Although he was not the first choice to direct it, the hit black comedy MASH established Robert Altman as one of the leading figures of Hollywood’s 1970s generation of innovative and irreverent young filmmakers.
Scripted by Hollywood veteran Ring Lardner, Jr., this war comedy details the exploits of military doctors and nurses at a Mobile Army Surgical Hospital in the Korean War.
Between exceptionally gory hospital shifts and countless rounds of martinis, wisecracking surgeons Hawkeye Pierce (Donald Sutherland) and Trapper John McIntyre (Elliott Gould) make it their business to undercut the smug, moralistic pretensions of Bible-thumper Maj. Frank Burns (Robert Duvall) and Army true-believer Maj. “Hot Lips” Houlihan (Sally Kellerman).
Abetted by such other hedonists as Duke Forrest (Tom Skerritt) and Painless Pole (John Schuck), as well as such (relative) innocents as Radar O’Reilly (Gary Burghoff), Hawkeye and Trapper John drive Burns and Houlihan crazy while engaging in such additional blasphemies as taking a medical trip to Japan to play golf, staging a mock Last Supper to cure Painless’s momentary erectile dysfunction, and using any means necessary to win an inter-MASH football game.
MASH creates a casual, chaotic atmosphere emphasizing the constant noise and activity of a surgical unit near battle lines; it marked the beginning of Altman’s sustained formal experiments with widescreen photography, zoom lenses, and overlapping sound and dialogue, further enhancing the atmosphere with the improvisational ensemble acting for which Altman’s films quickly became known.
Although the on-screen war was not Vietnam, MASH’s satiric target was obvious in 1970, and Vietnam War-weary and counter-culturally hip audiences responded to Altman’s nose-thumbing attitude towards all kinds of authority and embraced the film’s frankly tasteless yet evocative humor and its anti-war, anti-Establishment, anti-religion stance.
MASH became the third most popular film of 1970 after Love Story and Airport, and it was nominated for five Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director. As further evidence of the changes in Hollywood’s politics, blacklist survivor Lardner won the Oscar for his screenplay.
MASH began Altman’s systematic 1970s effort to revise classic Hollywood genres in light of contemporary American values, and it gave him the financial clout to make even more experimental and critical films like McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971), California Split (1974), and Nashville (1975). It also inspired the long-running TV series starring Alan Alda as Hawkeye and Burghoff as Radar. With its formal and attitudinal impudence, and its great popularity, MASH was one more confirmation in 1970 that a Hollywood “New Wave” had arrived.