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Raw, ragged, mordantly hilarious, and savagely cruel, M*A*S*H (1970) was not Robert Altman's first movie. The 45-year-old director had been in the business for 15 years, directing over a hundred hours of TV episodes and a few feature films, before shooting the first frame of the film. Yet M*A*S*H in many ways stands as the first "Robert Altman" film. Bustling with spontaneous ensemble performances, captured with a restless camera, and enriched with a dense soundtrack of competing conversations and extraneous sounds, it set the tone and style of his filmmaking for the rest of his career.
The film did not originate with Altman. Screenwriter Ring Lardner, Jr. discovered the novel, a black comic memoir of life in a mobile army surgical hospital during the Korean War written by Richard Hooker (a pseudonym for H. Richard Hornberger), and he thought it would make a great movie and a possible comeback project after spending years blacklisted by Hollywood for his politics. His agent, George Litto, took the book to Ingo Preminger, a former agent anxious to move into production, and they sold the package to 20th Century Fox. All they needed was a director, but all the big directors they approached turned them down. Litto was also Altman's agent and Altman was very interested, but he couldn't even get a meeting until the A-list filmmakers passed on it.
Ingo Preminger brought in Donald Sutherland and Elliott Gould, rising stars with counterculture credentials, to play the practical-joking doctors Hawkeye Pierce and Duke Forrest. Gould told Altman that, while he could put on a southern accent for Duke, he felt more confident about another role, Trapper John McIntyre, and Altman made the change. Altman then cast the rest of the film with relative unknowns, drawing from old friends and collaborators (Tom Skerritt as Duke, Michael Murphy, Robert Duvall) and actors from the San Francisco theater community (John Schuck, Rene Auberjonois, Bud Cort, Sally Kellerman, and others). The publicity department boasted of fourteen feature film debuts in the twenty eight speaking roles and Altman gave everyone their moment. While Sutherland and Gould were clearly the central characters, Altman made the film an ensemble piece. He filled scenes with minor characters and extras doing extraneous bits of business in the background, much of it improvised and fine-tuned through rehearsals and retakes, and had microphones placed throughout the set to catch everything. "What Bob loved to do was to create a scene that has a lot of density, a lot of levels going on, all these simultaneous conversations and overlaps," explained actor Corey Fischer to Mitchell Zuckoff. "He liked having more than one center to a scene or a shot."
His methods endeared him to the supporting cast but frustrated Sutherland and Gould, the film's nominal stars, who were used to more emphatic direction. "I never understood exactly what he wanted," Sutherland told an interviewer in 1971. Gould, who committed himself completely to the role, clashed with Altman on the set. Litto and Preminger stepped in to cool tensions, though Sutherland never warmed to Altman or his methods. Gould, on the other hand, went on to star in The Long Goodbye (1973) and California Split (1974) for the director. "I think that, in hindsight, Donald and I were two elitist, arrogant actors who really weren't getting his genius," admitted Gould decades later.
Altman decided that a key scene, where the doctors give camp dentist "Painless" Waldowski (John Schuck) a party (staged as a parody of The Last Supper) to stir him from his depression, needed a song. He came up with a title, "Suicide Is Painless," and asked his son, Michael, to write the lyrics. No one thought much of the song, not even Michael or Johnny Mandel, the composer, but it was added to the credits of the film and subsequently turned into the theme song of the TV incarnation. The royalties ultimately added up to millions and Michael made more money from the film than Altman, who had no share in the profits. But in a reflective moment years later, Altman decided "I'm cool about it, because what I got out of it was better than money."
Like the novel, the screenplay is largely a collection of episodes and comic scenes. With no defining story arc, Altman turned the atmosphere and the chaos into the film's through-line. The jagged editing jumps from scene to scene, stitched together with a dense soundtrack of improvised lines, Japanese versions of American pop songs (a suggestion of composer Mandel), and announcements blasting from the PA loudspeakers, which Altman came up with in post-production. "I knew I had to have connective tissue, and that worked," the director later recalled. According to biographer Patrick McGilligan, it was John T. Kelley, a scriptwriter on many of Altman's TV productions, who suggested that Altman use the same loudspeaker narration for the film's memorable end credits.
M*A*S*H bounces between bloody gallows humor in the operating theater and the brutal practical jokes played by the doctors between shifts. Sutherland's Hawkeye Pierce is the closest the film has to a moral center and Elliott Gould is his slightly more anarchic buddy Trapper John, but unlike their TV counterparts, these guys can be downright cruel and misogynistic. In war, Altman suggests, you have to go mad to save your sanity.
The studio was nervous about the unconventional project - the blood, the language, the nudity, and the free-association editing - and wanted a complete overhaul after a private screening of Altman's cut. Litto and Preminger suggested a preview in San Francisco, where the enthusiastic response put the studio's fears to rest. Altman's vision was released to huge profits. It was also the right picture at the right time, a commentary on the madness of war, set in Korea but clearly seen by audiences as a stand-in for Vietnam, featuring characters who don't just defy authority but flaunted their insubordination. The little $3 million picture went on to earn $40 million, as well as the Palm d'Or at Cannes and five Academy Award nominations, and earned a rave review from Pauline Kael, who called it "the best American war comedy since sound came in, and the sanest American movie of recent years."
For all of its acclaim, it took home a single Oscar, for Ring Lardner, Jr. for Best Screenplay. Altman, who was nominated for Best Director but lost to Franklin J. Schaffner (for the much more conventional war film Patton), was less than gracious to Lardner: he publically took credit for rewriting the script. He told The New York Times writer Aljean Harmetz in 1971: "My main contribution to M*A*S*H was the basic concept, the philosophy, the style, the casting, and then making all those things work. Plus all the jokes, of course." The authorship has been a contentious issue through the years, with many of the actors siding with Altman and the producers standing up for Lardner. Altman biographer McGilligan argues that Lardner's script provided the scenes, the structure, and the dialogue, and Altman improvised within the structure, giving the film its distinctive style, flavor, and attitude. What is clear, however, is that the fortuitous meeting of director, script, and supportive producers produced something unique, almost revolutionary, within the studio system, and turned Robert Altman into an overnight success. It only took fifteen years to get there.
By Sean Axmaker
Robert Altman: American Innovator, Judith M. Kass. Popular Library, 1978.
Robert Altman: Jumping Off the Cliff, Patrick McGilligan. St. Martin's Press, 1989.
Robert Altman: The Oral Biography, Mitchell Zuckoff. Alfred A. Knopf, 2009.
"Random Roles: Elliot Gould," interview with Wil Harris. A.V. Club, July 26, 2013.
Robert Altman commentary, M*A*S*H DVD. Fox Home Video, 2002.
Remembering M*A*S*H: The 30th Anniversary Cast and Crew Reunion, M*A*S*H DVD. Fox Home Video, 2002.