Through early morning fog I see
Visions of the things to be
The pains that are withheld for me
I realize and I can see
That suicide is painless
It brings on many changes
And I can take or leave it if I please
- ‘Suicide Is Painless’, theme to M*A*S*H
I heard the best movie ever made about Watergate was Chinatown, a noir set about forty years before Richard Nixon’s whirlwind impalement. Alternatively, M*A*S*H, released in 1969 and set in South Korea during the Korean War (1950-53), is really about America’s military involvement in Vietnam, which peaked around 1970.
It’s said that in order to place a reliable perspective on any event, you must achieve distance – perhaps physical, definitely temporal. E.g., while sitting in Parisian cafes, Hemingway wrote some of his best stories about fishing in Michigan. Perspective.
M*A*S*H made director Robert Altman a big shot. It became a template for all his great work that followed. Everything considered ‘Altman-eque’ is here. The film is consistently rated one of the top comedies of all time and it’s an anti-war story.
But everyone had problems with it. The studio was worried about the Vietnam implications and forced Altman to specifically reference Korea. Altman thought the book on which the film was based was lousy and couldn’t be adapted. Stars Donald Sutherland and Elliot Gould tried to get Altman fired because they thought he was out of control. And screenwriter Ringer Larder, Jr. hated Altman’s treatment of his script so much that he threatened to remove his name from the credits – but then he won an Academy Award so… what the hell.
Yet it doesn’t seem to be about war. It seems to be about a bunch of frat boys goofing off, meeting women, drinking, playing golf, meeting women, and drinking more. There’s only one gun shot in the film, and that’s a starter’s pistol. Perhaps one day a VJ will do a M*A*S*H mash-up with Animal House – because there are disturbing – or perhaps comforting – similarities.
Audiences of the time expressed a collective WTF – and it killed at the box office. It was like nothing that had come before. The Altman Era had begun.
M*A*S*H is up there with Easy Rider and Bonny and Clyde for being among the rarefied, anointed game changers. Its slip-shod narrative was, in fact, carefully constructed, it’s seemingly shot-on-the-run docu feel – all carefully planned. As Life magazine once said of Peter Sellers, it’s takes a genius for us to accept the veracity of the fake over the fiction of the original. Perfect.
Altman made the world of M*A*S*H real, seductive, repellant, sophomoric and solemnly mature. He made the blood-drenched tents of a military field operating hospital somehow hallowed, like billowing temples, an expression of willpower and endurance, filled with jesters and death, creating love among the ruins.
He was always a lot more talented than he ever let on.