A Mobile Army Surgical Hospital (M.A.S.H.), two minutes from bloody battles on the 38th Parallel of Korea, is an improbable setting for a comedy, even a stomach-churning, gory, often tasteless, but frequently funny black comedy. The result is an uneven brew with director Robert Altman committing excesses that should provoke controversy and some loudly negative reaction. However, if played selectively to allow word of mouth to build and not for a quick play-off, “M.A.S.H.” could do very well at the boxoffice.
Elliott Gould, Donald Sutherland and Tom Skerritt head an extremely effective, low-keyed cast of players whose skillful subtlety eventually rescue an indecisive union of script and technique. In Gould as the totally unmilitary but arrogantly competent, supercool young battlefield surgeon, a reluctant draftee whose credo is let’s get the job done and knock off all this Army muck, the film finds its focus and its statement, after an uneven start.
Problem is the mixture of realism with the old style broad comedic technique that has lately scuttled a succession of unfunny comedies. The scenes in the hospital tent, with surgeons and nurses in blood-soaked operating gowns like assembly butchers, sent several viewers at a studio screening fleeing from the theatre. The sardonic, cynical comments of the doctors and nurses patching and stitching battle-mangled bodies and casually amputating limbs before sending their anonymous patients on to the area hospitals further behind the lines will be extremely distasteful to many. But it has the sharp look of reality when professionals become calloused from working 12 hours at a stretch to keep up with the stream of casualties from the battlefield.
That reality jars with the caricatures presented by Sally Kellerman as Major Hot Lips, the officious head nurse; Robert Duvall as a super-pious surgeon, and J. B. Douglas, the colonel in charge of an Army hospital in Japan.
John Schuck is quietly convincing as the student dentist who is contemplating suicide because he suspects that he is really a latent homosexual after reading a book on psychology. But director Altman is tastelessly over-reaching for targets for satire when he stages the farewell party as “The Last Supper.” The part of the Catholic chaplain named Dago Red is only saved from being an insulting absurdity by the skillful playing of Rene Auberjonois, whose padre is a sincere but ineffective bumbler who knows his flock is morally amiss but doesn’t know quite what to do about it.
A service football game is a comic travesty on American sportsmanship, but then that is often the reality of service sports competition.
The opening title sequence shows a train of helicopters with the battlefield wounded strapped outside arriving at the M.A.S.H. while Mike Altman and Johnny Mandel’s sardonic ballad “Suicide Is Painless” plays. It effectively sets the confused mood and style of the film.
Ring Lardner Jr.’s screenplay is based on the novel by Richard Hooker, supposedly a pseudonym for a surgeon. There is the feeling that Lardner, Altman and the actors never were agreed on what the film’s final approach should be. Comparison of the trade-screened version with a studio synopsis suggests that editor Danford B. Greene did some very effective editing. A little more discreet editing to make the Kellerman-Duvall affair less slapstick and take out an opening fiasco with an M.P. and the Last Supper tableau would make the overall film more effectively realistic. For today’s more sophisticated audience, comedy in films, unlike that for television, works best when it remains within the realm of believability.
In the end “M.A.S.H.” succeeds, in spite of its glaring faults, because Gould, Sutherland, Skerritt, Jo Ann Pflug as the delicious Lt. Dish, and Roger Bowen, as the goof-off commanding officer who is bright enough to recognize his junior officers’ medical competence and stay out of their way, are all believable and bitingly funny in their casual disdain for the Army.
1970: Best Adapted Screenplay.
Nominations: Best Picture, Director, Supp. Actress (Sally Kellerman), Editing