By Robert Horton
It's set during the Korean War, in a mobile army surgical hospital. But
no one seeing M*A*S*H in 1970 confused the film for anything but a
caustic comment on the Vietnam War; this is one of the counterculture
movies that exploded into the mainstream at the end of the '60s. Director
Robert Altman had labored for years in television and sporadic feature
work when this smash-hit comedy made his name (and allowed him to create
an astonishing string of offbeat pictures, culminating in the masterpiece Nashville).
Altman's style of cruel humor, overlapping dialogue, and densely textured
visuals brought the material to life in an all-new kind of war movie (or,
more precisely, antiwar movie). Audiences had never seen anything like it:
vaudeville routines played against spurting blood, fueled with open
ridicule of authority. The cast is led by Elliott Gould and Donald
Sutherland, as the outrageous surgeons Hawkeye Pierce and Trapper John
McIntyre, with Robert Duvall as the uptight Major Burns and Sally
Kellerman in an Oscar-nominated role as nurse "Hot Lips"
Houlihan. The film's huge success spawned the long-running TV series, a
considerably softer take on the material; of the film's cast, only Gary
Burghoff repeated his role on the small screen, as the slightly
clairvoyant Radar O'Reilly.
M*A*S*H received an Academy
Award for Writing (Best Screenplay based on material from another
medium, Ring Lardner, Jr). M*A*S*H also received Academy
Awards nominations for Best Picture (Ingo Preminger - Producer),
Supporting Actress (Sally Kellerman), Directing (Robert Altman) and Film
Editing (Danford B. Greene).