#23 — M*A*S*H (Robert Altman, 1970)
Whenever I look at Robert Altman’s breakthrough 1970 film set during the Korean War, I find it simultaneously completely logical and utterly incomprehensible that it spawned a beloved television series that ran for 251 episodes across eleven seasons. In many ways, M*A*S*H already seems designed to be broken into individual episodes, pivoting at any moment to pursue plot threads–such as a trip to Japan and a football game played between two different military camps–that have only the most tangential connection to any discernible storytelling through line of the film. It’s as if Altman, fully aware that he had his first truly juicy opportunity to make a movie, wants to pile in every notion that he has. Much of the broader action is drawn directly from the 1968 novel by Richard Hooker (a pseudonym of H. Richard Hornberger, writing, in this instance, with W.C. Heinz) that serves as the film’s source material, but it’s the free-for-all approach of Altman that makes it all seem beautifully scattered, imposing the natural chaos of war–hell, of life–onto the film.
It wasn’t an easy route to get to the final project, a forecast of the various tribulations Altman would endure throughout the remainder of his defiantly unique career. Ring Lardner, Jr. won an Oscar for his adapted screenplay, but he was livid about Altman’s multitude of deviations from the words on the page, both in encouraging the actors to improvise dialogue and sometimes rearranging whole scenes to suit his vision. Donald Sutherland and Elliott Gould, both of whom Altman inherited from early pre-production rather than cast himself, spent a significant amount of the shoot trying to get their director fired rather than continue to put up with the perceived indignity of him focusing on the swarming intellectual mass he was crafting when he theoretically should have been working harder to turn it into a proper vehicle for his leads. All that tumult added up to something wonderful, shrewdly artistic and quite unlike anything that had been seen before. It also became a hit, behind only the markedly different Love Story and Airport on the box office tally of 1970’s releases. Amusingly enough, the next film down on the list is Patton, a staid war film that is everything M*A*S*H is not.
Of course, it’s that unconventional nature which makes it so unlikely as the inspiration for a weekly half-hour to air on CBS Monday nights. Altman’s film is dark as long-dried blood, rejecting any notions of heroism or nobility among the doctors and nurses at the Mobile Auxiliary Surgical Hospital, patching up soldiers stuck in a bloody fight they didn’t pick. It revels in the bleakest possible humor, shredding off laughs from institutional ineptitude and the singed outlook of those who stare into the void of imposed mortality on a daily basis. Altman gets a lot of credit for reinventing the sound, rhythm and density of movies–even if his innovations have only spread so far–but he’s not cited enough for the degree to which he broadened the inner personality a Hollywood film could have, introducing a level of wry, fiercely intelligent cynicism that is now the common expectation for most films that are held up as exemplars of the highest level of art a film can achieve. Critics don’t often trip over each other to herald the daring of a happy ending.
Altman didn’t invent that cinematic viewpoint, not with Italian Neorealism and French New Wave both in the rear-view when he made M*A*S*H. He did, however, give it a profoundly American spin that posited, in part, that all those promises of national exceptionalism were founded on delusion. Even worse, it’s entirely possible that they came from a lie formulated at the highest levels.