Regardless of how one feels about Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H (1970) in and of itself, it’s one of those movies that’s not only essential to an understanding of its director (after all, it put Altman on the map), it’s equally essential to any understanding of film at the time it was made. Love it, like it or hate it, it’s simply a film that ought to be known by anyone with an interest in film in general and Altman in particular. Anyone coming to the film for the first time now—probably with a head filled with the long-running TV series (which Altman despised)—would do well to understand the age in which it was made. M*A*S*H is very much a product of its time, reflecting the Vietnam era, the subversive spirit of that period and the relatively newfound freedom of the ratings system (only two years old at the time).
The film is many things, but it’s not an attempt to depict the Korean War in a realistic manner. It presents that war (or an aspect of it) as filtered through a Vietnam perspective. Yet the choice of presenting the Korean War is hardly accidental, since that was the first war that the U.S. didn’t win (the war ended in a stalemate in 1953). By applying the Vietnam sensibility to Korea, Altman’s film implied that Vietnam was also unwinnable—and remember this is only a couple years after John Wayne’s pro-war The Green Berets (1968). That said, the bigger appeal of the film lay in its wholesale irreverence concerning any topic you’d care to name, from war to government to religion. Everything from its theme song, “Suicide Is Painless,” to its depiction of Major Frank Burns (Robert Duvall) as a religious fanatic, to the staging of the “Painless Pole’s” pre-“suicide” dinner as a tableau copying Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper was—and is—irreverent. The casual sexuality surrounding the film (including the “Painless Pole’s” endowment, with a character remarking, “I’d dearly love to see that thing angry”) was unusual in itself—and some of it is now viewed as sexist (though it’s worth noting that much of that stems from its treatment of Sally Kellerman’s “Hot Lips” O’Houlihan, who’s the butt of jokes as a “regular army clown,” not because she’s a woman).
As an Altman film, M*A*S*H is amazing in that it presents the director almost fully formed with his first major feature. (Though worthy in themselves, neither Countdown (1968) nor That Cold Day in the Park (1969) are so assuredly personal.) Nearly everything we think of as Altmanesque—the large ensemble cast, the overlapping dialogue, the casual throwaway gags, the off-the-cuff feel to the shooting—is in place and functioning splendidly. Altman made better movies than M*A*S*H, but it’s the place to start.