The Making of M*A*S*H

From the Gerard Plecki book, Robert Altman

The Beginning

The plans for filming M*A*S*H began early in 1969, when Ingo Preminger, Otto's brother, received a draft of Ring Lardner', Jr.'s screenplay for an antiwar comedy called M*A*S*H, based on the 1968 novel by Richard Hooker. Preminger, Richard Zanuck, and Twentieth Century Fox then compiled a list of possible directors for M*A*S*H. Sensing that this could be lucrative property if the controversial subject matter and language were handled properly, they tended to ignore older, traditional directors such as Fred Zinnemann, Joseph Mankiewiez or David Lean, and opted for someone like Arthur Penn, Mike Nichols or Stanley Kubrick, who would be able to attract stars and insure a large box-office draw. Penn, Nichols, and Kubrick were, however, already engaging major stars in projects of their own (Little Big Man, Catch-22, and A Clockwork Orange). Franklin Schaffner was directing George C. Scott in Patton for Fox at the time, George Roy Hill had Paul Newman occupied in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and Bob Rafelson was filming Five Easy Pieces with Jack Nicholson. A dozen other directors who were offered only a flat director's fee for M*A*S*H flatly refused the screenplay.

So with at least seventeen directors either unwilling or unavailable, Preminger approached Altman with the screenplay. In the book American Film Now Robert Monaco mentions that Preminger said that if he had seen That Cold Day in the Park [a previous Altman film] he would not have hired Altman. Monaco observes that "Nothing in Altman's previous checkered career suggested he would do very well with satirical comedy," which is accurate except for the penchant for tongue-in-cheek treatments noted in Altman's television career. In any case, the director accepted, in spite of initial hesitations, because he "saw in it the opportunity to do something I had been working on for about five years, which was a World War II farce." He had been unable to secure financing for a production of the Robert Dahl short story "Death Where is Thy Sting," and he needed to make a major film very badly after That Cold Day. So Zanuck, Preminger, and Altman tried to settle on a strategy for casting the film. Altman related that "we first agreed that we didn't want movie stars, we wanted the personality of the whole group," which indicated the major influence that Altman already was having on the project.

Like Elliot Gould and Robert Duvall, Donald Sutherland had appeared in films before M*A*S*H without winning much recognition. The majority of the cast, however, were introduced to acting in M*A*S*H. It was also the director's first "community experience" film. Actors lived in tents set up on the Fox back lot where the film was shot. They developed close relationships with each other and were encouraged to adjust, invent, or delete dialogue from the script during rehearsel periods. Altman was so comfortable with their performances and abilities that he used many of them, including Tom Skerrit, Rene Aberjonois, Roger Bowen, G. Wood, Corey Fischer, and of course Elliot Gould in many subsequent films.

The Authorship Controversy

One aspect of M*A*S*H that received much attention upon its release in 1970 was the use of overlapping dialogue, a habit that Altman had refined at the cost of many jobs in television and film. The multiple conversations in M*A*S*H are witty and acerbic: their effectiveness is also a result of the director's pacing and his ear for colloquialisms. Much of the repartee, and many of the humorous insults, propositions, and sarcastic interjections, however, were Lardner's words. Altman's timing and writing, and Lardner's comic dialogue, constituted the unusually rich aural qualities of M*A*S*H, and caused serious disagreements between the director and the screenwriter about the importance of the screenplay. The controversy, of course, centered on who was more responsible for the success of M*A*S*H. Altman stated, with a sense of irony, that "my main contribution to M*A*S*H was the concept, the philosophy, the style, the casting, and then making all those things work. Plus the jokes, of course," while Lardner believed that the screenplay he wrote "was completely the same" as the film.

Both opinions reflect somewhat extreme stances, each with serious implications. Altman placed himself in the unfortunate theoretical position of understating the importance of M*A*S*H as a collaborative experience. One the other hand, Larner overestimated the importance of his script, and he ignored the fact that Altman did not adhere rigidly to that script or to the original novel.

A comparison of the film's dialogue with the original Lardner work indicates some truth in both points of view. Lardner's hand is most evident in two sequences that Altman retained nearly intact: the eavesdropping on Burns and Houlihan, and the Houlihan shower scene. Neither incident appears in the Hooker novel. In addition, Ring Lardner stated that the seemingly spontaneous humor and improvisitions were Robert Altman's doing, but this rather significant admission does not only apply to the overlapping dialogue. The first and last few scenes of the film, for example, are found neither in the Lardner script nor in the Hooker novel. Similarly, most of the operating-room byplay, many sarcastic comments of Hawkeye and Trapper, the verbal confusion between Henry and Radar, and the treatment of the Colonel in Tokyo were written and orchestrated by the director, and by the actors under his supervisition, not by Ring Lardner, Jr.

An accurate stance on the authorship issue in M*A*S*H requires some mediation between the two expressed opinions. A joke that is a clear example of the type of writer-director collaboration that occurred commonly throughout the film is the brief exchange between Houlihan and Mulcahy, where the chaplain answers, "He was drafted." Altman kept the lines as they were scripted by Lardner [this is not entirely accurate if you check the script]. It is, of course, the speed of the response and quick cutting between the two characters that accentuated the cynical humor. Lardner's contribution cannot be ignored, but it is a fact that Altman was the more important influence in organizing and controlling the comedy and pathos of the M*A*S*H project. Just as Orsen Welles benefitted from the participation of his writer and crew to create Citizen Kane, Robert Altman shaped his source work with the input of his own writer, producers, performers, and crew.


At the time of its release the film was daring, shocking, and inventive, so much so that it originally received an "X" rating which was protested and changed. It played very well to both extremes of audiences: younger, hip audiences applauded its relevance to Vietnam, while more traditional factions were amused by its negative treatment of military red tape and bureaucracy. The operating-room scenes, filled with splurting arteries, open chests, and detached limbs, disturbed most viewers; even more shocking was the surgeons' casual attitude toward their work. Their critical approach to the Korean conlict, to religion, and to hypocrisy defined an antiwar message even though no battles are in evidence in the film. Its ironic context, established by the captioned Eisenhower quotation, "I will go to Korea," appealed to most viewers, while suggesting also that military presence produces only one tangible consequence - the production of wounded and dead soldiers.

M*A*S*H certainly received more immediate critical acclaim than most of Altman's later films. Jan Dawson described in Sight and Sound how M*A*S*H "demands to be taken, on its own empirical terms, as probably one of the most irreducibly funny films ever made," while William Johnson in Film Quarterly concluded that the film "is not really about army life or rebellion ... it is about the human condition, and that's why it is such an exciting comedy." Pauline Kael's evaluation typified the reviews of M*A*S*H when she called it "a marvelously unstable comedy, a tough, funny, and sophisticated burlesque of military attitudes." [see full review on review page]

Richard Corliss, on the other hand, thought that the film was unsuccessful and amoral, objecting that M*A*S*H was just another exploitation film that leads the audience "to sympathize with the torturers (however likable) and against the victims (however ludicrous)." Basing his argument on the treatment of Burns by Hawkeye and Trapper, Corliss judges the film to be an intentionally cruel and sadistic compilation of cheap shots. Unfortunately Corliss ignores the defusing remark of Duke that shows Burns to be lucky to get out of Korea. Burns is put in a straitjacket because he tries to kill Hawkeye, and laughter results from the total collapse of the moral and religious pretensions of Major Burns, not because he is a victim of torture.

Finally, it has been suggested that that in comparison to his later films, M*A*S*H lacks subtlety. This is an interesting permutation of the usual criticism of Altman - that the director has been trying to recapture the success of M*A*S*H in his later films - but the charge is still not sensible. Altman never had the same goals for later films as he had for M*A*S*H. His technique is more disjointed in M*A*S*H, but it is certainly not crude. Altman would never make another film quite like M*A*S*H. It deserves to be judged on its own merits.

M*A*S*H grossed over $30 million for Fox within a year of its release. It won the 1970 New York Film Critics Best Picture Award. It received Acadamy Award nominations for Best Supporting Actress (Sally Kellerman), Best Screenplay, Best Director, and Best Film, and won the Best Screenplay award (to Ring Lardner, Jr. alone). But the most lucrative aspect of M*A*S*H was the 1971 television spinoff by Gene Reynolds and Larry Gelbart. M*A*S*H's episodic nature ideally suited it for this transformation. The language was laundered, the actors were changed (except for Gary Burghoff), and the show was quickly put into simultaneous syndication, all of which generated massive revenues for everyone concerned except Altman. The director received his $75,000 fee for making the picture and nothing from the series, apart from the royalties received by his son, who wrote the lyrics to the theme song. In fact, Altman considered the twelve-year prolongation of any joke about war to be an immoral proposition, regardless of the orientation, perspective, or tone of the show.

© Copyright 1985 by G. K. Hall and Company

Info Page