, M*A*S*H is clearly a reflection of late 60's counterculture. There's an innocence, a moral confidence to its rebellious spirit that was not in evidence during the early 50's, when the Korean War took place, and was thoroughly trounced by the late 70's. Remarkably, though, that's about the only thing that dates the movie. For an essentially commercial Hollywood product, M*A*S*H is revolutionary in style and substance. It's no coincidence that the screen play was written by the once blacklisted Ring Lardner, Jr.

But the movie's biggest coup was introducing to the public at large to one of America's greatest directors. Robert Altman's signature is everywhere in the picture. First of all, there's the soundtrack. Dialogue comes in and out of earshot, overlaps scenes, overlaps itself. The MASH unit's public address system - with its nonesensical announcements, Asian pop music, interloped moments of passion - is the glue that holds together both the community and the narrative. Older audiences were confused; younger ones loved the hip documentary feel. And then there's the camera, swooping and zooming from character to character, scene to scene. The freedom of movement and lack of elegance - along with the flat, gritty color photography - reminds us of...TV war footage (Vietnam again!). But Altman was looking beyond the "reality" of war. His MASH unit and movie set were one and the same: a self-contained world peopled by a flamboyant ensemble of characters. An instant microcosm.

Altman's black, black sense of humor and his nonchalant attitude toward sex and mortality remain almost as shocking today as it was in 1970. What you see, however, is never meant to turn you on. The surgeons and nurses of M*A*S*H live surrounded by blood and viscera, but they're as devoted to their professional skills during work as they are to their hedonism on their time off. It's all a part of the futile game of war. Feminists complained bitterly about the film's misogyny at the time of its release and it is undeniable that the female characters seem inordinately willing to be pawns of male fantasy (by the end of movie, even Sally Kellerman's officious Hot Lips turns into a cheerleader). But then again, Altman has always been better at observing human foibles than judging them.

M*A*S*H was an inexpensive movie to make and an enormous hit, making major stars out of Gould and Donald Sutherland who played Hawkeye. The heartwarming television series it spawned ran for fourteen seasons. But the movie's real success is timeless. When Robert Altman looked at Korea filtered through the lens of Vietnam, he changed our way of seeing - both on the big screen and in the big, bad world.

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