Among plenty of other achievements, MASH is (allegedly) the first major studio film to make use of the word “fuck”. While not necessarily a proven fact depending on your definition of “major studio”, the employment of the word is the perfect illustration of the important and innovative way MASH used dialogue. A large portion of Robert Altman’s filmography is made up of movies that are filled to the brim with sharp wit and fast banter, and MASH is arguably the finest example.
Donald Sutherland stars as Hawkeye Pierce, surgeon in the U.S. Army during the Korean War, prankster and goofball extraordinaire. Hawkeye, along with cohorts that include characters played by Tom Skerritt and Elliot Gould, is a lover of all things mischievous and manages to cause trouble even when he is blissfully unaware of doing so. This is war, of course, so people lose good friends and die themselves during the endless futilities of battle – in a Catch-22 sort of way, MASH uses its relentless humor as a way to illustrate this futility in highly satirical fashion, with Hawkeye and Co. essentially laughing in the face of meaningless death because what else can you do? In a Catch-22 sort of way, it works like a charm.
The Donald Sutherland-Tom Skerritt-Elliott Gould contingent fits flawlessly into this satire, although off-screen things were much less amicable. Sutherland and Altman did not get along, and eventually Gould joined in the fracas too. Ultimately, though, MASH might be one more bit of proof that personal friction can often lead to great art, and so with that in mind we can successfully ignore all of that celeb gossip.
As I always say: let’s bring the conversation back to “fuck”. You’d be forgiven for assuming that the majority of the dialogue in MASH was ad-libbed or improvised, as it’s a talented cast that seem to be firing off one-liners that could only be captured in a spur-of-the-moment roll of the cameras. Surprisingly, 90% of the dialogue appears in the script, written there plain as day. Screenwriter Ring Lardner, Jr. would be awarded an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay for MASH, but he reportedly distanced himself from the project in the years following. The reason for this might be Altman’s tendency to be extremely controlling with regards to scripts. It’s fairly obvious when viewing MASH alongside Altman’s other works that the film was written by him, or at the very least edited heavily by the director, as so many of his signature-style quips appear throughout.
That’s not to say that Altman discouraged going off-script, and indeed “fuck” made it into the film not because someone read it and memorized it and performed it but simply because someone spit the word out when it felt right. That balance of written and improvised is a delicate one, but it’s always handled with care with Altman through his meticulousness from start to finish. For example, a smaller Altman signature (mentioned in our review of Countdown) is the punchline-followed-by-immediate-cut, which is used to dizzying effect throughout MASH. “I wonder how a degenerated person like that could have reached a position of responsibility in the Army Medical Corps”, Major O’Houlihan asks of Sutherland’s Hawkeye. “He was drafted,” someone says, and before the last syllable is out of his mouth the next scene is playing. This seems like editing room stuff, which it partly is, but that razor-sharp clip, the incredible pacing the film achieves once those cuts start to stack up and blend with the multilayered dialogue – that’s all Altman.
The television version of MASH (or M*A*S*H, for purists) took off and is possibly more popular today than the film. But it’s the film that inspired a whole slew of war comedies and allowed that “war is insane” mentality into American cinema. Even in the bleakness of a war epic like Apocalypse Now, there’s a little bit of MASH to be found lurking beneath the death and madness. Few films can lay claim to influencing an entire genre in the way MASH influenced the American war film.