"Well, goddamnit Hot Lips, resign your god damned commission!"
Robert Altman is a director I hadn't tackled yet during my year of movies. I had watched most of McCabe & Mrs. Miller a while back, but didn't review it, and I watched Gosford Park a few nights ago, but again, didn't review it. The other night, I found myself awake, wanting to watch something funny, and I turned to Altman's first big studio film, and one that hasn't aged a day in the 40+ years since its release, 1970's M*A*S*H.
For as revolutionary as it was upon its release, the film still feels like something fresh, new and original. Altman's undeniable contribution to film is the inescapable realism that film can provide an audience. From his famed overlapping dialogue to the focus on background characters doing seemingly nominal things that lend an air of verisimilitude unseen on screen before, Altman was an innovator like no other. The ultimate anti-establishment filmmaker, Altman wasn't happy unless he was ruffling feathers and sticking his middle finger up at a suit somewhere.
After the opening credits, copied almost shot for shot on the vastly inferior television spin-off, we're dropped right in the middle of a brave new world where characters speak at the same time, and one has to actually pay attention to what's being said if they have any hope of keeping up. We're quickly introduced to our ostensible hero Capt. Hawkeye Pierce (Donald Sutherland, in arguably the best performance of his career) as he waits by a jeep for a driver. When another Captain, Duke Forrest (Tom Skerritt) arrives, thinking that Hawkeye is his driver, the two steal the jeep and head off to their assignment as surgeons in a MASH unit during the Korean War. It's the first in a long line of acts that show these men as the kind with a blatant disregard for the rules. They're soon introduced to the first of their nemeses, their bunkmate Major Frank Burns (Robert Duvall).
By the time Hawkeye and Duke have requested a chest-cutter to make their surgical unit function better, they've already begun unraveling what little sense of order had been established at the camp. When the chest cutter, Trapper John McIntyre (Elliott Gould) shows up, the rulebook has been burned and is being re-written in their chaotic image. The film is essentially a series of vignettes strung together to present the American experience in foreign wars in microcosm. Incidents arise and resolve themselves quickly before moving on to the next one, such as the one that finds camp dentist Capt. "Painless Pole" Waldowski wanting to commit suicide after being unable to get it up during a recent sexual encounter. They stage a fake suicide for him, framed as a mockery of The Last Supper, complete with a faithful recreation of Michaelangelo's tableaux vivant that would make the most self-righteous audience member run for the doors, demanding a refund.
The performances are uniformly fantastic, with Sutherland & Gould anchoring the film, but the various supporting characters owning their small moments in the sun from Sally Kellerman's Hot Lips O'Houlihan to Rene Auberjonois' Father "Dago Red" Mulcahy to Roger Bowen's Col. Blake. It's a stellar ensemble that films would try to ape through the ensuing decades to lesser and lesser degrees of success.
Charges of misogyny plagued the film when it was released, but I feel as though it's Altman's refusal to sugarcoat the way military men truly behave (as boys) that makes these charges ridiculous. In much the same way similar charges have been leveled at the work of Brian DePalma, they are rendered absurd because anyone accusing these filmmakers of such charges is missing the point entirely. They take our most primal urges and desires, and actually have the gumption to portray them honestly on screen, falling victim to the very thing they themselves are condemning.
The Academy presented its Best Picture honors that year on Franklin Schaffner's Patton, a film that felt like a relic the moment it was released, but nobody with a brain in their skull would challenge for a moment that M*A*S*H is the more important, more vital and more groundbreaking work that actually went a long way toward rendering films like Patton as obsolete musings of a bygone era.
You could count on two hands the number of times The Academy has "gotten it right" in its 82 year history, and a Best Picture win for M*A*S*H may have actually gone a long way towards rendering it as an unimportant work. Thankfully it didn't and it isn't, and we can look back at M*A*S*H as the game-changer it truly was and continues to be, for as long as dialogue overlaps and as long as the horrors of war are depicted as being just that, M*A*S*H will insert its relevance in the minds of its viewers.