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 being overrun by 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.
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© Steve Morrissey 2013