Set in the 1950s during the midst of the Korean War, Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H* (1970) is a comedic drama take on war that, in a sense, sets up its balance of the horrific and the comedic, the dramatic and the humorously macabre, from the opening credits, during which Johnny Mandel’s “Suicide is Painless” plays on the soundtrack. This suggestion that what is in some ways the most horrific possible act can be cast under and disregarded as “painless” goes right to the heart, in a way, of what M*A*S*H*’s sense of humor is all about – finding the sometimes grotesque laughter behind the everyday pain and misery.
Altman’s filmmaking style is roving, rambling, audacious and brilliant. Technically beginning with M*A*S*H*, the American auteur’s unique style spanned the rest of his career. Not content to follow one through-line or carefully structured plot, Altman is instead drawn to the messiness of life (his influence can be seen in the work of filmmakers such as Paul Thomas Anderson, John Sayles and Jonathan Demme, as well as their British counterparts Mike Leigh, Ken Loach and Michael Winterbottom, among many others). With a mobile camera, carefully constructed soundtracks and an eye for detail in character moments, Altman manages to follow an ensemble cast of talented actors and actresses through a labyrinth of his own devising, never sticking strictly even to Ring Lardner, Jr.’s Oscar-winning screenplay.
The overall ensemble cast of M*A*S*H* may be one of the better ones Altman has constructed (this from the man behind such ambitious epics as Nashville, Short Cuts and Gosford Park). From the iconic roles of Hawkeye Pierce (Donald Sutherland) and Trapper John McIntyre (Elliott Gould) to the likes of John Schuck as “Painless” Waldowski, the suicidal dentist who is the title song’s namesake, Altman manages to fill his frames with intelligent and quite terrific actors coupled with an acute attention to detail.
My personal favorite actor in the film might have to be Elliott Gould as Trapper John. A heavyset, aging, bearded hippy with a penchant for martinis, women and golf, Trapper John seems more like the Hawkeye character as portrayed by Alan Alda on the 1970s-80s TV series (which Altman is reputed to have hated).
My least favorite actor in the film (and it’s difficult because they’re all quite good in their own ways), might have to be the amazing Robert Duvall as Major Frank Burns. In a sense, it’s not his fault. As big a fan as I have been of Robert Altman’s work, I’ve been an avid viewer of the TV series even longer, and so I grew up (in a sense) watching Larry Linville’s portrayal of Frank Burns on television for such a long time. He plays Frank quite correctly as a tongue-in-cheek buffoon while Duvall, consummate and serious professional that he is (coming off both Altman’s Countdown in 1968 and Francis Ford Coppola’s The Rain People in 1969 as he did) portrays Burns as a fiercely principled and religious hypocrite, a zealot breaking the very commandments he seems to believe in as he carries on a torrid camp affair with “Hot Lips” O’Houlihan (Sally Kellerman).