While Robert Altman made M*A*S*H as a sort of antidote to two other war films that his production company was making at the time (Patton and Tora! Tora! Tora!), I actually see it as the antidote to my recent viewing of The Bridge on the River Kwai. Here, rules and ethics are sidelined for common sense and a thirst for living. Whereas Col. Nicholson in Kwai was revered for his conviction to law and faith, his counterpart in chief surgeon Major Frank Burns (Robert Duvall) is the butt of jokes. The characters understand that Burns’ position is based on tenure, not necessarily skill, and his hard-nosed conviction to ethics comes across as pompous.
The band of hoodlums that rebel against authority figures are led by Trapper John (Elliot Gould) and Hawkeye (Donald Sutherland) – the two are skilled surgeons who attempt to deal with the reality of war with humor. Duvall’s character attempts to force a level of solemnity to their surroundings. In a way, Trapper and Hawkeye contend with reality by trying to step away from it – they don’t want to get bogged down by Burns’ ethics and religiosity. What comes out of it are a series of humorous diversions, wherein the two embrace a vicarious lifestyle.
Typical Altman qualities litter the film – overlaying voices, foggy visual elements, frank depictions of gruesome activities (the surgeries here are surprisingly explicit), varied tonal shifts, etc. It’s not quite as refined as some of his other films, what with some odd comic choices here and there (the football sequence runs a bit long), but ultimately, M*A*S*H highlights how a master was beginning to refine his skill. If there’s one disappointment to come out of this film, it’s that Donald Sutherland, who managed to steal a few scenes from the impeccable Elliot Gould, never starred in another Altman film afterward.