Theatrical release poster
|Directed by||Robert Altman
Fred Williamson (football scenes)
|Produced by||Ingo Preminger|
|Screenplay by||Ring Lardner, Jr.|
|Based on||MASH: A Novel About Three Army Doctors
by Richard Hooker
|Music by||Johnny Mandel|
|Cinematography||Harold E. Stine|
|Edited by||Danford B. Greene|
Ingo Preminger Productions
|Distributed by||20th Century Fox|
|Box office||$81.6 million|
MASH (stylized as M*A*S*H on the poster art) is a 1970 American satirical black comedy war film directed by Robert Altman and written by Ring Lardner, Jr., based on Richard Hooker's novel MASH: A Novel About Three Army Doctors. The picture is the only feature film in the M*A*S*H franchise and became one of the biggest films of the early 1970s for 20th Century Fox.
The film depicts a unit of medical personnel stationed at a Mobile Army Surgical Hospital (MASH) during the Korean War; the subtext is about the Vietnam War. It stars Donald Sutherland, Tom Skerritt, and Elliott Gould, with Sally Kellerman, Robert Duvall, René Auberjonois, Gary Burghoff, Roger Bowen, Michael Murphy, and in his film debut, professional football player Fred Williamson.
The film won Grand Prix du Festival International du Film, later named Palme d'Or, at 1970 Cannes Film Festival. The film went on to receive five Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture, and won for Best Adapted Screenplay. MASH was deemed "culturally significant" by the Library of Congress and was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry. The Academy Film Archive preserved M*A*S*H in 2000. The film inspired the popular and critically acclaimed television series M*A*S*H, which ran from 1972 to 1983.
The plot is told as a series of (presumably chronological) vignettes surrounding the life of the namesake Mobile Army Surgical Hospital where it is set. While the episodic film lacks the cohesion of an overarching singular plot with a traditional narrative structure, the vignettes do present a clear means for the film to explore the themes of military life.
Set in 1951 in South Korea, the 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital is assigned two replacements: Captains "Hawkeye" Pierce and "Duke" Forrest, who arrive in a stolen Jeep. They are insubordinate, womanizing, mischievous rule-breakers, but they soon prove to be excellent combat surgeons. As the film progresses, further scenes introduce additional characters. Some characters are already at the camp when Hawkeye and Duke arrive, such as the bumbling commander Henry Blake, his hyper-competent chief clerk Radar O'Reilly, the morose dentist Walter "Painless" Waldowski, the incompetent and pompous surgeon Frank Burns, and the contemplative Chaplain Father Mulcahy. Other characters arrive after Hawkeye and Duke, and become integrated into camp life, such as surgeon Trapper John and Nurse Margaret Houlihan. After the characters are introduced, which forms the opening act, further comedic episodes explore the evolving relationships between the characters.
The main characters in the camp divide into two factions; Hawkeye, Duke, and Trapper John form one faction; all three were drafted into the army and are not as dedicated to the mission or lifestyle of the military. They are prone to pranks and heavy drinking. The other faction forms around the romantic relationship between Majors Houlihan and Burns, who are both career military personnel. The two factions battle back and forth in a series of pranks and reprisals (one involving exposing a naked Houlihan to the camp when the walls of the shower tent are collapsed, another embarrassing the couple by exposing their heretofore secret romance) until Burns is goaded into punching Hawkeye and removed from the unit for psychiatric evaluation. The removal of Burns changes the camp social dynamic and marks the transition to the third act.
Trapper and Hawkeye are removed to Japan to operate on a congressman's son. When they later perform an unauthorized operation on a local infant, they face discipline by the hospital commander for misusing army resources until they drug him and stage pictures with a prostitute, saving themselves through blackmail. Upon returning to Korea, General Hammond and Colonel Blake organize a "friendly" football game, with some money thrown into a pot to make bets ($5,000 or $6,000). Hawkeye and Blake arrange for a plan in order to assure victory. First, they get Henry to apply for a specific neurosurgeon: Dr. Oliver Harmon Jones, a former professional football player for the San Francisco 49ers. Then, they bet half their money up front and keep the ringer (Jones) out of the first half of the game. During the game, Houlihan uncharacteristically participates as a cheerleader in an effort to fit in. Once the other team racks up some easy points and becomes confident enough to offer good odds to bet the rest of the money, the 4077th brings in Jones for the second half. The 325th has its own ringers, however, and the 4077th fights back with illegal injuries and by drugging the 325th's running back. The game comes down to the last play, in which the quarterback (Trapper) returns the ball to the center, SSgt. Vollmer, who hides the ball under his jersey and runs into the end zone for the winning touchdown.
Not long after the football game, Hawkeye and Duke get their discharge orders and begin their journey home—in the same stolen Jeep in which they arrived.
- Donald Sutherland as Capt. Benjamin Franklin "Hawkeye" Pierce
- Elliott Gould as Capt. John Francis Xavier "Trapper John" McIntyre
- Tom Skerritt as Capt. Augustus Bedford "Duke" Forrest
- Sally Kellerman as Major Margaret "Hot Lips" Houlihan
- Robert Duvall as Major Frank Burns
- Roger Bowen as Lt. Col. Henry Braymore Blake
- René Auberjonois as Father John Patrick "Dago Red" Mulcahy
- David Arkin as SSgt. Wade Douglas Vollmer (in the movie, Duke calls him "Lee")
- Jo Ann Pflug as Lt. Maria "Dish" Schneider
- John Schuck as Capt. Walter Koskiusko "The Painless Pole" Waldowski, DDS
- Carl Gottlieb as Capt. John "Ugly John" Black
- Danny Goldman as Capt. Murrhardt
- Corey Fischer as Capt. Dennis Patrick Bandini
- Indus Arthur as Lt. Leslie
- Dawne Damon as Capt. Scorch
- Tamara Horrocks as Capt. Bridget "Knocko" McCarthy
- Gary Burghoff as Cpl. "Radar" O'Reilly
- Ken Prymus as Pfc. Seidman
- Fred Williamson as Capt. Oliver Harmon "Spearchucker" Jones
- Michael Murphy as Capt. Ezekiel Bradbury "Me Lay" Marston IV
- Timothy Brown as Cpl. Judson
- Bud Cort as Pvt. Lorenzo Boone
- G. Wood as Brig. Gen. Charlie Hammond
- Kim Atwood as Ho-Jon
- Dale Ishimoto as Korean doctor
- Bobby Troup as Sgt. Gorman
- Marvin Miller as PA announcer
The screenplay, by Ring Lardner, Jr., is radically different from the original novel; in the DVD audio commentary, Altman describes the novel as "pretty terrible" and somewhat "racist" (the only major black character has the nickname "Spearchucker"). He claims that the screenplay was used only as a springboard. However, the screenplay itself reveals, while some improvisation occurs in the film, and although Altman moved major sequences around, most sequences are in the screenplay. The main deletion is a subplot of Ho-Jon's return to the 4077th—as a casualty. When Radar steals blood from Henry, it is for Ho-Jon's operation under Trapper and Hawkeye's scalpels. When the surgeons are playing poker after the football game, they are resolutely ignoring a dead body being driven away—Ho-Jon's. The main deviation from the script is the trimming of much of the dialogue. According to Altman, Lardner was very upset with the liberties taken with his script, although Lardner denied this in his autobiography.
The filming process was difficult, because of tensions between the director and his cast. During principal photography, Sutherland and Gould spent a third of their time trying to get Altman fired, although this has been disputed; Altman, relatively new to the filmmaking establishment, at that time lacked the credentials to justify his unorthodox filmmaking process and had a history of turning down work rather than creating a poor-quality product. Altman: "I had practice working for people who don't care about quality, and I learned how to sneak it in." Altman later commented that if he had known about Gould and Sutherland, he would have resigned. Gould later sent a letter of apology, and Altman used him in some of his later works, but he never worked with Sutherland again.
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.
During production, a caption that mentions the Korean setting was added to the beginning of the film, at the request of 20th Century Fox studios. 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.
In his director's commentary on the DVD release, Altman says that MASH was the first major studio film to use the word "fuck" in its dialogue. The word is spoken during the football game near the end of the film by "the Painless Pole" when he says to an opposing football player, "All right, Bud, your fucking head is coming right off!" The actor, John Schuck, said in an interview that Andy Sidaris, who was handling the football sequences, encouraged Shuck to "say something that’ll annoy him." Shuck did so, and that particular statement made it into the film without a second thought.
MASH had its television premiere as a CBS Friday Night Movie on September 13, 1974, at 9:00 (EDT), three days after the start of the third season of the M*A*S*H TV series; it was repeated on CBS March 5, 1976.
Johnny Mandel composed incidental music used throughout the film. Also heard on the soundtrack are Japanese vocal renditions of such songs as "Tokyo Shoe Shine Boy", "My Blue Heaven", "Happy Days Are Here Again", "Chattanooga Choo Choo", and "Hi-Lili, Hi-Lo"; impromptu performances of "Onward, Christian Soldiers", "When the Lights Go On Again", and "Hail to the Chief" by cast members; and the instrumental "Washington Post March" during the climactic football game. Columbia Records issued a soundtrack album for the film in 1970.
MASH features the song "Suicide Is Painless", with music by Mandel and lyrics by Mike Altman, the director's then 14-year-old son. The version heard under the opening credits was sung by uncredited session vocalists John Bahler, Tom Bahler, Ron Hicklin, and Ian Freebairn-Smith (on the single release, the song is attributed to "The Mash"); the song is reprised later in the film by Pvt. Seidman (played by Ken Prymus) in a scene in which a character, a dentist called "Painless", attempts suicide. Altman has noted in interviews that his son made quite a bit more money off publishing royalties for the song than the $70,000 or so he was paid to direct the film.
MASH received mostly positive reviews from critics. The film currently holds an 87% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, based on 45 reviews, with an average rating of 8.4/10. The website's consensus states, "Bold, timely, subversive, and above all funny, M*A*S*H remains a high point in Robert Altman's distinguished filmography." The film also holds a score of 79 out of 100 on Metacritic, based on 7 critics, indicating "generally favorable reviews."
MASH won the Palme d'Or at the 1970 Cannes Film Festival. It was nominated for five Academy Awards, including Best Picture (lost to Patton), Best Director (lost to Patton), Best Supporting Actress for Sally Kellerman (lost to Helen Hayes for Airport), and Best Film Editing (lost to Patton), and won an Oscar for its screenplay.
The film won the Golden Globe Award for Best Motion Picture (Musical or Comedy) in 1971.
The film is recognized by American Film Institute in these lists:
- 1998: AFI's 100 Years...100 Movies – #56
- 2000: AFI's 100 Years...100 Laughs – #7
- 2004: AFI's 100 Years...100 Songs:
- 2005: AFI's 100 Years...100 Movie Quotes:
- Maj. Margaret O'Houlihan: "Oh, Frank, my lips are hot. Kiss my hot lips." – Nominated
- 2007: AFI's 100 Years...100 Movies (10th Anniversary Edition) – #54
The film was re-released in North America in 1973, and earned an estimated $3.5 million in rentals. To attract audiences to the M*A*S*H television series, which was struggling with audiences at the time, the film was re-released at 112 minutes and received a PG rating. Several scenes were edited, including segments of graphic operations, the word "fuck" in the football game, and the scene where the curtain in the shower is pulled up on Hot Lips. "Suicide is Painless", the film's main theme song, was removed from this version and new title music by Ahmad Jamal was used, instead, according to film critic and historian Leonard Maltin in his movie and video guide. In the 1990s, Fox Video released a VHS version of MASH under their "Selections" banner which ran 116 minutes and rated PG. However, this is not the alternate PG version which was released in 1973. It runs the same amount of time like the original 1970 version and none of the aforementioned scenes was removed from this VHS release and "Suicide is Painless" was still the main theme used. The actual 1973 PG edited version, has never been released on any video formats in the United States.
This film was also released on betaMAX, Philips Video Cassette system, CED Video Disc, and Laser Disc.
A "restored" version of the film was released in a two-disc set on DVD (through Fox's "Five-Star Collecton" series) in 2002, which included the feature film, as well as about 2 hours of bonus features.
A single disc release was released in 2004. In 2006, the same single disc release was included in the boxed set "The Robert Altman Collection"...includes "MASH", "A Perfect Couple", Quintet", and "A Wedding". Also in 2006, the single-disc edition was included with the complete MASH collection, called "Martinis and Medicine Collection". The single-disc edition was included in other Fox sets, too.
In 2009, MASH was released on the Blu-Ray format. Most of the two-disc features did "transfer" to this format.
- Blumberg, Joel (2008). "A Conversation With Fred "The Hammer" Williamson". Blair & Associates. Kit Park Films.
- Solomon, Aubrey. Twentieth Century Fox: A Corporate and Financial History (The Scarecrow Filmmakers Series). Lanham, Maryland: Scarecrow Press, 1989. ISBN 978-0-8108-4244-1. p. 256.
- "M*A*S*H, Box Office Information". Box Office Mojo. Retrieved January 29, 2012.
- The Entertainment Weekly Guide to the Greatest Movies Ever Made. New York: Warner Books. 1996. p. 49.
- "Preserved Projects". Academy Film Archive.
- Film Curator, (NCMA), the North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh, North Carolina "Gould and Sutherland had rebelled on the set, convinced that Altman's unstructured directing would destroy their fledgling careers."
- metro Entertainment, August 4, 2014, "Elliott Gould talks Robert Altman and says he never tried to get him fired"
- Film Curator, (NCMA), the North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh, North Carolina. "Between 1957 and 1964 he worked on at least 20 TV shows... fired from most of them for his experimentation with non-linear narrative and overlapping sound."
- Film Curator, (NCMA), the North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh, North Carolina, quote attributed to Robert Altman
- Robert Altman (director commentary) (2002-01-08). M*A*S*H (DVD). Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment.
- "Enlisted: The Story of M*A*S*H" (making-of documentary), Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment, 2001.
- Robert Altman (director commentary) (January 8, 2002). M*A*S*H (DVD). Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment. Retrieved May 15, 2007.
- Film Curator, (NCMA), the North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh, North Carolina. "There was absolutely no mention of Korea in the movie, and Fox insisted that be fixed. An introductory title and the PA announcements were used..."
- Film Curator, (NCMA), the North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh, North Carolina. "An introductory title and the PA announcements were used to clarify that this was certainly -not- the current Asian war, Vietnam."
- Vatnsdal, Caelum (January 10, 2012). "John Schuck". The A.V. Club. Retrieved June 12, 2016.
- "M*A*S*H (1970)". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved November 11, 2015.
- "MASH Reviews". Metacritic. Retrieved April 28, 2016.
- "Festival de Cannes: MASH". festival-cannes.com. Retrieved April 10, 2009.
- "AFI's 100 Years...100 Movies" (PDF). American Film Institute. Retrieved 2016-07-17.
- "AFI's 100 Years...100 Laughs" (PDF). American Film Institute. Retrieved 2016-07-17.
- "AFI's 100 Years...100 Songs" (PDF). American Film Institute. Retrieved 2016-07-17.
- "AFI's 100 Years...100 Movie Quotes Nominees" (PDF). Retrieved 2016-07-17.
- "AFI's 100 Years...100 Movies (10th Anniversary Edition)" (PDF). American Film Institute. Retrieved 2016-07-17.
- "Big Rental Films of 1973", Variety, January 9, 1974 p. 19.