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A-Ron’s Film Rewind Presents: M*A*S*H – The 50th Anniversary

A-Ron’s Film Rewind Presents: “This isn’t a hospital! It’s an insane asylum”. A 50th anniversary celebration of legendary filmmaker Robert Altman’s “M*A*S*H”. While the movie has been eclipsed by its television adaptation and despite it’s lack of faith by the studio, it became a box office hit and a beloved comedy. Based on the book “MASH: A Novel of Three Doctors”, the film received five Oscar nominations and one win. Director Robert Altman’s unorthodox filmmaking style often butted heads with the studio and his two lead actors: Donald Sutherland and Elliott Gould. “M*A*S*H” came at the start of cinema’s most famous decade, it is a seminal film of New Hollywood, and it still bears all the hallmarks of its era. 

“M*A*S*H” was one of the most successful and beloved tv series, that ran from September 1972 to February 1983. The series came two years after legendary filmmaker Robert Altman released his film in 1970. “M*A*S*H” is that rare instance when the movie has been eclipsed by its television adaptation. An estimated 121.6 million viewers watched the series finale, “Goodbye, Farewell, and Amen”. It was the most watched television broadcast in American history, until the 2010 Super Bowl surpassed it.

Robert Altman’s 1970 film, which celebrates its 50th anniversary, may live in the shadow of the series, but will live on as one of the funniest comedies. The movie was a massive success, winning the Palme d’Or (then called the Grand Prix du Festival International du Film) at Cannes, receiving five Oscar nominations and winning for Best Adapted Screenplay. It became one of the most influential films of the ’70s, and catapulted Robert Altman into a massively successful career to become one of the most legendary filmmakers. 

“M*A*S*H” started with Richard Hornberger, who was swept up into the U.S. Army in the early 1950’s due to the Korean War and the draft. A graduate of Cornell University Medical School, Hornberger operated on wounded American boys in the 8055th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital, or known as M*A*S*H for short. Hornberger has a reputation of being a very good surgeon with a tremendous sense of humor.

After returning to the States, he settled in Waterville, Maine and established a surgical practice there. He retired in 1988, and passed away from leukemia in 1997 at age 73. Horberger’s single claim to fame was the book that he wrote and published in 1968 called, “MASH: A Novel of Three Doctors”, a fictional account of his days in Korea. Only 219-pages long, it appeared on bookshelves in 1968 and sold well but under Hornberger’s pen-name, Richard Hooker.

Instead of writing under the 8055th, Hornberger changed it to the 4077th, and the three doctors included Captains Duke Forrest, Benjamin Franklin “Hawkeye” Pierce, and “Trapper” John McIntyre. The three live in a tent that they dub “The Swamp”, that was “hot in the summer and colder than cold in the winter”. 

Hornberger was known to have beaten himself up as he realized he made a mistake, when he sold the film rights to his book for only a few hundred dollars. It was said that he was so furious, that he never signed another copy of his book. It was too late after the movies success, before he realized that he should have demanded a percentage of the movie’s revenue. Although Hornberger liked the movie, he did not watch the television show much, because he did not like Alan Alda’s portrayal of Hawkeye, whose constant anti-war remarks irked Hornberger.

The films screenplay, by Ring Lardner, Jr is different from Hooker’s original novel. In the two disc collectors edition dvd, Altman describes the novel as “pretty terrible” and somewhat “racist” (the only major black character has the nickname “Spearchucker”). Altman said that while some improvisation occurs in the film. Altman had changed the order of the books major sequences, while most of them are in the novel. Numerous sources state that Lardner was very upset with the liberties taken with his script, although he denied this in his autobiography. Lardner had won an Oscar for the films screenplay. 

Robert Altman who was relatively new to the filmmaking establishment at the time, lacked the credentials to justify his unorthodox filmmaking process and had a history of turning down work rather than creating a product that was poor-quality product. Altman said in an interview: “I had practice working for people who don’t care about quality, and I learned how to sneak it in. Twentieth Century Fox had two other wars going on with ‘Patton’ and ‘Tora! Tora! Tora!’”.

Altman remembers “Those were big budget pictures, and we were cheap. I knew that if I stayed under budget and didn’t cause too much trouble, we could sneak through”. Altman felt that he was able to get away with so much during shooting because the officials at 20th Century Fox were keeping a closer watch on the two massively expensive war films. 

When studio executives first saw the dailies, they complained to Robert Altman that the soldiers looked dirty compared to the soldiers in “Tora! Tora! Tora!” and “Patton”. Altman, a veteran of World War II, replied that soldiers in war are dirty. The next day, the executives told the producers of those two films to make their soldiers look dirtier. Before Altman was hired to direct. George Roy Hill, Sidney Lumet, Bud Yorkin, William Friedkin and Stanley Kubrick were among the choices for director.

Robert Altman earned $70,000 for directing the movie, that became the year’s biggest comedy. Casted with an star studded cast: Donald Sutherland played Hawkeye, Elliot Gould played Trapper John, and Tom Skerritt played Duke Forrest. Sally Kellerman played Hot Lips Houlihan, Robert Duval played Major Frank Burns, and Gary Burghoff played Corporal Radar O’Reilly.

The performances have a lot to do with the movie’s success. Elliott Gould and Donald Sutherland are two genuinely funny actors; they don’t have to make themselves ridiculous to get a laugh. They’re funny because their humor comes so directly from their personalities. The two underplay everything, while they try to downstage each other is great comedy. Both Sutherland and Gould are convincing as surgeons, muttering their way through running commentaries that sound professional.

Robert Altman was initially considering James Garner for the part of Hawkeye until Donald Sutherland lobbied hard for the role. Garner had experience because he was a Korean War veteran who had been wounded and treated in a military hospital during the war. Burt Reynolds, James Coburn and James Caan turned down the role of Trapper John.

One innovation of Robert Altman’s filmmaking style, was to have an almost constant overlaying of dialogue: as many as four conversations to be happening at once in a given shot. While this was considered unorthodox but revolutionary at the time, Altman’s instinct was vindicated when audiences agreed that the technique contributed to the feeling that war was “messy and confusing”. The technique has been emulated on several occasions since.

Robert Altman said that during filming, Elliott Gould and Donald Sutherland together went to the studio and complained that Altman was filming too much of the secondary characters. They requested that he be fired from the film, but the studio refused. After the film was completed and received awards at different ceremonies, only Elliott Gould confessed the matter to Altman. As a result, he received parts in other Altman pictures, whereas Altman never used Donald Sutherland again.

“M*A*S*H” revolves around Duke Forrest (Tom Skerritt), Hawkeye Pierce (Donald Sutherland) and Trapper John McIntyre (Elliott Gould), three American surgeons at a Mobile Army Surgical Hospital at the front lines of the Korean War. Life for these men is a never-ending series of bawdy escapades, bouts of heavy drinking and brutally bloody surgeries performed on the decimated bodies of soldiers.

The escapades include everything from taking a golf trip to Tokyo – during which they almost incidentally perform a chest surgery and also save a dying baby – to trying to get their Korean aide de camp out of military duty by giving him amphetamines, to arranging a mock suicide for the camp dentist who’s in despair because he believes he’s lost his ability to make love to women. It was this scene that gave birth to the film’s (and later the tv show’s) famous theme song, “Suicide Is Painless,” written by Altman’s 14-year-old son Mike and jazz composer Johnny Mandel, who also scored the film.

Altman had instructed his son, Michael, to write the lyrics for a song for Painless’s “Last Supper” scene. “It has to be the stupidest song ever,” Altman told his son. In about 10 minutes Michael wrote “Suicide is Painless,” and Johnny Mandel added the music. For his ten minutes of work, Michael earned over two million dollars, far more than Robert Altman did for directing it. The song was also used at the beginning and ending of all 256 episodes of the tv series. 

In his director’s commentary, Altman says that “M*A*S*H” was the first major studio film to use the word f*** in its dialogue. The word was spoken during the football game sequence near the end of the film by Walt “Painless Pole” Kosciuszko when he says to an opposing football player, “All right, Bud, your f***ing head is coming right off!” The actor, John Schuck said in an interview that 

B-Movie filmmaker Andy Sidaris, who was known for his “Girls and Guns” movies was handling the football sequences and encouraged Schuck to “say something that’ll annoy him”. Schuck did so, and that particular statement made it into the film without a second thought. Other sources, however, attribute the first audible use of the word f*** as part of the dialogue in the 1967 movie “Ulysses”. 

There is a story that goes of when Robert Altman was editing the movie with editor Danford B. Greene, they had nude pinups on the walls of the editing room. The head of post production came by and tried to stop Altman from using the editing machine, as he wasn’t a designated editor and Altman threw him out of the editing room. The next day, a memo came down from the 20th Century Fox front office stating a new policy that there were to be no pinups on the walls of editing rooms. Altman took the memo to the sound recording studio and added it as one of the loudspeaker announcements during the film.

Director Altman was originally promised five “points” (meaning a percentage) of the film’s profits. After a disagreement between Altman and one of the 20th Century Fox executives, the offer of points was taken back before production began. When the film became a big hit, Altman’s agent asked for the points back. When Altman was quoted in the press saying how much he hated working for 20th Century Fox. He was never given the points back.

Because of the context of the film being made during the height of America’s involvement in the Vietnam War, 20th Century Fox was concerned that audiences would not understand that it was ostensibly taking place during the Korean War. At the request of the studio, a caption that mentions the Korean setting was added to the beginning of the film, and PA announcements throughout the film served the same purpose. 

Only a few loudspeaker announcements were used in the original cut. When Altman realized he needed more structure to his largely episodic film, editor Danford Greene suggested using more loudspeaker announcements to frame different episodes of the story. Greene took a second-unit crew and filmed additional shots of the speakers. On the same night these scenes were shot, American astronauts landed on the moon. The Korean War is explicitly referenced in announcements on the camp public address system and during a radio announcement that plays while Hawkeye and Trapper are putting in Col. Merrill’s office, which also cites the film as taking place in 1951. 

Despite the little faith the studio had in it, “M*A*S*H” was a box-office hit; it was the third highest-grossing film released in 1970, behind “Live Story” and “Airport”. The film made $81.6 million against a budget of $3 million.

“M*A*S*H” won the Palme d’Or at the 1970 Cannes Film Festival. It was nominated for five Oscars, including Best Picture (lost to “Patton”), Best Director (lost to “Patton”), but won for Best Screenplay. It also took home Best Musical or Comedy at the Golden Globes. 

It was was deemed “culturally significant” by the Library Of Congress and was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry. While the Academy Film Archive preserved it in 2000. 

The success of “M*A*S*H” was achieved through a peculiar marriage of cinematography, acting, directing, and writing. Altman proves that a war movie doesn’t have to be a serious affair. The movie is a perfect example of comedic timing and tone. Clever camera setups, Altman’s patented overlapping dialogue, wonderful sight gags and fine ensemble performances make this one of the most enjoyable war-themed films ever. It came at the start of cinema’s most famous decade, it is a seminal film of New Hollywood, and it still bears all the hallmarks of its era. 



About Aron Medeiros

Aron Medeiros
Aron Medeiros is the movie critic for Maui Watch. He lives on the beautiful island of Maui and is also a member of the elite Hawaii Film Critics Society and an active cast member of the NerdWatch pod cast. He is a 2003 graduate from King Kekaulike High School. His favorite film of all time is “Back To The Future”. He has worked at Consolidated Kaahumanu Theaters for nearly 13 years as a Sales Associate and making his way up to Assistant Manager. He has loved movies since he was a young boy, where his Grandfather started his love for the movies.

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