M*A*S*H (1970)

Genres - Comedy Drama, War  |   Sub-Genres - Black Comedy, Military Comedy, Anti-War Film, Ensemble Film, Medical Comedy, Satire  |   Run Time - 116 min.  |   Countries - United States  |   MPAA Rating - R
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Review by Mark Deming

Robert Altman's commercial breakthrough after more than 20 years of industrial films and TV work felt like an joyous shout of liberation, not just for its director but for the film industry in general. MASH was proudly, gleefully, gloriously rude as few previous Hollywood films had dared to be, not just in using four-letter words but also in a hilariously casual disrespect for religion, the military, American foreign policy, and authority as a whole. While more than a few war movies had centered on men who served despite personal misgivings, MASH put us in the middle of an Army field hospital in the Korean War, where draftee doctors openly decry the "regular Army clowns" as they try to patch up the butchered bodies of soldiers from both sides. The cynical disrespect and mordant wit of Hawkeye Pierce (Donald Sutherland) and Trapper John McIntyre (Elliott Gould) was a breath of enjoyably foul air, especially at a time when America was knee-deep in the ongoing Vietnam War, the obvious analogue of the movie's Korean conflict. Also, the film's willingness to set its cheerfully vulgar humor (often involving sex and nudity) against the bloody horrors of surgery and the unpleasant realities of war was both brave and appropriate; it gave the film a moral balance that allowed the comic and tragic elements to temper each other. If MASH seems more controlled than much of Altman's later work, his trademark free-floating, catch-things-on-the-sly ambience is very much in evidence, as if he'd been wanting to make this sort of film his whole life and wasn't going to blow his chance. He didn't. Also, if you know MASH as a TV series and not as a film, prepare yourself for a shock; there is nothing warm and fuzzy about this movie, which makes its bitter humor all the more effective.