Altman was the thorniest and most irascible of the great ’Hollywood Renaissance’ directors, and perhaps the most distinctive in his adherence to a unique style. For him, the studio was always the enemy, and many of his greatest pictures were made as critiques on traditional film genres: The Long Goodbye was originally deemed a great insult to Raymond Chandler. McCabe & Mrs Miller was arguably the finest revisionist Western of the period – and the saddest.
M*A*S*H (it stands for Mobile Army Surgical Hospital) was only his second feature, though he was 45 and a veteran from TV and industrial films when he made it. It was set in the Korean War but Altman fudged the specifics so that it was understood to be about Vietnam. Twentieth Century Fox expected a conventional comedy, but they were distracted by the mega-budget Tora, Tora, Tora, which was shooting at the same time, enabling Altman to fly under the radar and create what was surely the most anarchic, anti-authoritarian, anti-military, anti-religious to have come out of Hollywood.
Screenwriter Ring Lardner Jr. complained there wasn’t a line of his left in the picture – until he won the Oscar for it. In the free-form improvisational method he hit upon, everything was up for grabs. He miked up all the actors and set them loose. A studio memo about clearing dirty pictures from the walls of the cutting rooms made it into the movie verbatim. Donald Sutherland and Elliott Gould thought Altman was a lunatic and tried to get him fired – and of course the movie turned out to be such a monster hit it made them the biggest stars of the day. A very successful, long-running TV sit-com followed, though it softened everything raw in the film.
Seen today, the film’s chauvinism is objectionable and other elements are “problematic”, but you can sense how the movie was pushing boundaries and responding to the youth movement.
One of America’s funniest bloody films… Also one of its bloodiest funny films.
M*A*S*H is a marvellously unstable comedy, a tough, funny, and sophisticated burlesque of military attitudes that is at the same time a tale of chivalry. It’s a sick joke, but it’s also generous and romantic – an erratic episodic film, full of the pleasures of the unexpected… This movie heals a breach in American movies; it’s hip but it isn’t hopeless. A surgical hospital where the doctors’ hands are lost in chests and guts is certainly an unlikely subject for a comedy, but I think M*A*S*H is the best American war comedy since sound came in, and the sanest American movie of recent years.
July 15 Only: Introduction from filmmaker Devan Scott
Donald Sutherland, Elliott Gould, Tom Skerritt, Sally Kellerman, Robert Duvall, René Auberjonois
Best Screenplay, Academy Awards 1971
Ring Lardner Jr.
Harold E. Stine
Danford B. Greene
Arthur Lonergan, Jack Martin Smith