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The release in 1970 of Robert Altman's M.A.S.H. provoked a warning from the Commanding Officer of Fort Knox that we should not see the movie. Penalties for doing so were not described. We were aware that criticism of the Army or of U. S. involvement in Viet Nam could have unpleasant consequences such as immediate assignment to that theater of conflict. Since the film obviously would never reach the cinemas on the base, my wife and I drove to Louisville to see the movie soon after its opening. In the ticket line we recognized several other members of the Fort Knox medical contingent. None of us suffered any consequences.
Back then the movie was startlingly different, filmed in a style that would define Robert Altman's subsequent work. Several characters spoke at the same time so that fragments of one conversation would quickly be displaced or blend with others. Despite multiple simultaneous speakers, the sense of the narrative could be easily followed in much the same way that we can decipher conversation in any setting of multiple speakers. The blending of off-hand dialog against horrific settings was new to American cinema as was the off-the-wall disparagement of organized religion.
Movie critics were wowed. Letter-writers to nearby papers lambasted the movie as anti-patriotic and blasphemous. Those of us who had seen M.A.S.H. agreed that we had never seen anything even remotely similar in all the years of our viewing movies. Those of us who were drawn to read the novel, M.A.S.H., found the movie a decided improvement.
M.A.S.H. remained one of those movies etched into my memory. I had not viewed it again until June 11th when the AMC cable channel presented it with a subscript of commentary and brief interludes of reminiscences by some of the cast. Robert Altman was fortunate indeed that Fox Studios did not cancel the project or refuse to release the film. Altman's penchant for improvisational dialog unnerved some of his actors and alienated Ring Lardner, Jr., the scriptwriter. Shooting took six weeks on a movie lot near Los Angeles. The movie cost $3.5 million to make.
Upon reviewing the movie, I realized that its message was timeless. Although situated in the Korean War, M.A.S.H. is equally applicable to subsequent U.S. wars in Viet Nam and Iraq. The preposterous nature of some of the movie's episodes simply highlight the preposterous nature of war itself. Having seen and savored most of the other films of Robert Altman over the years, I understood better on this viewing the techniques and tactics employed in M.A.S.H.
The black humor of the movie remains fresh. Eliciting laughter in bizarre and even grim circumstances highlights absurdities and contradictions in real-life events. While the camera in the operating tent scanned one bloody surgery after another, the doctors and nurses joked and spoke of events far removed from the trauma at hand. The contrast actually made the injuries seem more poignant. The humor represented a necessary coping mechanism of a treatment team exposed to a steady diet of battlefield casualties.
The movie's handling of religion reflects Altman's contempt for the military's hijacking of religious practice. "Official" religion in the Army of my time was represented by the chaplains who had to offer spiritual comfort without challenging the mission of the military. The presiding chaplain at the only religious service that I attended on-base at Fort Knox praised U. S. policy for confronting evil. Altman highlights in M.A.S.H. the conflict between religion as a doctrine of peace and religion that has been co-opted to endorse the warring ways of an army. In the movie, the familiar tableau of the Last Supper as painted by Leonardo De Vinci is appropriated in an over-the-top episode dealing with the impotence of the unit's dentist. The subtext is that true religion is timeless, nonsectarian, demanding of submission to its tenets. False religion is simply another division or branch of a manmade enterprise, whether that is a military unit or political party.
Regular Army members come off poorly in the movie. Out of touch with their subordinates who are draftees, the career officers follow empty protocols and feather their professional nests. The heroes belong to the counter culture, placing the needs of the individual above the demands of military regulations.
The "enemy" are never seen in M.A.S.H. The enemy is obviously the force that leads to deaths and injuries. War is as mindless as the football game between the M.A.S.H. unit and the staff of the evacuation hospital near the movie's end.
A longtime fan of war movies, I do not know of another American film that is so powerfully anti-war. Dr. Strangelove comes close. M.A.S.H. is as fresh, entertaining, and provocative today as it was in 1970. It remains in my personal "top ten" movie list.