Pauline Kael

M*A*S*H is a marvellously unstable comedy, a tough, funny, and sophisticated burlesque of military attitudes that is at the same time a tale of chivalry. It's a sick joke, but it's also generous and romantic - an erratic episodic film, full of the pleasures of the unexpected. I think it's the closest an American movie has come to the kind of constantly surprising mixture in Shoot the Piano Player, though M*A*S*H moves so fast that it's over before you have time to think of comparisons. While it's going on, you're busy listening to some of the best overlapping comic dialogue ever recorded. The picture has so much spirit that you keep laughing - and without discomfort, because all the targets should be laughed at. The laughter is at the horror and absurdities of war, and, specifically, at people who flourish in the military bureaucracy. The title letters stand for Mobile Army Surgical Hospital; the heroes, played by Donald Sutherland and Elliot Gould, are combat surgeons patching up caualties a few miles from the front during the Korean war. They do their surgery in style, with humor; they're hip Galahads, saving lives while ragging the military bureaucracy. They are so quick to react to bull - and in startling and unpredictable ways - that the comedy is, at times, almost a poetic fantasy. There's a surreal innocence about the movie; though the setting makes it seem a "black" comedy, it's a cheery "black" comedy. The heroes win at everything. It's a modern kid's dream of glory: Holden Caulifield would, I think, approve of them. They're great surgeons, athletes, dashing men of the world, sexy, full of noblesse oblige, but ruthless to those with pretensions and lethal to hypocrites. They're so good at what they do that even the military brass admires them. They're winners in the war with the Army.

War comedies in the past have usually been about the little guys who foul things up and become heroes by accident (Chaplin in Shoulder Arms, Danny Kaye in Up in Arms). In that comedy tradition, the sad sack recruit is too stupid to comprehend military ritual. These heroes are too smart to put up with it. Sutherland and Gould are more like an updated version of Edmund Lowe's and Victor McLaglen's Sergeant Quirt and Captain Flagg from What Price Glory and The Cockeyed World - movies in which the heroes retain their personal style and their camaraderie in the midst of blood and muck and the general insanity of war. One knows that though what goes on at this surgical station seems utterly crazy, it's only a small distortion of actual wartime situations. The pretty little helicopters delivering the bloody casualties are a surreal image, all right, but part of the authentic surrealism of modern warfare. The joke the surgeons make about their butchershop work are a form of plain talk. The movie isn't naive, but it isn't nihilistic, either. The surgery room looks insane and is presented as insane, but as the insanity in which we must preserve the values of sanity and function as sane men. An incompetent doctor is treated as a foul object; competence is one of the values the movie respects - even when it is demonstrated by a nurse (Sally Kellerman) who is a pompous fool. The heroes are always on the side of decency and sanity - that's why they're contemptous of the bureaucracy. They are heroes because they're competent and sane and gallant, and in this insane situatiion their gallantry takes the form of scabrous comedy. The Quirt and Flagg films were considered highly profane in their day, and I am happy to say that M*A*S*H, taking full advantage of the new permissive rating system, is blessedly profane. I've rarely heard four-letter words used so exquisitely well in a movie, used with such efficacy and glee. I salute M*A*S*H for its contribution to the art of talking dirty.

The profanity, which is an extension of adolescent humor, is central to the idea of the movie. The silliness of adolescents - compulsively making jokes, seeing the ridiculous in everything - is what makes sanity possible here. The doctor who rejects adolescent behavior flips out. Adolescent pride in skills and games - in mixing a Martini or in devising a fishing lure or in golfing - keeps the men from becoming maniacs. Sutherland and Gould, and Tom Skerritt, as a third surgeon, and a lot of freakishly talented new-to-movies actors are relaxed and loose in their roles. Their style of acting underscores the point of the picture, which is that people who aren't hung up with pretensions, people who are loose and profane and have some empathy - people who can joke about anything - can function, and maybe even do something useful, in what may appear to be insane circumstances.

There's also a lot of slapstick in the movie, some of it a little like Operation Mad Ball, a fifties service comedy that had some great moments but was still tied to a sanctimonious approach to life and love. What holds the disparate elements of M*A*S*H together in the precarious balance that is the movie's chief charm is a free-for-all, throwaway attitude. The picture looks as if the people who made it had a good time, as if they played with it and improvised and took some chances. It's elegantly made, and yet it doesn't have that overplanned rigidity of so many Hollywood movies. The cinematography, by Harold E. Stine, is very fine - full of dust and muddy olive-green tones; it is immediacy and the clarity possible in Panavision. The editing and the sound engineering are surprisingly quick-witted. When the dialogue overlaps, you hear just what you should, but it doesn't seem all worked out and set; the sound seems to bounce off things so that the words just catch your ear. The throwaway stuff isn't really thrown away; it all helps to create the free, graceful atmosphere that sustains the movie and keeps it constantly funny. The director, Robert Altman, has a great feel for low-keyed American humor. With the help of Ring Lardner, Jr.'s script (from a novel by a combat surgeon), Altman has made a real sport of a movie which combines traditional roustabout comedy with modern attitudes. As in other good comedies, there's often a mixture of what seems perfectly straight stuff and what seems incredible fantasy, and yet when we try to say which is which we can't. M*A*S*H affects us on a bewildering number of levels, like the Radio Tokyo versions of American songs on the camp loudspeaker system. All this may sound more like a testimonial than a review, but I don't know when I've had such a good time at a movie. Many of the best recent American movies leave you feeling that there's nothing to do but get stoned and die, that that's your proper fate as an American. This movie heals a breach in American movies; it's hip but it isn't hopeless. A surgical hospital where the doctors' hands are lost in chests and guts is certainly an unlikely subject for a comedy, but I think M*A*S*H is the best American war comedy since sound came in, and the sanest American movie of recent years.

© The New Yorker, Januaury 24, 1970



Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert Review: 4.0 stars out of 4

One of the reasons M*A*S*H is so funny is that it's so desperate. It is set in a surgical hospital just behind the front lines in Korea, and it is drenched in blood. The surgeons work rapidly and with a gory detachment, sawing off legs and tying up arteries, and making their work possible by pretending they don't care. And when they are at last out of the operating tent, they devote their lives to remaining sane. The way they do that, in M*A*S*H, is to be almost metaphysically cruel. There is something about war that inspires practical jokes and the heroes (Donald Sutherland, Elliott Gould, and cronies) are inspired and utterly heartless. They sneak a microphone under the bed of Major "Hot Lips" Hoolihan, and broadcast her lovemaking to the entire camp. They drug a general and photograph him in a brothel.

We laugh, not because M*A*S*H is Sgt. Bilko for adults, but because it is so true to the unadmitted sadist in all of us. There is perhaps nothing so exquisite as achieving (as the country song has it) sweet mental revenge against someone we hate with particular dedication. And it is the flat-out, poker-faced hatred in M*A*S*H that makes it work. Most comedies want us to laugh at things that aren't really funny; in this one we laugh precisely because they're not funny. We laugh, that we may not cry.

But none of this philosophy comes close to the insane logic of M*A*S*H, which is achieved through a peculiar marriage of cinematography, acting, directing, and writing. The movie depends upon timing and tone to be funny. I had an opportunity to read the original script, and I found it uninteresting. It would have been a failure, if it had been directed like most comedies; but Ring Lardner, Jr., wrote it, I suspect, for exactly the approach Robert Altman used in his direction, and so the angle of a glance or the timing of a pause is funnier than any number of conventional gag lines. This is true, for example, in the football game between the surgeons and the general's team. The movie assumes, first of all, that we are intimate with the rules of football. We are. The game then becomes doubly funny, not just because the M*A*S*H boys have recruited a former pro as a ringer for their side, but because their victory depends upon legal cheating (how about a center-eligible play?). The audience's laughter is triumphant, because our guys have outsmarted the other guys. Another movie might have gone for purely physical humor in the scene (big guy walks over little guy, etc.) and blown it.

The performances have a lot to do with the movie's success. Elliott Gould and Donald Sutherland are two genuinely funny actors; they don't have to make themselves ridiculous to get a laugh. They're funny because their humor comes so directly from their personalities. They underplay everything (and Sutherland and Gould trying to downstage each other could eventually lead to complete paralysis). Strangely enough, they're convincing as surgeons. During operations, covered with blood and gore, they mutter their way through running commentaries that sound totally professional. Sawing and hacking away at a parade of bodies, they should be driving us away, but they don't. We can take the unusually high gore level in M*A*S*H because it is originally part of the movie's logic. If the surgeons didn't have to face the daily list of maimed and mutilated bodies, none of the rest of their lives would make any sense. When they are matter-of-factly cruel to "Hot Lips" Hoolihan, we cannot quite separate that from the matter-of- fact way they've got to put wounded bodies back together again. "Hot Lips," who is all Army professionalism and objectivity, is less human because the suffering doesn't reach her.

I think perhaps that's what the movie is about. Gould and Sutherland and the members of their merry band of pranksters are offended because the Army regulars don't feel deeply enough. "Hot Lips" is concerned with protocol, but not with war. And so the surgeons, dancing on the brink of crack-ups, dedicate themselves to making her feel something. Her façade offends them; no one could be unaffected by the work of this hospital, but she is. And so if they can crack her defenses and reduce her to their own level of dedicated cynicism, the number of suffering human beings in the camp will go up by one. And even if they fail, they can have a hell of a lot of fun trying.

Review courtesy of Cinemania
© 1996 Microsoft Corporation and/or its suppliers. All rights reserved.

CineBook's Review

CineBooks' Motion Picture Guide Review: 4.0 stars out of 5

After making a couple of independent features and one major studio release (Countdown for Warner Bros. in 1968), director Robert Altman hit the big time with this very funny comedy, a film that remains his best work. Based on a novel by Richard Hooker, a doctor who served in Korea during the war there, the film focuses on the personnel at a Mobile Army Surgical Hospital (M*A*S*H) unit in Korea. The film begins with two recently drafted surgeons Hawkeye Pierce (Donald Sutherland) and Duke Forrest (Tom Skerritt) stealing a jeep and arriving at their assigned M*A*S*H unit where they meet their rather bungling but well-intentioned commanding officer Col. Henry Blake (Roger Bowen), and his trusted aide Radar O'Reilly (Burghoff), a corporal who clearly keeps the outfit functioning. They also encounter and take an immediate dislike to a fellow surgeon Major Frank Burns (Robert Duvall), who is both a religious fanatic and an incompetent doctor. Soon joining the group is humorless head nurse Maj. Hot Lips Houlihan (Sally Kellerman) who loves the army, and a chest surgeon Trapper John McIntyre (Elliott Gould), who matches Hawkeye in irreverence and distaste for the Army.

In episodic fashion, the film offers a wealth of hilarious situations as Hawkeye and Trapper John contrive a variety of ways to deal with the pressure and the monotony of their situation. When Frank and Hot Lips are attracted to one another and begin a clandestine affair, their lovemaking is broadcast to the entire camp via a microphone placed under their bed. This sends Frank off the deep end and he's carted away in a straightjacket.

Later, a heroically endowed camp dentist Painless Pole (John Schuck) suffers a bout of impotence and decides to commit suicide, leading to a very funny last supper and a cure for Pole's ailment provided - at Hawkeye's insistence - by a female lieutenant Dish (Jo Ann Pflug). At another point, Hawkeye, Duke, Trapper and others debate whether or not Hot Lips is a natural blonde, and come up with an answer to the question for the benefit of the entire camp.

The film comes to a riotous conclusion with a football game pitting the boys from M*A*S*H against a crack team assembled by a general Hammond (G. Wood). In preparation for the game, Hawkeye finagles the addition of a new surgeon and star football player Spearchucker (Fred Williamson) to the unit. The contest features mayhem, trickery, drugged players, and a game that goes down to the wire.

A fine film. At a time when sentiment against the war in Vietnam was reaching a fevered pitch, this film with its well-aimed punch at the military and its absurdities hit home and became a huge success. Its timeliness aside, M*A*S*H remains a fine film, brimming with humor, solid characters, and excellent performances. The film pretty much made the careers of Donald Sutherland, Elliott Gould, and Sally Kellerman. All three are excellent here, particularly Sutherland who perfectly conveys his character's zaniness and compassion. Gould's wild eccentricities and aversion to authority would be put to use again by Robert Altman in California Split (1974) and The Long Goodbye (1973). The rest of M*A*S*H's cast is equally impressive, working well within Altman's controlled anarchy. The director's penchant for creative camera setups, overlapping dialogue and sight gags are clearly in evidence throughout, and were used with superb effect. The wild football game that serves as the film's climax features a number of professional football players, including Fran Tarkenton, Nolan Smith, Ben Davidson, and Buck Buchanan, in addition to ex-Kansas City Chief Fred "The Hammer" Williamson who made his film debut here and would go on to star in a number of black exploitation films of the 70s, including Hammer (1972). Of course, the movie also led to one of the most popular television shows of all time. Only Gary Burghoff reprised his film role on the show, though his character was transformed into a naïve bumpkin for the small screen.

Reviews courtesy of Cinemania
© 1996 Microsoft Corporation and/or its suppliers. All rights reserved.

Magill's Survey of Cinema

Robert Altman's black comedy takes an antiwar stance as it follows the exploits of a medical unit during the Korean War. Hawkeye Pierce (Donald Sutherland) and Trapper John (Elliott Gould) are the drafted surgeons who ignore army regulations and find themselves at odds with by-the-book Major Frank Burns (Robert Duvall) and his lover, nurse Hot Lips O'Houlihan (Sally Kellerman). Of the original cast, only Gary Burghoff as Radar O'Reilly went on to appear in the long-running TV series that the film inspired.

Robert Altman is one of the most popular directors of the 1970's, and yet one of the least successful from a financial point of view. Films such as Nashville (1975), A Wedding (1978), and Buffalo Bill and the Indians (1976) have attracted top name stars to appear in small parts at a fraction of their usual salaries simply because Altman is the director. Yet admiration within the film industry and good critical notices have not helped his films to make money. Even his devoted followers who would never miss one of the films have failed to generate enough ticket sales to pay for production costs. One exception to this rule was the early Altman film M*A*S*H, which was financially his biggest hit.

Similar in style to many of his other films, M*A*S*H has a large cast and almost constant dialogue which makes the audience feel as if they were participating in the story, or at least eavesdropping on the main characters. When it was released in 1970, M*A*S*H was heralded as both a black comedy and an antiwar film. In retrospect it remains fairly funny, but its reputation as an antiwar film deserves reevaluation.

The action of the story centers on the exploits of three surgeons assigned to the 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital (M*A*S*H) unit during the Korean War. It is their formula for maintaining sanity in an admittedly insane situation which provides the structure, motivation, and humor of the film. Their approach is one of coolness, a style so relaxed that they give the impression of being perpetually high, an impression which is reinforced by the many references to their drinking. Nevertheless, to an audience which in the early 1970's was eager for antiheroes, their pseudohippie approach to military codes and regulations was very welcome.

As the film opens, we are introduced to two of the three heroes, Hawkeye and Duke (Tom Skerritt), as they arrive at the MASH unit. We quickly learn that the hospital is being administered by a pseudopsychic corporal with an uncanny ability for knowing what will be said before it is said. The corporal, who bears the appropriate nickname of Radar O'Reilly (Gary Burghoff), is running the camp on behalf of absentminded Colonel Henry Blake (Roger Bowen) whose simplistic approach to leadership is limited to deciding what lure he will use for fishing. However, everyone's approach to the military and its procedures is not quite so relaxed. We learn that the boys will be sharing a tent with one Major Frank Burns (Robert Duvall), a man whose dedication to the Army is matched only by his love of God. All suspicions that the new men have embarked on a collision course with the major are well warranted. Major Burns represents the military and is therefore the villain and a target for ridicule. As a result, all actions taken toward him seem justified. (Screenwriter Ring Lardner, Jr., felt that the final product on film was too abusive of Major Burns, but Altman apparently approved of the characterization.) It is obvious from the beginning that the approach taken by the heroes seems to be the most reasonable means for coping with war.

The battle lines are thus formed which will lead to the final confrontation. Reinforcements arrive in the persons of Major Margaret O'Houlihan (Sally Kellerman) and Trapper John (Elliot Gould). The message is simply put: it will be a case of "straights" versus "hippies," of Establishment versus youth.

Frank Burns is admittedly obnoxious, self-righteous, and boring. Margaret O'Houlihan is pretty, yet pompous. Nevertheless, one wonders if they really deserve the humiliation and mistreatment the "heroes" wreak upon them. After discovering that Frank and Margaret have more than military matters to share with each other (a behavior very much in keeping with the attitudes of Hawkeye and the others), the group bugs Margaret's tent and broadcasts their orgasmic groans to the entire camp, all of whom enjoy the performance except for the chaplain, Dago Red (Rene Auberjonois), who seems embarrassed by, if not critical of, the prank. The next day, over breakfast, Hawkeye goads Frank into a fight by questioning him as to whether Margaret, now nicknamed " Hot Lips," is a groaner or a screamer. All of this pressure results in Frank's losing control and being taken away in a straitjacket.

Again, the scenes are funny, but also cruel. With the hindsight of almost ten years since the film's initial release, one wonders whether the "heroes" are actually the humanitarians that they are initially presented to be. Today they do not appear very different from the military clowns with whom they joust in the film. There are many scenes within the film which bring up the "war is hell" theme, such as the bloodily realistic operations and the expressions of loneliness and homesickness of the characters, but these scenes merely seem to justify the behavior of the doctors and nurses outside the operating room. The film's suggestion seems to be that erratic, even cruel, behavior is only a reaction to the harsh realities of war and that in order to maintain their own sanity they must drive others crazy.

Another prank which is totally unjustified and mean seems to turn the tone of the film. In order to determine whether Hot Lips is a real blonde, Hawkeye and Trapper John fix the primitive shower walls so that they will collapse when she is bathing and the entire camp contingent, assembled audience-style outside the building, can see for themselves. They succeed in breaking her down just as they did Frank Burns, but instead of going insane the way he did, she joins them. Later she sleeps with Duke and becomes head cheerleader for the unit's football team.

The football game has become famous. The unit must play against a team of "ringers" (professional football players who had been drafted), and in order to win they hire their own ringer, a black surgeon/football hero, and resort to innumerable dirty tricks such as injecting one of the other team's stars with a drug to make him lose consciousness. Although funny, the scenes are far too long and seem rather cruel.

One of the cleverest sequences of the film, and one which is the best example of "black humor," involves the unit's dentist of legendary male proportions, Painless Pole (John Shuck), who believes that his inability to perform sexually on one occasion is an indication of repressed homosexuality. Unwilling to live with this, he decides to commit suicide. With the help of his buddies, he is prepared for death and given a last supper in a scene staged with so much care that the chaplin does a double-take which triggers the audience's recognition of its similarity to Leonardo da Vinci's painting, The Last Supper. Once lulled to sleep, thinking that he has taken a death-producing drug, he is awakened by Lieutenant Dish (Jo Ann Pflug) who successfully relieves the man of his self-doubts. Again the scene is simplistic in nature and hardly indicative of enlightened thinking, but humorous nonetheless.

Despite the black humor and the rather cruel hijinks, M*A*S*H is a very funny film. When viewed in retrospect, however, it is not merely an antiwar film. The direction is crisp, clean, and controlled. The dialogue is witty, and Altman uses multitracks and overlapping lines to deliver it, thus giving it Altman's particular brand of realism. The performances are excellent, from Sutherland and Gould, who make great screen buddies, to the minor characters such as the colonel and the chaplain. That all of its elements blend so well is a tribute to Altman's direction and the reason why the film was so commercially successful.

The television series M*A*S*H, which has had a long and successful run, is one of the few examples of a series being as successful as its film predecessor. Although many of the characters on the television series have their origins in the film, Gary Burghoff was the only original cast member to perform the same role in both media. The setting is the same and the antiwar message is an underlying theme of the television series; the black humor, however, has been softened and the main characters are no longer cruel, just mischievous. These changes seem to illustrate both the differences in attitude between 1970 and 1980, and the necessity for television characters who are seen in the audience's homes week after week to be more humane and less radical than their film counterparts.

Although M*A*S*H received several Academy Award nominations, including one for Altman's direction and one for Best Picture, the only Oscar it received went to Ring Lardner, Jr., for his adaptation of Richard Hooker's original novel. Until recently the film was within the top twenty box-office hits of all time, having earned more than $40,000, 000, but the rise in ticket prices coupled with the age of the "blockbuster" has pushed it much farther down the list. However, in terms of tickets actually sold and audience reception, M*A*S*H enjoyed tremendous popularity and is frequently shown on television and in revival houses.

©1986 by Frank N. Magill

The Movies Greatest Hits

"I now close my military career and just fade away, an old soldier who tried to do his duty as God gave him the light to see that duty."
- Gen. Douglas MacArther,
Quoted in opening card

It was officially called the Korean "Police Action." The State Department never admitted we were in a war, since Congress had never declared war. Yet every day, hundreds of young men gave their blood and their lives in this civil conflict, many of them not even out of their teens yet. It was a nasty little war which propelled World War II hero General Dwight Eisenhower into the presidency in 1952, when he promised to bring an end to an undeclared war.

The unsung heroes of this, as in any battle, were the doctors and nurses who patched the soldiers together so they could live to fight another day. Ernest Hemingway had written of gruesome front lines and ambulance drivers of World War I with deadly seriousness. Who could ever imagine finding humor in such circumstances?

One doctor could, and did. His name was Richard Hooker, and his first-hand experience became the basis of a novel which had the honor of being rejected by no less than 17 publishers before it became a modest seller. There had never been a blockbuster film about the Korean War, yet Fox saw possibilities in making a film of the M*A*S*H novel. With growing unrest and dissatisfaction with the Vietnam "Police Action," this was the right film for the time, and it became a huge success.

The doctors are about as irreverent as they could be without being court-martialed. We never see actual combat as the doctors in a Mobile Army Surgical Hospital wage their battles with the U.S. military. The film is episodic in style; there are many memorable moments, such as the scene with "Hot Lips" and the hidden mike, the re-enactment of the Last Supper, the Hot-Lips-in-the-shower scene, the trip to Tokyo, and the no-holds-barred football game. Elliot Gould (former husband of Barbra Streisand) co-starred with Canadian actor Donald Sutherland, who rocketed to stardom following this picture. The film also served to introduce John Schuck and Gary Burghoff.

For Ring Lardner, Jr., it was the high point in what had been a career marked by tragedy. In 1947, he had been subpeonaed by the House Committee on Un-American Activities and convicted of contempt of Congress as one of the "Hollywood Ten." He served 10 months of a one-year sentence in Federal prison and was blacklisted in the entertainment industry for 15 years. M*A*S*H brought him the second of two Acadamy Awards the gifted writer earned (the other was for Woman of the Year in 1942).

The movie itself was a milestone picture which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival and won the coveted "Palme d'Or" for Best Film of 1970. Most critics agreed with the public that it was unique, so it was bewildering when Fox announced that M*A*S*H would become a television show for the 1972 fall season. At first, the series seemed like a true flop, as had been so many other attempts at translating hit movies to TV. But the network and the studio stuck with it, and gradually the ratings began to climb. Eventually "M*A*S*H" (starring Alan Alda as Hawkeye, the role Donald Sutherland had created) became number one in TV ratings. And a rare phenomenon occurred: the series actually surpassed the movie in popularity. "M*A*S*H"'s longevity was due for the most part to the creative genius of Alda, who later wrote and directed several episodes. After nine years, the program was still on top when Alda convinced Fox to end the show. But high ratings in syndication continue to this day, making "M*A*S*H" one of the truly great properties of all time.

© 1986 Greatest Movie Hits


Academy Awards - Nomination - Best Picture
Academy Awards - Nomination - Best Director - Robert Altman
Academy Awards - Nomination - Best Supporting Actress - Sally Kellerman
Acadamy Awards - Nomination - Danford Greene for Best Film Editing
Academy Awards - Winner - Best Screenplay (Based on Material from Another Medium) - Ring Lardner, Jr.
British Academy Awards - Winner - United Nations Award
Golden Globe Award - Winner - Best Motion Picture-Musical/Comedy
Golden Palm (Cannes International Film Festival) - Winner - Grand Prize of the Cannes International Festival
National Society of Film Critics - Winner - Best Picture

More Comments

"M*A*S*H is what the new freedom of the screen is all about!"
- Richard Schickel, LIFE

"The funniest...you will be bowled over by its wit!"
-Judith Crist, NBC-TV

"M*A*S*H is a cockeyed masterpiece - see it twice."
- Joseph Morgenstern, Newsweek

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