See This: Mash

Donald Sutherland and Elliott Gould in a publicity shot for Mash
Donald Sutherland and Elliott Gould in a publicity shot for Mash




An on-screen statement, put there at the behest of a nervous film studio, claims this film is about the goings-on at a field hospital during the Korean War. That statement apart, this is obviously a film about Vietnam, a war the Americans had already lost at home, if not yet out on the field of battle.

Now, decades later, from the other end of the countercultural telescope, Mash’s relentless portrayal of the military hierarchy as charlatans and buffoons seems a bit old hat.

But the director making it had earned the right to his opinion. Robert Altman was a veteran of the Second World War who’d gone on to become a maker of industrial films, exploitation films and TV dramas. Unlike the other hotshot countercultural guys of the early 1970s – Lucas, Spielberg, Bogdanovich etc – Altman was no long-hair. He was 45 when he made MASH and, by the by, he had very little hair at all.

This was his breakout movie and it sent its anti-authoritarian heroes – Elliott Gould and Donald Sutherland as the two brilliant army surgeons with specialisms in skirt and the cocktail olive – straight to the A list.

Made in the now-customary but then revolutionary style of laying story upon story, dialogue overlapping all over the place, it drops the audience right into the thick of the action and then lets them work out for themselves what’s going on.

It looks only a touch less naturalistic now than it did in 1970 – very few people are as witty as scriptwriter Ring Lardner Jr makes these guys look – but the brilliance of Altman’s film-making holds up.

© Steve Morrissey 2013


Mash – at Amazon




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MASH (1970) Comedy, Drama, War | 116min | 18 March 1970 (USA) 7.4
Director: Robert AltmanWriter: Richard Hooker, Ring Lardner Jr.Stars: Donald Sutherland, Elliott Gould, Tom SkerrittSummary: The personnel at the 4077 MASH unit deal with the horrors of the Korean War and the stresses faced in surgery by whatever means. The tone at the MASH is established by recent arrivals, surgeons Captains 'Hawkeye' Pierce, 'Duke' Forrest, and 'Trapper' John McIntyre - the latter who Hawkeye knows he's met somewhere, but Trapper who won't divulge where - whose antics can be best described as non-regulation, and in the negative words of one of their fellow MASH-ers: unmilitary. The unit's commanding officer, Colonel Henry Blake, doesn't care about this behavior as long as it doesn't affect him, and as long as they do their job and do it well, which they do. Their behavior does extremely bother fellow surgeon, Major Frank Burns, and recently arrived head nurse, Major Margaret Houlihan, who obtains the nickname 'Hot Lips' based on information they glean about her through underhanded means. Beyond their battles with Frank and Hot Lips, Hawkeye, Duke and/or Trapper help unit dentist Painless ... Written by Huggo


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