'MASH' - the Film Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

'MASH' - the Film

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A pair of army helicopters bearing the Red Cross insignia are seen flying through hazy mountainous terrain... The sounds of an acoustic guitar are heard and a plaintive male voice begins to sing...

Through early morning fog I see
Visions of the things to be.
The pains that are withheld for me,
I realise and I can see...

That suicide is painless,
It brings on many changes,
and I can take or leave it if I please

This is the opening of one of the most original war films ever to have been produced by a major US film studio.

The Film

MASH [although properly known as M*A*S*H, this Entry will be referring to the film as MASH for legibility reasons] is an acronym for Mobile Army Surgical Hospital. The story of this unusual film starts in 1968 when Hollywood screenwriter Ring Lardner Jr came across a semi-autobiographical novel by Richard Hooker, the pen-name of an army physician during the Korean War.

Lardner then took the novel to 20th Century Fox, who agreed it might make a reasonable film and started looking around for a director. After 15 candidates refused the job, it was finally accepted by a relative newcomer to Hollywood, Robert Altman.

Despite directing several tv shows, Altman hadn't really made his mark on the film world. Little did the studio know what they were getting for their money...


Production started in April 1969. The director, who was opposed to the conflict in Vietnam that was happening at this time, knew he wanted to turn MASH into an anti-war statement. However, realising that the extremely conservative Hollywood studio bosses were unlikely to accept his view, he decided that the only way of achieving this would be to become 'invisible' to them. To keep the budget down he hired a cast of virtual unknowns2 and the entire film was shot in the California mountains, just outside of Hollywood. One of his first moves as director was to remove all references to Korea from the script - thus, in the eyes of the viewer, changing the setting of the film to Vietnam.

Altman's unique style worried some of the cast greatly. His habit of using unobtrusive, long lenses meant that in many shots the actors didn't actually know who was being filmed. This forced them to improvise lines and situations when they weren't even supposed to be the subject of a scene. This, and Altman's seeming disregard for the screenplay, led the film's leading actors, Donald Sutherland and Elliott Gould, to request a meeting with their agent and the producers. They were asking for Altman to be sacked, as they genuinely thought he'd gone mad! This was a fact that Altman himself was blissfully unaware of until well after the film was completed.

Watching the film, the viewer gets some idea of the chaotic nature of the filming process. Overlapping dialogue, a virtually non-existent plot thread and the extreme juxtaposition of comedy and bloodshed all went together to give the film its own atmosphere.

One example of how far Altman would go to get the shot he wanted was a scene in which the Chief Nurse - 'Hotlips' Houlihan (played by Sally Kellerman)- was to briefly appear nude, when a shower tent is lifted up into the air. In the first take, the actress - none too eager to appear naked on screen - dropped to the floor before she even became visible, thus rather defeating the object.

Altman quietly asked for the scene to be reset for a second take without a word to the actress. However, this time, when the tent was lifted, what did Kellerman see as she looked out towards the camera? Altman, with actor Gary Burghoff (Radar O'Reilly), standing minus their trousers! After a stunned pause - measured in milliseconds - Kellerman remembered what she was supposed to do and dropped to the floor screaming, thus, unwittingly, giving the director his perfect take.

Filming was completed in June 1969, three days ahead of schedule and $500,000 under budget. Considering that the studio had provided a total outlay of $3.5 million, it was more than pleased... Until, of course, the Fox executives saw how it had been spent!

During shooting, the director had succeeded in avoiding the scrutiny of the studios. This had been possible largely because Fox had been shooting two other big-budget war movies, Tora! Tora! Tora! and Patton, at exactly the same time. However, when they finally got to see the completed MASH, the studio bosses' immediate reaction was that there was no way they were going to release it!

When confronted by one of their concerns - that the film would be taken as an anti-Vietnam statement - Altman gave ground and, under protest, inserted several historical quotations from the 1950s into the opening credits, thus firmly establishing a link with Korea. However, when faced with the insistance that he cut the 'bloodthirsty' operating room scenes, Altman refused to back down - finally persuading the producers to allow the uncut version of the film to be shown to a private preview audience.

Needless to say, the audience loved it. The standing ovation as the final credits rolled was all the persuasion the studio needed to release the film. One person, however, was unimpressed. The author of the screenplay, Ring Lardner Jr, was apparently outraged at Altman's disrespect for his script and the actors' ad libs, and was heard to say, 'You've ruined my film.'

The Storyline

The film is a loosely-linked set of scenes centred around several army surgeons. They are Captains Benjamin Franklin 'Hawkeye' Pierce (Donald Sutherland), and Augustus Bedford 'Duke' Forrest (Tom Skerritt). Drafted into the army, they are posted to a frontline Mobile Army Surgical Hospital Unit - the 4077th MASH. The third member of this 'unholy' alliance of unlikely military heroes joins the Unit slightly later. He is 'Trapper' John McIntyre - a top-flight chest surgeon - played by Elliott Gould.

The tone of the story is immediately apparent from these quotes in the original theatrical trailer:

This is the story of two indispensable military surgeons. They had the army over a barrel. But did they take advantage of it?
MASH - a motion picture that raises some important moral questions, and then... Drops them!

As previously stated, the film could not truthfully be said to be 'plot-driven'. It is more a loosely-linked set of scenes showing the principle characters interacting with one another.

On arrival at the hospital, the two captains find themselves sharing a tent (called 'the Swamp') with Major Frank Burns (played by Robert Duvall). He is a strict disciplinarian, a practising Christian and a lousy army surgeon: the complete antithesis of our heroes.

Their first (self-imposed) task is to have the major removed from the camp. They successfully achieve this by not only catching Burns and the Unit's senior nurse, Major Houlihan (Sally Kellerman), flagrante delicto so to speak, but by also managing to broadcast the couple's amorous adventure to the whole camp over the hospital's public address system3. This leads to Burns being taken away in a straitjacket by the military police - and to Houlihan being saddled with the moniker 'Hotlips'.

Other notable scenes in the movie include:

The Last Supper

The camp's dentist decides to commit suicide after failing to 'perform' for one of the nurses. The layout and actors' placings are designed in such a way as to copy Leonardo da Vinci's famous painting.

The Shower Tent Scene

The whole camp turns out to be witnesses to a bet as to whether 'Hotlips' is a genuine blonde. As the nurses head for the shower tent they are picked off one-by-one by the doctors with gambits like, 'Hey, wanna see some pictures of my kid?', etc... Eventually only Hotlips reaches the shower tent. The rest of the camp gathers round. After a brief drumroll and clash of cymbals a large counterweight is dropped from a tower, lifting the tent into the air and answering the question once and for all.

The Football Game

A game of American Football (naturally) that features dope-smoking players and game-fixing. The latter is achieved by drugging the opposition, drafting a professional footballer (who just happened to be a surgeon) into the camp, and the exchange of large amounts of cash!

The Pros from Dover

Even the title tells a story... The phrase is nowadays widely used to define any group of outside consultants called in to troubleshoot a specific problem. Few people realise that the term originated in this film, or rather in the book by Richard Hooker. In the book, Hawkeye used the explanation of being a 'Pro from Dover' to gain free access to various golf clubs. However, in the film the term is not actually explained and is used only once.

The scene: Hawkeye and Trapper are sent to Japan to treat a Congressman's son. After seeing the X-rays they realise the operation is going to be extremely simple and head off to Japan with the aim of getting in a few rounds of golf while there. On arrival they take the hospital by storm, pushing past the nurses with the following lines:

All right, somebody trot out the latest pictures of this kid with the shell fragment in his chest.
Snap it up! We're the Pros from Dover and the last pictures we saw must be 48 hours old by now!

After successfully completing the operation, in the midst of which they have the colonel in charge of the hospital evicted from his own operating theatre (with the words 'Will someone get that dirty old man out of here?'), the pair head off for some well-earned R&R4 to a local brothel/hospital. This establishment is recommended by their anaesthesiologist who moonlights there, treating the native Japanese.

While there, the pair learn of a sick Japanese/American child and ask why he hasn't been taken to the military hospital for treatment. Upon discovering that the colonel refuses to let his staff look after Japanese patients, the doctors head straight to the hospital - defying standing orders - and treat the child. The colonel bursts into the theatre threatening courts-martial for all. He is quickly anaesthetised and wakes up in the arms of one of the 'hostesses' in the brothel. Several photographs are speedily taken and the courts-martial are just as quickly forgotten.

Other Characters

Throughout the film there are a whole series of character-building sketches featuring other actors. Notable amongst these are the interactions between the Unit's commanding officer, the well-meaning yet bumbling Colonel Henry Blake (Roger Bowen) and his ultra-efficient but self-doubting secretary, Corporal 'Radar' O'Reilly (Gary Burghoff).

Another excellent character in the film is the camp's padre, Father John Patrick 'Dago Red' Mulcahy: an 'outsider' in every sense of the word. The role of the seemingly naïve padre, a man who never seems to fit in to this mad world of bloodshed and black humour, is wonderfully played by René Auberjonois5.

The Aftermath

The film was released in 1970. It rapidly became the third most popular of the year, after Love Story and Airport, finally grossing over 80 million dollars at the box office.

In 1971 the film was nominated for five Academy Awards®:

  • Best Picture - Ingo Preminger (Producer)
  • Best Director - Robert Altman
  • Best Screenplay (based on material from another medium) - Ring Lardner Jr
  • Best Actress in a Supporting Role - Sally Kellerman
  • Film Editing - Danford B Greene

In the end the film was awarded a single Oscar, and, ironically enough, it went to Ring Lardner Jr - who had been so vocal in his disapproval of the director's methods and script changes.

The film was to go on and spawn another, even greater, moneywinner for the studio. In 1973 it was transformed into a television series, M*A*S*H, which was to gather a cult following and ran for 11 seasons. Incidentally, Robert Altman frequently stated that he disliked the tv series intensely, as he found it too lighthearted and flippant. He had a particular aversion to the 'happy endings' tagged on to the episodes.

A second offspring from the film was the American tv series Trapper John, MD, which ran from 1979 to 1986.

1Composed by Mike Altman & Johnny Mandel.2Of the 30 speaking roles in the film, 14 went to actors making their big-screen debuts.3The source of several gags, it is also used at the end of the film to announce the principal credits.4Rest and Recuperation.5Some twenty years later he would go on to play yet another 'outsider' - the character of Odo in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.

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