Robert Altman’s MASH comes sugarcoated in associations: with the TV show, with that especially cloying laugh track, with Alan Alda. But to consider how truly provocative the movie was, you only have to compare it with the elephantine war drama playing across town during those same winter weeks in 1970.
Patton is about a misunderstood genius of carnage—and the vindication of the asshole-in-charge. MASH has no battle scenes whatsoever. (It does end in a climactic, zany football game.) Its unkempt characters do everything they can to avoid active duty. Patton reaffirms a bullish hierarchy; MASH, with its irreverent dual protagonists Hawkeye (Sutherland) and Trapper John (Gould), and equally distracted higher-ups, constantly tears authority down. Patton inspired Nixon deeply; he watched it several times in private. MASH was only tangentially about Korea and grossed an astounding $75 million in hearts and minds.
Amazingly, both movies came from the same studio, 20th Century Fox. But Altman’s strategy was to make his stealthily, on the back lot, under budget and ahead of schedule. MASH is the proper beginning of a great directorial career, which up until then had been fairly thwarted. But by throwing out Ring Lardner Jr.’s conventional script and inspiring his ensemble to play, Altman devised an entirely new on-set process that would change American cinema forever.
He’s still ironing out the kinks here technically: The Hawksian sound overlap is muddy, the camera zooming only occasionally expressive. And his misogyny, especially regarding Sally Kellerman’s “Hot Lips,” is inexcusable. But the hard-bitten spirit of camaraderie is something new, earned by troupe and director equally. It’s the first real film of the 1970s.