The Vietnam War Movie That Wasn't


When it comes to American movies about the Vietnam War, you are bound to be aware of some of the best and most famous. The obvious examples are The Deer Hunter (1978), Apocalypse Now (1979), Platoon (1986) and Full Metal Jacket (1987). But there was one other film, from the new wave Hollywood era, that beat all of those to the starting gate. Although it was ostensibly a Korean War movie, MASH (1970) was, at its heart, a critique on the Vietnam War. The year was 1970, a time when that war was still in progress and the studios were far too nervous to put out any movies related to it. Thus, a Korean War movie was a perfect cover.

‘MASH: A Novel About Three Army Doctors’, written by Richard Hooker (nom-de-plume), was a book based on his recollections and experiences of his time as a medical officer during the Korean War. Robert Altman’s movie uses MASH as a device, a framework upon which he hangs an attack on America’s involvement in Vietnam through the caustic wit of those Korean War army doctors who flagrantly disregard any mainstream views that accept a moral stance for war.

MASH was irreverent, subversive black comedy and its attack on Vietnam was a real risk at the time. The story revolves around three army doctors who go by the nicknames Hawkeye (Donald Sutherland), Trapper (Elliot Gould) and Duke (Tom Skerrit). These are draft men who are stuck in a war that they do not support. They drink, they womanize, and they know how to tell people to “go to hell”. Their antitheses are Major Frank Burns (Robert Duval), a pious and pompous control freak, and Chief Nurse, Major Margaret ‘Hot Lips’ Houlihan (Sally Kellerman), a woman who likes to see army rules as a guide to good living. As far as those three army doctors are concerned, it’s very clear there’s little sympathy for the moralizing of Burns or the military platitudes provided by Houlihan.

MASH, as a movie, could be described as ground-breaking, trendsetting, novel or unique -you can choose. The setting is a narrowly confined space, often inside a tent, and the techniques employed -overlapping dialogue, improvisation, mixed activities, ensembles and fogged lenses -at times give the mise-en-scene an air of intimate theatre, or naturalism. Forget the standard ‘shot-reverse-shot’ of two people speaking, MASH provides a milieu of characters all acting and speaking, at once.

MASH was the first major movie to be directed by Robert Altman and it was clear from the start that he was going to go his own way. It might have been a gamble, but his fearless and single-minded direction broke new ground and it paid off. It also changed the landscape for other directors who wanted to break the conventions of Hollywood cinema, and its influence lives on today.

The overlapping-dialogue technique was not completely new; it was used as early as Citizen Kane (1941). But the way it was employed, with more frequency and intensity than earlier movies, made a difference. This, mixed with some improvisation, provides an air of realism. You’re given the sort of dialogue you would expect from the rapport of sharp-witted doctors.  Hawkeye, Trapper and Duke are smart men who can bounce ideas around each other -and off other people- faster than a ping-pong ball, and they don’t suffer fools very well.

More realism is added in the surgical scenes. Blood of varying hues was used, which is the case in nature, and technical advice was sought from real surgeons. When not in surgery, the staff uniforms are often dirty, their language is dirty, and all this blood and guts and dirt left the studio chiefs questioning the quality of this film. The studio’s chief editor thought it would never make it out of the can and Robert Altman said of MASH: “This film wasn’t released…it escaped”.

Not only do you hear people talking at cross purposes, people also pass across the scene, sometimes obstructing your view of the speaker(s). All of this adds to the realism. It’s as though the camera isn’t there or wasn’t invited. It’s reminiscent of a fly-on-the wall documentary, and the dialogue, with its crude references to tits, ass and drinking, adds to the conviction. MASH has the dubious claim of being the first mainstream movie to use the word ‘fuck’. Meantime, due to the jumble of words, people and events, as the viewer you’re working hard to keep up, just as you would if you were really standing there, filming in a wartime surgical tent.

When seen in today’s context, MASH might have pitfalls. Hawkeye and Trapper are a pair of privileged bullies with an air of elitism and, add to that, a good measure of sexism. There is a scene in the film where they take Major Houlihan down a few notches by exposing her to the entire ensemble whilst she is totally naked, taking a shower. This should be viewed within its zeitgeist. It is the norm for cultural references to become dated; satire dates, and what was once acceptable humour is no longer on par. The great auteurs of the past, Altman among them, are in danger of becoming relegated simply because their histories do not stand up to todays’ scrutiny. But in its own time, MASH was counterculture at its best and demonstrated another side to apple pie America at a time when people needed it most.

To give you an example, with just a shrug or a raised eyebrow, Hawkeye and Trapper brushed away any moral indignation, whether it was on racism, sex, homosexuality or the unjustifiable brutality of war. This was no mean feat at the time and Altman deserves credit for that achievement. In one scene, Capt. ‘Painless’ Waldowski, the camp dentist, admits to Hawkeye that he is a ‘fairy’, which, instead of causing a major reaction, only gets the hint of a wry smile. In another, Trapper and Hawkeye push Duke off his seat when he suggests a ‘negroe’ colleague can’t sleep in their shared tent. Both scenes were daring in their day.

MASH was made on a budget of little over $3 Million and over time returned $81.6 Million. To give an idea how popular this movie was, it played continuously for one year straight, following its release in a Vancouver theatre. It won the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 1970 and was nominated for five academy awards, of which it won one: Best Adapted Screenplay.

One worthy side-note to MASH is that its major contract stars tried to get Robert Altman fired from the movie; luckily that didn’t happen. They didn’t believe the movie was going to work and they were upset because most of the scenes were ensemble, often including extras, and didn’t focus enough on them as the main actors. Altman said had he known, he would have resigned. He never spoke to Donald Sutherland after that, but he did patch things up with Elliot Gould and work with him again.

If you’re ever watching Vietnam War movies, don’t exclude MASH, because then you’re experiencing time and place.

Stephen Vega

August 2019