After months of campaigning, the ever-lengthening awards season draws to a close in January, when the new releases feel like leftovers from the summer. Look at the mediocre debuts of the last few weeks: The Rite, The Dilemma, The Green Hornet.
You can always find exceptions to the rule, even if you have to go far back into history. On January 25, 1970, 20th Century Fox screened MASH at a few theatres in New York, New York. It is surprising Robert Altman’s film even got that far. Fox was heavily campaigning for the upcoming releases of Patton and Tora! Tora! Tora!, weighty affirmations of American patriotism that were to be the real war movies of the year.
Until MASH was in front of its audience, it had always been a hard sell. Richard Hooker (born Hoernberger) wrote and edited the book over eleven years, only to be rejected by everybody except William Morrow. The book was a hit. Fox was interested, though they only paid Hooker a couple hundred bucks for the right.
Neither was there much enthusiasm among filmmakers for the project. Altman was thirteenth in line for the throne. His love of improvisation and overlapping dialogue, his disdain for scripts – these would become his celebrated trademarks. In 1970, everyone on set was wondering what the hell he was doing.
Lead actor Donald Sutherland, worried that reels were being wasted on secondary characters, tried to get Altman fired. In retrospect the attention to ensemble acting is what makes the 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital such a colourful community. Comedy and tragedy mingled over surgery tables of spurting blood, stripping death and the military of sacred status.
MASH cost 4 million to make and expanded from a platform release to make over 80 million, the second highest gross of the year. Although Altman was done with Fox, he now had the credentials to start other projects. In the next few years he made McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971), The Long Goodbye (1973), California Split (1974) and Nashville (1975), the bulk of his legacy.
Media historian Rick Mitz argues the film made dark comedy a staple reflex of mainstream entertainment. Humour is often the only possible reaction to the futility of life, and where can the human condition appear so desperate (and hilarious) as the front line of an inconsequential war? There is little overt reference to Korea, the film’s official setting, and most filmgoers associated Hawkeye and Trapper’s mischief as reactions to the frustrations of the Vietnam War.