Cast & Crew
During the Korean War, Col. Henry Blake commands the 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital (MASH), only miles from the front line. A lax military leader, the married Blake is more concerned with his lover and running the hospital than following any military protocol. Meanwhile, his right-hand man, Corp. "Radar" O'Reilly, who has an uncanny ability to recite Blake's every command before he can utter it, manages the necessary bureaucratic red tape. In crowded and bloody operating tents, the short-handed staff, equipped with rapidly diminishing supplies, deals with dozens of wounded soldiers in twelve-hour shifts. Even the sincere yet ineffective Father John Mulcahey, also known as "Dago Red," must stop reading the last rights to a dying man to assist in surgery. Upon Blake's request for additional help, surgeons Duke Forrest and Hawkeye Pierce are sent to the 4077th. While extremely competent, the recently drafted Duke and Hawkeye lack any respect for military decorum. To maintain their sanity amidst the constant flow of death and mayhem, they flirt with the nurses, arrogantly quip in surgery and play practical jokes on their roommate, the fanatically pious and taciturn Maj. Frank Burns. After watching Burns teach Korean mess hall boy Ho-jon to learn English by reading the Bible out loud, Duke and Hawkeye decide the sixteen-year-old would have more fun practicing with Playboy and then teach him how to make martinis as their cabin boy. Fed up with Burns' pious and humorless behavior, Duke and Hawkeye demand that Blake remove him from their tent. Pressured by the impending arrival of more wounded, Blake agrees to remove Burns and to get a "chest cutter," the doctors' other stipulation before they concede to operating. Days later, Hawkeye and Duke welcome thoracic surgeon and new roommate Trapper John McIntyre to The Swamp, their newly renamed tent. Trapper easily wins the men's affection by providing hard-to-get olives for their martinis, but coyly eludes their questions about his past. Days later, Hawkeye finally recognizes Trapper as a former college football star when Trapper expertly catches a football pass, and also realizes Trapper is a preeminent surgeon. The two then become fast friends. One day at the hospital, Trapper watches as Burns, covering for his own malpractice, blames a patient's death on Private Boone, who is stricken with despair over the incident. Furious about the irreparable harm Burns inflicts with his inept work, Trapper punches him just as Blake and the officious new chief nurse Major Margaret Houlihan pass by. Houlihan is incensed by the lack of decorum and further insulted by Hawkeye's practice of addressing the staff by their first names. After she insists to Hawkeye that Burns is an excellent military doctor, he caustically replies that not only is he no longer interested in sleeping with the prudish Houlihan, but thinks she is a "regular Army clown." One night as Houlihan and Burns draft a letter to protest Hawkeye and Trapper's behavior, they are sexually aroused by their mutual respect for military law. Meanwhile, Radar sets up a microphone in Houlihan's tent and broadcasts their passionate cries over the camp intercom system until the horrified couple realizes that the entire camp is listening in. The next morning Duke and the others taunt Houlihan with her new nickname "Hot Lips" and provoke Burns with questions about his sexual acts. When Burns physically attacks Hawkeye, Blake, believing the fight to be unprovoked, sends Burns away in a straight jacket. Days later, dental officer Capt. Waldowski, famous for sexual prowess and thus nicknamed "Painless Pole," admits to Hawkeye that he has experienced one night of impotence. Believing psychological texts suggesting that his overt heterosexuality is just a cover for latent homosexuality, Painless decides to commit suicide to avoid facing his three fiancées back home. When Painless asks for assistance, Hawkeye suggests the "black capsule," a quick end to his life. Dressed in white lab coats, the surgeons and friends prepare a suicide "last supper" in which they break bread and drink wine with Painless, before he climbs into a coffin to take his pill and die. That night, Hawkeye convinces the soon-to-be-discharged Lt. Dish, a married nurse with whom he has been having an affair, that she is obliged to have sex with the now-unconscious Painless to restore his "health." The next morning, Painless wakes fully restored, while Dish leaves for home blissfully satisfied by Painless. Days later, the surgeons decide to bet on whether Houlihan is a "real" blonde and, needing proof, gather the camp outside the women's shower and pull up the tent while Houlihan bathes. Humiliated and enraged, Houlihan demands that Blake fire Hawkeye and the others, threatening to resign her commission, but Blake instead suggests that she resign. Later, when Ho-jon is forced to have a medical examination to determine his eligibility to serve in the Korean army, Hawkeye gives him medication to cause temporary heart acceleration and low blood pressure to ensure that he is rejected. Suspecting the ruse, the Korean doctor keeps the boy as Hawkeye watches powerless to stop him. Soon after, Trapper receives orders to go to Kokura, Japan to tend to a United States congressman's son and takes Hawkeye with him. Arriving at the Kokura hospital with their golf clubs, Hawkeye and Trapper demand to start the operation immediately so they can play a round before dark, despite the head nurses' protests that they must first have commanding officer Col. Merrill's approval. When Merrill barges into the operating without scrubs demanding an explanation, Hawkeye tells him that he will be to blame if the boy dies from infection caused by Merrill's unsterilized intrusion. During surgery, anesthesiologist "Me-Lay" Marston, Hawkeye's old friend, invites them to visit a brothel after surgery, explaining that the establishment doubles as a children's hospital, where Me-Lay moonlights for surgeries. While being entertained by the prostitutes, an emergency arises involving a child of an American soldier and Japanese prostitute. Hawkeye and Trapper take the child to the military hospital, but Merrill refuses to serve "natives." To prevent any military action against themselves or the child, Melay and the surgeons use the sedation gas on Merrill and take compromising photographs of him with a prostitute to use as blackmail. Returning to 4077th in their golf attire, complete with knickers and argyle socks, Hawkeye and Trapper go straight into surgery. Later, when Gen. Hammond arrives at the camp to investigate Houlihan's formal complaints about the surgeons, Hawkeye, Duke and Trapper, aware of Hammond's football obsession, distract him with the suggestion that they stage a football match between Hammond's 325th and the 4077th, a team that has yet to be created. Hammond agrees on the condition that Blake place a $5,000 bet on the outcome of the game. Needing a fail safe team fast, the surgeons tell Blake to request surgeon Oliver Harmon "Spearchucker" Jones, once a star player for the Philadelphia Eagles. After several weeks of training, the 4077th team plays Hammond. Hawkeye, realizing that Spearchucker is their only real chance of winning, hides his identity from Hammond and keeps him out of the game until the second half. During the first half, Blake orders a 4077th player to inject a sedative into the opposing team's star player, ensuring his removal from the game. In retaliation for a racial slur from a 325th player, Spearchucker coaches his teammate to insult the player's sister, which results in a fight that leads to another 325th player being banned from the game, thus ensuring the 4077th's victory. Days later back at camp, Hawkeye and Duke receive immediate orders to be relieved of their duty and return home. Unsure of what welcome awaits them, the men prepare to leave, while Mulcahy blesses their Jeep from his prayer book and the war continues on around them.
Jo Ann Pflug
Noland "super Knat" Smith
L. Ortega Smith
Ron Van Hagen
J. B. Douglas
Dr. David Sachs
Van L. Honeycutt
Homer G. Mccready
Eulan R. Poss Jr.
H. Lloyd Nelson
Mary Jean Kuga
Jim "matt" Connors
L. B. Abbott
Norman A. Cook
Leonard A. Engel
Danford B. Greene
Ring Lardner Jr.
Sam E. Levin
Y Ross Levy
Ross A. Maehl
Stuart A. Reiss
Dr. David Sachs
G. Austin Saunders
Walter M. Scott
Jack Martin Smith
Harold E. Stine
Ray Taylor Jr.
Best Writing, Screenplay
Best Supporting Actress
The film did not originate with Altman. Screenwriter Ring Lardner, Jr. discovered the novel, a black comic memoir of life in a mobile army surgical hospital during the Korean War written by Richard Hooker (a pseudonym for H. Richard Hornberger), and he thought it would make a great movie and a possible comeback project after spending years blacklisted by Hollywood for his politics. His agent, George Litto, took the book to Ingo Preminger, a former agent anxious to move into production, and they sold the package to 20th Century Fox. All they needed was a director, but all the big directors they approached turned them down. Litto was also Altman's agent and Altman was very interested, but he couldn't even get a meeting until the A-list filmmakers passed on it.
Ingo Preminger brought in Donald Sutherland and Elliott Gould, rising stars with counterculture credentials, to play the practical-joking doctors Hawkeye Pierce and Duke Forrest. Gould told Altman that, while he could put on a southern accent for Duke, he felt more confident about another role, Trapper John McIntyre, and Altman made the change. Altman then cast the rest of the film with relative unknowns, drawing from old friends and collaborators (Tom Skerritt as Duke, Michael Murphy, Robert Duvall) and actors from the San Francisco theater community (John Schuck, Rene Auberjonois, Bud Cort, Sally Kellerman, and others). The publicity department boasted of fourteen feature film debuts in the twenty eight speaking roles and Altman gave everyone their moment. While Sutherland and Gould were clearly the central characters, Altman made the film an ensemble piece. He filled scenes with minor characters and extras doing extraneous bits of business in the background, much of it improvised and fine-tuned through rehearsals and retakes, and had microphones placed throughout the set to catch everything. "What Bob loved to do was to create a scene that has a lot of density, a lot of levels going on, all these simultaneous conversations and overlaps," explained actor Corey Fischer to Mitchell Zuckoff. "He liked having more than one center to a scene or a shot."
His methods endeared him to the supporting cast but frustrated Sutherland and Gould, the film's nominal stars, who were used to more emphatic direction. "I never understood exactly what he wanted," Sutherland told an interviewer in 1971. Gould, who committed himself completely to the role, clashed with Altman on the set. Litto and Preminger stepped in to cool tensions, though Sutherland never warmed to Altman or his methods. Gould, on the other hand, went on to star in The Long Goodbye (1973) and California Split (1974) for the director. "I think that, in hindsight, Donald and I were two elitist, arrogant actors who really weren't getting his genius," admitted Gould decades later.
Altman decided that a key scene, where the doctors give camp dentist "Painless" Waldowski (John Schuck) a party (staged as a parody of The Last Supper) to stir him from his depression, needed a song. He came up with a title, "Suicide Is Painless," and asked his son, Michael, to write the lyrics. No one thought much of the song, not even Michael or Johnny Mandel, the composer, but it was added to the credits of the film and subsequently turned into the theme song of the TV incarnation. The royalties ultimately added up to millions and Michael made more money from the film than Altman, who had no share in the profits. But in a reflective moment years later, Altman decided "I'm cool about it, because what I got out of it was better than money."
Like the novel, the screenplay is largely a collection of episodes and comic scenes. With no defining story arc, Altman turned the atmosphere and the chaos into the film's through-line. The jagged editing jumps from scene to scene, stitched together with a dense soundtrack of improvised lines, Japanese versions of American pop songs (a suggestion of composer Mandel), and announcements blasting from the PA loudspeakers, which Altman came up with in post-production. "I knew I had to have connective tissue, and that worked," the director later recalled. According to biographer Patrick McGilligan, it was John T. Kelley, a scriptwriter on many of Altman's TV productions, who suggested that Altman use the same loudspeaker narration for the film's memorable end credits.
M*A*S*H bounces between bloody gallows humor in the operating theater and the brutal practical jokes played by the doctors between shifts. Sutherland's Hawkeye Pierce is the closest the film has to a moral center and Elliott Gould is his slightly more anarchic buddy Trapper John, but unlike their TV counterparts, these guys can be downright cruel and misogynistic. In war, Altman suggests, you have to go mad to save your sanity.
The studio was nervous about the unconventional project - the blood, the language, the nudity, and the free-association editing - and wanted a complete overhaul after a private screening of Altman's cut. Litto and Preminger suggested a preview in San Francisco, where the enthusiastic response put the studio's fears to rest. Altman's vision was released to huge profits. It was also the right picture at the right time, a commentary on the madness of war, set in Korea but clearly seen by audiences as a stand-in for Vietnam, featuring characters who don't just defy authority but flaunted their insubordination. The little $3 million picture went on to earn $40 million, as well as the Palm d'Or at Cannes and five Academy Award nominations, and earned a rave review from Pauline Kael, who called it "the best American war comedy since sound came in, and the sanest American movie of recent years."
For all of its acclaim, it took home a single Oscar, for Ring Lardner, Jr. for Best Screenplay. Altman, who was nominated for Best Director but lost to Franklin J. Schaffner (for the much more conventional war film Patton), was less than gracious to Lardner: he publically took credit for rewriting the script. He told The New York Times writer Aljean Harmetz in 1971: "My main contribution to M*A*S*H was the basic concept, the philosophy, the style, the casting, and then making all those things work. Plus all the jokes, of course." The authorship has been a contentious issue through the years, with many of the actors siding with Altman and the producers standing up for Lardner. Altman biographer McGilligan argues that Lardner's script provided the scenes, the structure, and the dialogue, and Altman improvised within the structure, giving the film its distinctive style, flavor, and attitude. What is clear, however, is that the fortuitous meeting of director, script, and supportive producers produced something unique, almost revolutionary, within the studio system, and turned Robert Altman into an overnight success. It only took fifteen years to get there.
By Sean Axmaker
Robert Altman: American Innovator, Judith M. Kass. Popular Library, 1978.
Robert Altman: Jumping Off the Cliff, Patrick McGilligan. St. Martin's Press, 1989.
Robert Altman: The Oral Biography, Mitchell Zuckoff. Alfred A. Knopf, 2009.
"Random Roles: Elliot Gould," interview with Wil Harris. A.V. Club, July 26, 2013.
Robert Altman commentary, M*A*S*H DVD. Fox Home Video, 2002.
Remembering M*A*S*H: The 30th Anniversary Cast and Crew Reunion, M*A*S*H DVD. Fox Home Video, 2002.
Oh my God. They've shot him.- Hotlips O'Houlihan
Hot Lips, you incredible nincompoop. It's the end of the quarter.- Lieutenant Colonel Henry Braymore Blake
Kiss my hot lips.- Hotlips O'Houlihan
I wonder how such a degenerated person ever reached a position of authority in the Army Medical Corps.- Hotlips O'Houlihan
He was drafted.- Father Mulcahy
Hawkeye Pierce? I got a twix from headquarters about you... says you stole a jeep.- Lieutenant Colonel Henry Braymore Blake
No sir, no, I didn't steal it. No, it's right outside.- Hawkeye Pierce
...No. No booze. Sex. I want sex.- Trapper John
That one. The sultry bitch with the fire in her eyes. Bring her to me. Take her clothes off and bring her to me.- Trapper John
The opening title sequence has a text that identifies the place as Korea. This was added at the insistence of the studio after director Robert Altman had removed every reference to Korea intending it to be mistaken for a Vietnam film, which would reinforce the anti-war statement.
Gary Burghoff played the same character ("Radar" O'Reilly) in both the film and television series, "M*A*S*H" (1972).
G. Wood (General Hammond) played the same character in the movie and first three episodes of the TV series.
'Altman, Robert' 's son, Mike Altman, wrote the lyrics to the theme song at age 14 (and reportedly made more money from the movie than his father did as a result).
This film and Catch-22 (1970), two films satirizing recent American wars, were released in the same year. Catch-22, based on a bestselling novel, featuring a huge cast, and boasting director 'Nichols, Mike' fresh from his success with Graduate, The (1967), was expected to be the more successful film. When the reverse proved true, MASH director 'Altman, Robert' hung a banner in his office reading: "Caught-22."
The working title for this film was MASH, without the asterisks between the letters. M*A*S*H, which is an acronym for Mobile Auxiliary Surgical Hospital, opens with a written prologue that includes a section of General Douglas MacArthur's famous 1951 farewell address to the United States Congress after he was relieved of duty in Korea and the quote from Dwight D. Eisenhower, "I will go to Korea," a campaign promise made during his successful bid for president that same year.
The opening title sequence shows a line of helicopters returning from the battlefield to the 4077th MASH unit with wounded soldiers strapped to each side. In the closing credits, the cast's names, rather than being written onscreen, are recited by actor David Arkin as "Sgt. Maj. Volmer" over footage of their respective characters. At the close of the film, Volmer announces that M*A*S*H was that night's film and invites the audience to "follow . . . combat surgeons . . . operating as bombs and bullets burst around them, snatching laughs and loves between amputations and penicillin."
Dr. H. Richard Hornberger wrote the novel MASH, on which the film was based, as a fictional account of his experience as a Korean War Army surgeon. According to a November 24, 1997 People article, Hornberger, who wrote under the pen name Richard Hooker, had conservative, Republican political views that differed greatly from the liberal-leaning film and subsequent television series based on the book.
As noted in a July 12, 1968 Daily Variety article, Twentieth Century-Fox purchased the film rights from Hornberger several months before the book's publication and assigned the film to producer Ingo Preminger, as his first feature film producing effort. Although a July 16, 1968 Hollywood Reporter article noted that Fox signed Ring Lardner, Jr. to write the screenplay, in a documentary included as added content on the 2001 DVD release of the film, Preminger claimed that Lardner had been asked to read the galleys for the book and then presented the idea to him.
By early January 1969, Fox hired Robert Altman as director. After Fox cast rising stars Elliott Gould and Donald Sutherland in March 1969, Altman choose the remaining cast from actors with whom he had worked previously, including Michael Murphy and Tom Skerritt, and from various theater groups, among them, the American Conservatory Theatre and the comedy groups Second City in Chicago and The Committee in San Francisco. The production began on April 14, 1969 at the Twentieth Century-Fox Ranch in Malibu, CA, with the Japanese golfing scene shot at a nearby golf course, and the Kokura, Japan street scenes shot on Fox's back lot.
In the director's commentary included as added content to the DVD, Altman stated that he preferred the ranch's isolated location, which encouraged Fox to concentrate their attentions on their high-budget war films in production at the time, Tora! Tora! Tora! and Patton (see below). Altman thought that by keeping quiet and under budget he would be able to exercise more unrestricted creative freedom to develop the politically charged film. Unlike many war films about World War I and World War II, M*A*S*H did not make specific references to battles or dates in the Korean War, so that the film could be an allegory for America's then current involvement in the Vietnam War.
According to an March 8, 1970 Los Angeles Times article, Altman used a zoom lens and a fog filter to obtain the camp's "dirty" look, an aesthetic which at first displeased the studio. In the February 18, 1970 Los Angeles Times review, Altman noted that the film was shot mostly with a long lens to allow the actors to play one to another, rather than directly to the camera, thus enhancing dialogue authenticity. The director also allowed everyone in the cast to view the film dailies, a practice not regularly allowed by the studio.
The ensemble cast largely improvised dialogue from Lardner's basic script and scene structure. For example, actress Sally Kellerman noted, in a May 22, 1970 Entertainment World article, that the original role written for her character "Hot Lips" contained only a few lines from which she created a main character. Because Fox refused to hire many non-speaking extras, Altman, who wanted a bustling camp atmosphere, was forced to create at least one line for each person who appeared onscreen.
Altman's alterations to the original script and his creation of substantial roles for lesser known actors became points of contention during and after the production. In a July 29, 1997 New York Times letter to the editor, Altman denied Lardner's earlier claims that the director had rewritten the script and thus ruined the film, and explained that the film was an improvisation stemming from Lardner's structure. In the 2001 DVD documentary, Lardner addressed comments he had made throughout the years regarding Altman altering his script, noting that, upon Altman's request, he made rewrites to the script, but the director largely ignored these changes. Also on the DVD documentary, Gould stated that he had made a mistake when, during shooting, he asked the studio to fire Altman. According to an January 18, 2002 Los Angeles Times article, unknown to Altman, Gould and Sutherland had asked Fox to fire the director during production because of his insistence on treating bit players with the same consideration as the stars.
As noted in a July 15, 1979 New York Times article, Altman's trademark layering of various sound components was central to M*A*S*H's chaotic, front-line atmosphere. According to the DVD documentary, Altman conceived of and recorded the frequent loudspeaker announcements during editing to use as transitional devices for the film. The director used overlapping dialogue and punctuated the film with the announcements and an English-language, Japanese radio show broadcast over a loudspeaker. The announcements listed mundane base restrictions and descriptions of the evening film screenings, including military films glorifying war, thus serving to highlight the film's theme of the hypocrisy of saving lives as the war continued to create more victims. The radio station often played songs that ironically underscored the film's plot. For example a Japanese version of the song "My Blue Heaven" is heard during a love scene and the uptempo "Sayonara," which included the lyrics "I knew sometime we'd have to say sayonara" [the Japanese word for goodbye], is heard while "Frank Burns" is being driven away in a straight jacket.
Altman's thirteen-year-old son Michael wrote the lyrics for the film's theme song, "Suicide Is Painless." Although the singers for the opening credits version of the song have not been determined, the ballad version heard during "Painless Pole"'s mock suicide ceremony is performed by actor Ken Prymus as "Private Seidman." Technical advisor Dr. David Sachs helped to create the bloody and authentic front line operations for which the film was both criticized and lauded. Sachs also had a minor role as a surgeon in the film. According to a May 1, 1969 Daily Variety article, a helicopter crash during production at the ranch resulted in injuries to pilot Van L. Honeycutt and stuntmen John Ashby and Eddie Smith, who were portraying injured soldiers strapped to the side of the helicopter. According to the director's commentary, Altman then used this wreckage in subsequent scenes, including a sunbathing sequence near the landing area.
Several National Football League players were featured in the film, including Buck Buchanan, Timothy Brown and Oakland Raiders and Kansas City Chiefs star Fred Williamson, who had previously acted on television but made his motion picture debut in M*A*S*H. Williamson, as "Oliver `Spearkchucker' Jones," leads the 4077th football team to victory. According to a June 12, 1970 Hollywood Reporter news item, ABC Sports director Andy Sidaris sued Fox for failing to credit him for directing the football sequences in the film; however, the outcome of this dispute and the extent of Sidaris' work on the film remains undetermined.
The popular, irreverent black comedy and anti-war film M*A*S*H became the second top grossing film in 1970, earning $22,000,000; however, according to a May 24, 1970 New York Times article, several feminist groups criticized it for portraying women as merely sexual objects to be humiliated or patronized. Altman noted in the DVD director's commentary that he portrayed the misogynistic attitudes because they were the real conditions for females working the military at the time.
According to a March 17, 1970 Hollywood Reporter news item, the United States Army and Air Force banned the film from being screened on service installations because it "reflected unfavorably" on the military. On April 1, 1970, Hollywood Reporter reported that the Defense Department reversed its decision. Modern sources have speculated that the reversal was caused by the fact that many soldiers watched the film off base.
In addition to being ranked 54th on AFI's 100 Years...100 Movies-10th Anniversary Edition list of the greatest American films in 2007, M*A*S*H won an Oscar for Best Screenplay (Lardner) and received the following Academy Award nominations: Best Supporting Actress (Kellerman), Best Directing, Best Film Editing and Best Picture. The film also gained international fame when it won the 1970 International Grand Prix of the Cannes Film Festival.
The film was adapted into the television series M*A*S*H (CBS, September 1972-September 1983), an extremely popular comedy starring Alan Alda as "Hawkeye" and Loretta Switt as "Hot Lips." Gary Berghoff as "Radar" was the only actor from the film to continue with the series. Hawkeye's roommate and co-conspirator "Trapper John," a part originally played by Wayne Rogers on the series, was changed to "B. J. Hunnicut," played by Mike Farrell, after Rogers left the program in 1975. Although still set during the Korean War, the series had an anti-war sentiment initially directed at the Vietnam War, from which American troops were not withdrawn until 1973.
In September 1979, CBS aired the television series Trapper John, M.D., a portrait of the character from the television series working as a chief surgeon at a San Francisco hospital twenty-eight years after his return from Korea. At the close of the television series M*A*S*H in 1983, several cast members, including Harry Morgan as Dr. Sherman Potter, Jamie Farr as "Max Klinger" and William Christopher as "Father Francis Mulcahy," starred in AfterMASH (CBS, September 1983-December 1984), a dramatic series about civilian life in a veteran's hospital after the Korean War. Gould and Sutherland appeared in the 1971 Little Murders, in which Gould starred, and were cast as a comedic team in the 1974 film S*P*Y*S.
Released in United States June 1998
Shown at Nantucket Film Festival (Ring Landner, Jr Tribute) in Nantucket Island, Massachusetts June 16-21, 1998.
Released in United States Winter January 1, 1970
Released in United States February 1970
Released in United States 1996 (Shown in New York City (Film Forum) as part of program "Out of the Seventies: Hollywood's New Wave 1969-1975" May 31 - July 25, 1996.)
Released in United States February 1970
Released in United States 1996
Released in United States Winter January 1, 1970
Released in United States June 1998 (Shown at Nantucket Film Festival (Ring Landner, Jr Tribute) in Nantucket Island, Massachusetts June 16-21, 1998.)