M*A*S*H (1970) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski) and Tuna

Scoop's comments in white:

I suppose that M*A*S*H is one of the most underrated movies in history. Oh, it weighs in at 7.8 at IMDb, and is rated number 220 of all time. Those are impressive numbers, but they are not impressive enough.

How many other movies meet all of the following qualifications?

  • Nominated as Best Picture.
  • Was considered a great entertainment picture in its own time.
  • Spoke deeply to its own time. (M*A*S*H articulated the anti-establishment ideas of the counter-culture, both in its anarchic ideas and in its deliberately unslick technique.)
  • Is still an "easy watch" and a great entertainment picture 30 years after it was made.
  • Still speaks deeply to a new generation. (It appeals to a youthful, idealistic anti-authoritarian audience, even though the Vietnam war is long forgotten.)
  • People of all ages and cultural backgrounds can watch it and enjoy it
  • It is important in the history of cinema. (Altman was a stylistic revolutionary in at least two important ways. He was the first major director to use overlapping sound with multiple simultaneous conversations. His was the first big studio movie to deliberately grime up the look of the film with fog lenses and zoom lenses. But those were only the important things. He created some kind of landmark or milestone in almost every scene.)
  • Important in the development of the media. (It was not only a powerful movie, but spurred the development of perhaps the most popular TV series in history.)
  • A great box office success.

 

I sort of hate those "best of all time" discussions, because there is no room for comparison between films like Duck Soup, Casablanca, The Godfather Saga, The Sweet Hereafter, Lord of the Rings, A Clockwork Orange, and M*A*S*H. How the hell do you compare them? I guess there is no single "best".

But I'll tell you what. If you say M*A*S*H is it, I don't have a counter-argument. It is as historically important and technically innovative as Citizen Kane (#5). It is as beloved in its own time and beyond its own time as Casablanca (#7). It created as big a media empire as Star Wars (#8). It is a great comic entertainment with profound thoughts, like Duck Soup (#87, and underrated, as comedies always are.)

You tell me. What the hell else is there? Plus those movies mentioned above only did ONE of the things mentioned. M*A*S*H fits not one of those criteria, but all of them.

With all of that, plus the loudspeaker announcements and hit parade songs in Japanese, this is truly deserving of the term masterpiece, and it probably belongs in the top 10 of all time, not mired at #220. On the strength of this film alone, I have spent 30 years watching every single film from Altman, sometimes disappointed, but always anticipating the next one.

By the way, it also has a few great human interest stories. Here are two to whet your appetite.

  • Most people don't realize that it is based on a true story - a book written by Richard Hooker about his own experiences as an army surgeon in Korea. He, the real-life Hawkeye Pierce, must be the most famous person that nobody ever heard of, if such a thing is possible.
  • It was adapted to a screenplay by the legendary Ring Lardner Jr. This script won Lardner the Oscar for best adapted screenplay, and he said in his speech that he planned to win another one in another 28 years. What's the significance? The son of the famous humorist Ring Lardner, Lardner Jr. was one of the greatest writers of the 1940's, and won a best screenplay Oscar in 1942. His career was blooming until he refused to cooperate with the witch-hunts of the House Un-American Activities Committee and became one of the so-called Hollywood Ten. Lardner actually spent a year in prison for contempt, and then was blacklisted until the mid '60s. His M*A*S*H screenplay was his great comeback. Given that his father was a great humorist and he had plenty of reason to hate the establishment, it probably should be no surprise that M*A*S*H still stands as the ultimate act of sweet satirical revenge.

On a side note - Tuna told me that Altman notes in his commentary that this film was the first major studio picture to sneak a "fuck" past the censors. I didn't hear that, but Altman makes no comments about the two cases when "fuck" was overdubbed. ("Hot Lips, resign your fucking commission" was overdubbed to "god damn". And the general's deprecatory "you mean Hot Lips? Fuck her" was overdubbed to "screw her") 

By the way - has any director been as clever at presenting the credits as Altman. In this case, he did it in the form of one of those ubiquitous loudspeaker announcements. If I remember right, Brewster McCloud used a carny barker!

I didn't watch all the documentaries, but there are two disks packed with material.

NUDITY REPORT

included in Tuna's comments (in yellow)

Tuna's comments in yellow:

M*A*S*H (1970) is being released for the first time in a special DVD set to commemorate the 30th anniversary. The two DVD set includes commentary, stills, and several featurettes, but the real highlight is finally seeing Robert Altman's classic on DVD. The exposure. of course, is from Sally Kellerman as "Hot Lips O'Houlihan." She shows a little upskirt getting out of a helicopter, breasts as she opens her blouse in Major Burns' tent, then is nude in the famous scene where they pull up the shower tent, exposing her.

DVD info from Amazon.

Commentary by director Robert Altman
2 Disc Set
AMC "Backstory" Behind-The-Scenes Featurette
Still Gallery
"Enlisted: The Story of M*A*S*H" - New Documentary
"M*A*S*H: History Through the Lens" - Background Documentary
30th Anniversary M*A*S*H Cast Reunion
Film Restoration Featurette
Easter Egg
Widescreen anamorphic format, 2.35:1 -Altman himself supervised the transfer

Kellerman was not thrilled about doing nudity, and was on the floor before the tent was up enough to see her on the first take. For the second take, Altman dropped his pants, and stood in front of the tent. When the tent was raised and she saw him naked, she froze for a second she was so startled,  then dove for the floor. This was the take used in the film. Altman took the project for $75,000.00, because he believed that it was a wonderful script, and that he could make a film that expressed his anti-establishment and anti-war views.

Altman felt that he had a chance to sneak the film he wanted to make through Fox if he stayed out of site. They were busy with Patton and Tora Tora Tora, so he hid on the back lot, and tried not to make any noise. He purposely didn't mention Korea anywhere in the film, hoping the audience would assume Vietnam. The studio forced him to add some scrolling text at the beginning mentioning Korea because Vietnam was far too controversial for them. Most of the actual film was the result of improv, although the improv happened during rehearsals, not on camera. The original script was written by previously blacklisted Ring Lardner Jr. Altman's son Michael came to the producer with a song he had written, and the producer decided to use it as the theme. Although Michael would have let them use it in exchange for a new guitar, they gave him a full contract with royalties, residuals, etc. He made a great deal more money on "Suicide is Painless" than his father did for making the entire film.

Even if you hate comedy, or war films, or Altman's work, you will probably enjoy this.

The Critics Vote

  • Consensus: four stars. Maltin 4/4, BBC 5/5

The People Vote ...

  • With their votes ... IMDB summary: IMDb voters score it 7.8 (top 250 of all time) 
  • Made for $3 million it grossed $81 million. heaven knows how much profit it made as a national institution on television.
IMDb guideline: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence, about like three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, about like two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, about like two stars from the critics. Films under five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film, equivalent to about one and a half stars from the critics or less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well.

Based on this description, this film is an A from both of us. You know that we are not afraid to challenge the movie gods when they think a movie is hot stuff, but in this case, the movie IS hot stuff.

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