MASH: A novel about three army doctors, by Richard Hooker, was first published in 1968. Two years later Robert Altman’s screen version was released, becoming the third highest-grossing movie of 1970 and picking up five oscar nominations. The film’s success led to the long-running sitcom of the same name, which went on to become easily the most recognisable version of MASH. The movie was a significant breakthrough for Robert Altman, both commercially successful and critically lauded, paving the way for his ascension in hollywood. Many of the actors also rose to stardom following the film’s success, notably Donald Sutherland and Elliot Gould. While the film may languish in the shadow of the TV series, the novel, never as successful as either, is now almost forgotten.
MASH was written by a former army doctor, Richard Hornberger, drawing on his own experiences in the Korean war. After a number of rejections he obtained the help of a prominent sportswriter, W.C. Heinz, and the book was published a year later under Hornberger’s pseudonym, Richard Hooker. Following the success of the movie several sequels to the novel were released, only two of which were written by Hornberger1.
The novel, as the title suggests, is the story of three army doctors serving in the 4077th M*A*S*H, Hawkeye Pierce, Duke Forrest, and Trapper John. It chronicles some of their work, and a lot of their hijinks. It is an odd novel, really just a collection of the author’s best stories with the names changed. The characters are handed to us fully formed, and we watch their adventures without ever having to worry about them getting into too much trouble. The narrative is episodic and for the most part lighthearted. The intense bouts of surgery and the goodbyes at the end of the novel are the counterpoint to that, entirely more serious and heartfelt.
The novel is entertaining but not extraordinary. If the film had never been made it is doubtful the book would have become a bestseller. It was not an anti-war novel. While it was anti-authoritarian, it was more in the spirit of college pranks. It was released in 1968, but it had taken Hornberger over ten years to get it to that point. Written about Korea, the book has no political agenda. While it contains descriptions of the casualties, and the psychological toll it took on the doctors, details of the war itself are absent. The doctors still refer to ‘regular army clowns’, but there is no sense of the left-wing sensibilities present in the film, and more extensively in the TV show.
The film rights to the book were bought by a hollywood producer named Ingo Preminger. Ring Lardner Jr was hired to write a screenplay, and Robert Altman brought in to direct. The path from book to film happened rapidly, and without any massive success on the part of the novel2. It had a small budget, and low expectations. By all accounts the film was lucky to have been made at all.
Altman was yet to become established as a director, and he was said to have been the 18th director approached to make the film3. Preminger later claimed that if he had seen Altman’s previous work he wouldn’t have hired him. Donald Sutherland and Elliot Gould, playing two of the main characters, were upset with Altman’s direction of the movie as an ensemble piece, and tried to have him fired. When early cuts of the film came in, executives were horrified by what they saw. Ring Lardner Jr claimed his script had been ruined and only took solo writing credit under protest. Nobody seemed to know quite what to make of the film.
Altman’s unconventional use of sound and dialogue is on full display in MASH. The opening dialogue between Henry and Radar (both talking over the top of one another, Radar pre-empting everything Henry tells him) sets the tone for the rest of the film, and we roll from there. Hawkeye and Duke’s introduction to the other members of the surgical team is basically impossible to understand. Six people are talking at once, the camera not focused on anybody in particular. This is how the film works; long dialogue heavy scenes, a rambling, episodic narrative. It’s structure, or lack thereof, is actually quite true to the book.
The tone of the film is established early. Hawkeye steals a jeep, he and Duke hit on the nurses, and Ho-John, being taught to read the bible by Frank Burns, is given a girly mag. From there we cut straight to the middle of the operating room, gloved and gowned, covered with blood. Altman mixes the comedy right in next to the matter-of-fact life and death realities. Part way through an operation Duke pulls Dago Red, the chaplain away from performing the last rites, asking him to hold a retractor. “I’m sorry Dago but this man is alive and that other man is dead and that’s a fact.” Seeing poor Dago inexpertly trying to help the surgeons is funny, and yet right alongside them is the patient who didn’t make it. The movie is fast and sharp, particularly early on.
The cast are uniformly excellent. Altman handles the ensemble with aplomb, and everybody down to the minor parts are fantastic. Donald Sutherland, Elliot Gould and Tom Skerrit appear to be having the time of their lives as the three ‘lead’ characters, Sally Kellerman gradually wins our sympathy as Hot Lips, and Robert Duvall is superb as the overbearing ‘sky pilot’ Frank Burns. The camaraderie between the characters, particularly the leads, is unmistakable, and the film owes much of it’s success to their natural interactions. While a handful of elements for the characters are taken straight from the novel (“Finest kind”), for the most part they are brought to life purely through the actors.
The film is more pointed than the novel in it’s depiction of army life and logic. In the novel when Hot Lips asks how a degenerate anti-authoritarian like Hawkeye managed to rise to his high position, he simply tells her that if he knew the answer he wouldn’t be there. In the film Dago Red answers for him and is more succinct: “He was drafted.” During an operation on a Korean casualty a nurse warns Trapper “That man is a prisoner of war, doctor.” Without missing a beat Trapper replies “So are you sweetheart, but you don’t know it.” The novel, conceived and begun years before the Vietnam war, had no political point to make. The film, while perhaps not overtly anti-war, certainly struck a chord at the time. A strong reaction against the Vietnam war was in full flight, and MASH’s mockery of the army’s values and tradition fit right in4.
Not all of MASH ages well. There is a strong hint of sexism around the film, with the women, aside from the despised Hot Lips, mainly being bit players. The one black character is nicknamed ‘Spearchucker’, admittedly for his exploits with the javelin, but it is still somewhat jarring. Waldowski’s attempt at suicide comes about through his ‘discovering’ that he is gay. (“I’m a fairy. A victim of latent homosexuality.”) Waldowski’s suicide can be seen as aimed more towards his own homophobia than at actually being gay, but his ‘cure’, having a woman sent to administer to him, jars somewhat in today’s political climate. Parts of the film do seem dated, but it’s never mean, delivering more of a good-natured ribbing.
These qualms aside though, MASH is an incredibly funny movie. It’s well paced, the characters are great, the direction, and particularly the sound, is fantastic. It’s a genuine laugh-out-loud film, taking the best parts of the book, tweaking them, and giving them to the characters to do their best. The football game, Walt’s funeral, the golf trip to Japan, the short lived romance between Frank and Hot Lips……..MASH is a great example of a film working as more than the sum of it’s parts. Indeed, anecdotal evidence suggests the parts not only disliked, but were actively working against one another. The film is undoubtedly better than the novel, which is entertaining but unremarkable. The film is an incredible achievement, groundbreaking, influential and still very, very funny.
1Hornberger wrote M*A*S*H Goes to Maine in 1982, again drawing on his own experiences. After that the sequels get more ambitious. M*A*S*H Goes to New Orleans, M*A*S*H Goes to Las Vegas, M*A*S*H Goes to Vienna, M*A*S*H Goes to Moscow, to name just a few. These books were cranked out at a rate of three or four a year, using the Hooker pseudonym but ghostwritten. Sadly, I have been unable to lay hands on any of them. Jump
2It is worth noting that a rival studio was moving ahead with it’s own war-based black comedy at the same time, Paramount’s Catch-22. Based on a much more successful novel and with a much larger budget, Catch-22 failed to match MASH at the box office. It was initially expected to be a big success, potentially influencing Preminger to make a ‘similar’ war-based black comedy. Jump
3I was unable to confirm the figure, but the eighteenth choice seems excessive. Still, there is no doubt it was a thankless task. Altman’s son famously made more money for writing the lyrics to ‘Suicide is painless’ (The opening song in MASH) than his father made directing the movie. Jump
4The movie also had other targets. According to the New York Times it was the first American movie to openly ridicule belief in god. Major Frank Burns with his incessant praying is the obvious target, but Dago Red, the bumbling chaplain, is equally ridiculous. Not to mention the ‘suicide’ of Walt Waldowski, a mock-up of the last supper, complete with a blessing from the priest. Jump
We are currently seeking Film contributors on WhatCulture. To find out more about the perks of being a Film contributor, click here.