In 1970, America watched uncensored footage of the Vietnam carnage on the evening news. Hollywood was bolstering up America by recollecting a war that made sense with the release of two, high budget, World War II films, “Patton” and “Tora! Tora! Tora!”
The counterculture lenses of the day presented a different view. “M*A*S*H” producer Ingo Preminger and relatively unknown director Robert Altman aimed at creating a low budget film based on a former Army doctor’s recollections in the 1968 book, “MASH: A Novel About Three Army Doctors,” by Richard Hooker.
Director Altman’s intent was to elucidate the mud, blood and gore in order to de-romanticize cinema’s portrayal of war. However, the book’s caustic humor was less than entertaining. Preminger and Altman hired Ring Lardner, Jr., a famous member of the blacklisted, Hollywood 10, from the days of the House Un-American Activities Committee and Senator Joseph McCarthy’s hunt for communists, to adapt the screenplay. The blacklisted Lardner had been a successful in rehabilitating screenplays, reportedly winning at least one screenwriting Oscar using a colleague’s name. “M*A*S*H” marked Lardner’s Hollywood resurrection.
The 116-minute, R- rated, film is 180 degrees from the saccharine “M*A*S*H” television show. The film’s wisecrack sophistication, treatment of racial prejudice, shabby treatment of women, and unvarnished view of bloodshed may not satisfy a generation of anesthetized television viewers who are satisfied with C+ acting.
Altman’s “M*A*S*H” became a classic because of its repugnance of war and ridicule of the military’s form over substance. The film, set in the Korean Conflict, illustrates how humor was a means to escape the horrors the hospital team experienced. At the premiere, screenwriter Lardner objected at the liberties taken from his screenplay and washed his hands of the film.
Preminger and Altman knew better and assembled a dynamic, little known cast to woo the audience. Donald Sutherland was cast as Hawkeye Pierce; Trapper John McIntyre was played by a pre-crazed Elliott Gould (he burned many bridges back then); Sally Kellerman steamily played nurse Major Margaret O’Houlihan; a religiously rigid but lustful Major Frank Burns was played by Robert Duvall; and Tom Skerritt played the racially bigoted southerner Duke Forrest.
The film introduced newcomers Jo Ann Pflug as Lieutenent Dish and off Broadway performer Gary Burghoff as Radar O’Reilly. The supporting cast included John Schuck (who delivers a Leonardo DaVinci inspired performance), Michael Murphy, Fred Williamson, a cameo by bandleader Bobby Troupe, NFL great Ben Davidson, and Rene Auberjonois (as the feckless Father Mulcahy…whose role made no real contribution to the film, to the television show, or to vocations in the priesthood).
Although gathering critical acclaim at Cannes and the Golden Globes, “M*A*S*H” won only one Oscar -- for Lardner’s screenplay.
A cinema classic, “M*A*S*H” is even more politically incorrect today than it was in 1970. One must view it in context as almost all will be offended, yet “M*A*S*H" will resonate with you.
The Department of Defense refused to distribute the film to Vietnam servicepersons. It was on the military “black market” until Preminger and Altman approached the Defense Department noting the film was against war and asked, “Isn’t the Defense Department also against war?” The government then released it to our troops’ enjoyment and our servicepersons gave the film two fingers up. You will, too.