Irreverence is the playful ally of the free-spirited; the blade that cuts into conservativeness and raises the beggars of morality from their knees. Late 1960’s America was possibly the main stronghold for this and many other attitudes that shaped the erupting social revolution that was cracking the institutional values into mere dust, a context within which Robert Altman’s iconoclastic vision found, like many other directors, writers, and Rock’n’Roll bands, a powerful battering-ram to put an end to the prude image cultivated throughout American history, M*A*S*H being Altman’s hardest blow.
The film’s strike on the institutionalized culture starts with the fact that even though it is set in a military conflict –namely, the Korean War–, it rarely evokes any of the classic images of either horror or glory that a war film carries along, and if not being for the ranks of the characters or the uniforms, one could confuse the mess-of-a-camp for a high school or a hospital partying on New Year’s Day.
The lack of order is expressed through the absence of power that the officers experience when facing the film’s main characters: Hawkeye, Duke or Trapper –played with cynical coolness by Donald Sutherland, Tom Skerritt, and Elliott Gould, respectively. These encounters normally intend to result in punishment for them after one of the many mischievous actions they bring about with an absolute lack of remorse or maturity, but not even officers from outside the Mobile Army Surgical Hospital –what the film’s title stands for– can scold at these naughty surgeons without being ignored like a high school principal by the sophomores, to later become victims of a practical joke that will cease them to have any chance of giving a lesson to the wacky doctors.
As for the plot, it can be said that there isn’t one since the film follows a fellinesque structure, telling the adventures of the main characters in an episodic manner, which adds up to the defiance of the film since it challenges the notion of being watching something traditional by refusing to remain conventional even in its most essential filmic elements.
The scriptwriting by Ring Lardner Jr. is hilarious as it explores machismo, double standards, racism, and transgression, some of the most memorable moments being when the “best-equipped dentist in the army” intends to commit suicide after believing he’s homosexual for failing to perform in close quarters, or when the surgeons use an explosively funny and quirky way to find out if a female officer is a natural blonde.
The critical tone towards the conservative characters played by Robert Duvall and Sally Kellerman is never lost, for they are always presented as laughable caricatures that tend to make fools of themselves as they expose their fallibility as embodiments of military or Christian values, a revelation that is often caused by the more open-minded surgeons.
Another theme made fun of is the American Way of Life, a parodying that reaches its epitome in the bet on the football game organized by the commanding officers who call it the best gimmick to keep the American spirit alive in the East, the football game that is, not betting, as Col. Blake misunderstands.
On the game we see stereotypes transforming into ridicule, like the losing situation that miraculously turns into a victory but not because of the classic last minute dose of will or strength, but by cheating; there’s also the racist epithet that creates a certain tension that is resolved with a vulgar insinuation about the rival’s sister, instead of being conquered with sportsmanship; the cheerleaders act as tormentors rather than imagery of the American fantasy with vulgar chants like “Sixty-nine is divine”, while the coaches seem more interested in the money than the honor of beating a fitting rival.
The acting is overall great as the performers behave like cartoons ranging from the manipulative and clever Sutherland, Gould, and a bit less formidable Skerritt, to the religious and haughty Duvall and Kellerman, the latter delivering a truly hilarious role, particularly when having an outburst while being carelessly listened to by an indifferent and dead pan-like Roger Bowen.
Although the technical work isn’t particularly impressive, Johnny Mandel and Mike Altman’s musical theme about the desirability of suicide, as well as Danford Greene’s wonderful editing –that keeps the film flowing by linking the episodes through the laughable announcements made through a speaker– are samples of directorial decisions that, accompanied by the first usage ever of the word “fuck” in an American studio feature, establish this picture as the work of a true auteur.
M*A*S*H is in the end a film made up of little details that intelligently expose the values of former generations as a procession of charades. It expresses Robert Altman’s views on the world that surrounded him not by sermonizing seriously like Michael Cimino did in The Deer Hunter, but by undressing the causers of pain, putting their moaning on a speaker, and giving them humorous nicknames just like a wisecracking schoolboy.