On Jan. 25, 1970, Robert Altman’s R-rated M*A*S*H premiered in New York, breaking a single-day house record at the time for the Baronet Theatre with $6,660 in receipts. The film earned five nominations at the 43rd Academy Awards, winning one for its screenplay. The Hollywood Reporter’s original review is below.
M*A*S*H, Ingo Preminger’s debut production for 20th-Fox, is the finest American comedy since Some Like It Hot, the Mr. Roberts of the Korean War, The Graduate of 1970, and the film that has been expected from director Robert Altman for some short time. It stars 28 of the freshest, funniest comic improvisers around, recruited from San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theatre, The Committee, Second City, the Charlie Brown Company, Canadian Television and the Gridiron.
The picture will make a fortune, most of it profit, since the company had no need to travel to Korea when it could use Calabasas, no urge to construct a $3 million recreation of Japan when a Fox alleyway was all that was needed to give setting to the crucial ingredient, a superior script by Ring Lardner Jr., adapted from the novel by Richard Hooker.
M*A*S*H is irreverent of many things: war, sex, bureaucracy, military decorum, but never of the unquenchable spirit of its people, who work with the Mobile Army Surgical Hospital near the front lines of the Korean War and acknowledge therefore that they, too, are prisoners of war in a sense.
While the point of the comedy requires that much of it be played against some gory backgrounds of emergency field surgery, only a negligible portion of the potential audience is apt to be offended. Nor, in context, will the language of M*A*S*H greatly offend, though at its most commercially groundbreaking, it includes such lines as “Schmuck!” and “All right, Bud, your fuckin’ head is coming right off!”
Word of mouth for the film should take about three days to build, though the public has a sense which clues it the first day. M*A*S*H was previewed in San Francisco during the latest international film festival and for a day or so eclipsed discussion of all other local film activity.
Altman and Lardner sustain their outrageous, relieving comedy and a sense of the grimmer time and place and job being done by resorting to wild caricature in many of the roles. It is no more than that reduction which takes place when servicemen recall the more improbable anecdotes and personalities of their own tours of service. Additionally, this bold line cartooning allows for the greatest exposure and comic exploitation of the large and talented cast.
If one could stop laughing long enough, he would have to admit that the overly pious, the officious, the prudish among the film’s company of surgical workers fall victims to some very cruel jokes, but that is as natural to the comedy as it is to the survival of the men and women who perform their jobs with pride and efficiency while desperately striving to maintain their individuality, pleasures and sanity in the constant presence of death. It is a tough, bawdy, bloody comedy, to be sure, and it has to be.
But despite the necessary, and highly productive, use of caricature, M*A*S*H retains an extraordinary sense of actuality through the use of improvisational delivery which gives latitude to a carefully wrought script. It is fresh and spontaneous, plausible at its most logically improbable, thanks to Altman’s superior direction, Lardner’s script, the fine selection of actors and to an omnipresent camera under director of photography Harold E. Stine and operator Bill Mendenhall.
Stine’s cinematography is exceptional and fortuitous, the film having gone through several cinematographers in its early days. Stine may have been third in sequence, but was no compromise in quality.
If Elliott Gould keeps selecting and performing in films the way he has thus far, people may start going to pictures just because he is in them. Sharing the greatest footage with Gould as a fellow surgeon and creative hellraiser is the talented Canadian actor Donald Sutherland in his best performance to date. As the frigidly military head nurse, who turns out to be a quick thaw, Sally Kellerman looks as if she had stepped off a 1945 Coca Cola billboard and gives a performance which will at last bring this comedienne the attention she has long been due. As “the best equipped dentist in the Army,” who reasons that his balling score is merely a cover for latent homosexuality and is cured in an achingly funny restaging of the Last Supper, ACT’s John Shuck makes a sharp screen debut.
Tom Skerritt, as the third of the surgical trio; Rene Auberjonois, as the young Catholic chaplain; Charlie Brown‘s Gary Burghoff, who maintains a comic public address commentary and broadcasts the ruttings of Miss Kellerman throughout the compound; Robert Duvall, as the neurotic surgeon whose cue to pounce Miss Kellerman is “God’s will be done”; and Jo Ann Pflug, as the sexy lieutenant who relives battleline tensions and cures Shuck of his imagined perversion, all score impressively and importantly to the flow of laughter.
Roger Bowen, as the commander of the unit, is delightfully two-dimensional, as far from the regular Army concept of rank as the smooth operation of his unit will allow. Michael Murphy, who tends to the needs of a combination orphans home and brothel in Japan; G. Wood, as the general who rigs a football game with pro ringers only to find himself outringered by the MASH team; Fred Williamson, as the MASH ringer; J.B. Douglas, as a bluster commander of a Japanese hospital; and Bobby Troup also shine. Kim Atwood, Carl Gottlieb, Tamara Horrocks, David Artkin, Yoko Young, Bud Cort, Indus Arthur, Dawne Damon, Danny Goldman, Corey Fischer, Tim Brown and Ken Prymus complete an outstanding cast. The less said now about the separate episodes they ignite, the greater your enjoyment.
Johnny Mandel’s score, brightly orchestrated by Herbert Spencer, is perfect, highly allusive, supporting the comedy and, when appropriate, adding its own measure. Augmenting that score and the gentle sacrilege of the Last Supper sequence is the song, “Suicide Is Painless,” with a clever lyric by Mike Altman, very nicely sung by former Young American Ken Prymus. Send up a cheer for Danford B. Greene’s editing. — John Mahoney, originally published Jan. 20, 1970