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The Sane Exercise to Keep Fit

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“In a mad world, only the mad are sane.”

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Akira Kurosawa

“What this picture is about — and it keeps getting more clear to me all the time — is the insanity.”

Robert Altman

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MASH was not Richard Nixon’s favorite war film of 1970. Of the four highest grossing war films released domestically in 1970 at the height of the Vietnam War — Paramount’s satirical Catch-22 and Fox’s trio of MASH and the more conventional Tora! Tora! Tora! and Patton — the recently-minted war president’s personal favorite was by far Franklin Schaffner’s biopic of World War II general and fellow Californian George S. Patton. Mark Feeney, in Nixon at the Movies, suggests that Patton, with his “macho, swaggering, impulsive” qualities, was a “Nixonian beau ideal: an example to aspire to, even if not a model to live by.”

A large cohort of America, of course, had a different pick. The low budget subversive antiwar comedy MASH, which “Fox thought would just play in drive-ins,” grossed an astonishing $36.7 million that year — just over $200 million in 2008 dollars — and came in as the third highest grossing film of 1970, just behind Love Story and Airport. The vaunted studio pictures Patton and Tora! Tora! Tora!, both made with budgets which dwarfed that of MASH, pulled more meager returns: in contrast to Fox’s unexpected 13x return on their $3.5 million MASH investment, the President’s favorite flick, while still successful as the fourth highest grossing film of the year, returned somewhat more than twice what the studio put into it; Tora! Tora! Tora! was an unmitigated flop. Meanwhile, Catch-22, that other subversive antimilitary war comedy released in 1970 — the one with the bigger cast, the bigger budget, the more prominent source novel, and the established director who had achieved counterculture cinema success — was as well a flop, barely pulling in as much as its budget. Robert Altman, commenting in 2004 on the MASH-Catch-22 affair with classic braggadocio, remarked, “It didn’t surprise me, because I thought that was the way it should be… I even had a sign up in my office: We’ve Caught 22!”

Patton, with its curious relationship to the apparently masculinity-obsessed Nixon , offers an interesting vantage point from which to begin contemplating MASH. Compared to MASH, Patton was a more conventional studio film, one which received much more attention from studio executives than Altman’s “under-the-radar” production. In fact, Altman reported that after studio executives had seen the grittiness of the dailies for MASH, they began to insist to Patton’s director Frank Schaffner, “This doesn’t look dirty or real enough!” Moreover, MASH was a starkly vulgar post-Hays black comedy, one which featured a previously unheard of level of irreverent depictions and discussions of nudity, drug use, surgery, adultery, profanity, sexuality, and homosexuality. Patton, meanwhile, included no very salacious content to speak of, receiving a PG rating. In contrast to MASH’s inclusion of the word “fuck” — the first non-X-rated domestic studio film to have the honor of doing so — Patton’s opening monologue features some bowdlerized dialogue, in which the word “fornicating” awkwardly rears its head.

Feeney argues that Patton, like MASH, featured a somewhat subversive bent towards war and authority, thus rendering that militarist authoritarian Nixon’s love of the film deeply ironic. He writes that Patton offered something to both hawks and doves, and that the character of George Patton, pitched as a rebel and a rule-breaker, “hated authority as much as the longhairs did — more actually, since those in charge stood in the way of his being final authority.” In comparing Patton and MASH directly, Feeney states:

With something for everyone in the audience, Patton was part of an even larger balancing act, belligerent yin to the irreverent yang of another wildly popular war picture also released that year by Fox, M*A*S*H. The irony is that Scott’s Patton makes Elliott Gould’s Trapper John and Donald Sutherland’s Hawkeye seem models of restraint by comparison.

Is this really the case? Were these binge-drinking, womanizing, openly insubordinate draftee surgeons really models of restraint in contrast to the decorated general, either in fiction or in reality? Was Patton’s vaguely rebellious stance towards military bureaucracy at all comparable to MASH’s open loathing for militarism and the social functions which support it? Perhaps if it were a matter of historical record that George S. Patton had conspired to sexually humiliate a female Major multiple times or had ever blackmailed a Colonel by drugging him and photographing him unclothed with a prostitute, Feeney’s broad comparison would make a better argument (unfortunately, we can only speculate).

Perhaps in the course of this discussion it is unfair to continuing harping on one author’s offhand comparison. It is, however, quite salient that the broad and profoundly subversive moral stances of MASH and its doctor heroes — positions which fly in opposition to social mores, to faith, to patriotism, to militarism — render the film an incomparably more potent rebellion against authority than Patton. Patton, despite Feeney’s suggestion of the film holding anti-authority overtones, was at its heart a sanitary, patriotic war film — one you go see with either your mother or your president. It was a film whose hero seemed at times contemplative of the senseless violence of warfare, yet nevertheless declared while watching a gruesome battle unfold, “God help me, I do love it so.”

What follows is neither a longer comparison between MASH and Patton nor a longer discourse on the 37th President’s taste in cinema. Instead, what follows is a focused excursion into the starkly rebellious nature of MASH, and a dissertation about the complex social relationships among faith, sexuality, militarism, social order, art, and culture suggested by this film. The ironies and contradictions of MASH — a film about war without war, a comedy that capitalizes on tragedy, a mobile army hospital that never moves, and a fiction of violence repeated nearly verbatim on the nightly news both then and now — are reflective of the bitter ironies of 1960s America as viewed by Robert Altman and his crew. I submit that the proper lens for viewing America’s long engagement in Vietnam is not through the binoculars of the general so admired by the president, but instead through Altman’s steady zoom: focusing, yet destabilizing; inviting intimacy, yet constantly reminding one of a profound distance.

***

The rudiments of MASH came from the firsthand experiences of H. Richard Hornberger, a Cornell Medical School graduate whose service with the 8055th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital unit in Korea provided the background for his darkly comic 1968 work MASH: A Novel about Three Army Doctors. Here, Hornberger, whose work was published under the pen name “Richard Hooker,” sketched most of the characters and episodes which would find their way into Altman’s film: the torment of Frank Burns, Trapper and Hawkeye’s Japan excursion, the Painless Pole’s “Last Supper,” Ho-Jon’s conscription, the football game, etc.

In 1969 the galleys for Hornberger’s novel ended up in the hands of Ring Lardner, Jr. Lardner, who in the 1940s had been a successful Oscar-winning screenwriter and unabashed leftist, wound up one of the Hollywood Ten. Convicted of contempt of Congress and consequently blacklisted, Lardner went fifteen years between screen credits until receiving acknowledgement for his work on The Cincinnati Kid in 1965.

Lardner sent a copy of the script to Ingo Preminger, director Otto Preminger’s brother, who then had a producing deal with Fox Studios. Preminger and Lardner successfully pitched the film to Richard Zanuck and David Brown, heads of Fox production. Lardner wrote the script, and the duo proceeded to find a suitable director.

Preminger and Lardner looked for young directorial talent who would be capable of “properly” handling the film’s controversial subject matter and language, and as well would be able to attract star actors. While the script was received warmly by a number of those contacted, some fifteen potential directors turned the project down. Mike Nichols, Arthur Penn, and Stanley Kubrick were busy with Catch-22, Little Big Man, and A Clockwork Orange respectively; Franklin Schaffner was of course busy with Patton; George Roy Hill and Paul Newman were working on Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid; Bob Rafelson was busy filming Five Easy Pieces; Sidney Lumet as well said no. It was only when, by some bit of chance, an idiosyncratic 44-year-old TV director and WWII veteran whose only experience directing a real studio film had ended in turmoil found himself with a copy of the script and the time to film it that the MASH team found its leader.

***

Robert Bernard Altman was born on July 20, 1925 into a well-to-do Kansas City family. While surrounded by the despair of the Great Depression, Altman’s family nevertheless maintained their suburban affluence in a prosperous area of town. Raised a Catholic, the young Altman was a regular churchgoer who constantly tried to duck out of Sunday Mass: “My mother kept saying, ‘Oh, Bobby, when you get into the war, you’ll need to turn to your religion.’ And when I got into the army, that was the last year I went to church in my life.” Altman left public school during his junior year to join the Wentworth Military Academy, where he achieved a junior college degree. In 1945, at the age of nineteen, Altman quit pursuing higher education and enlisted in the Air Force with the dream of becoming a fighter pilot.

Altman underwent training in Riverside, California, where the teenager developed a fascination with Hollywood society. In March of 1945, Altman with his fellow crew members flew to the island of Morotai in the Dutch East Indies, where they spent the remainder of the war engaged in bombing missions over the Southern Philippines with the aim of clearing out remaining Japanese installations.

Altman’s behavior during the war may have included hints towards his future attitudes towards film directing, especially with respect to his conviviality, his sense of egality, his resistance to studio authority, and his collaborative manner of operation. McGilligan describes the young officer’s attitude as “cavalier,” and suggests this attitude “is carried over into the skepticism and cynicism of the film and television work that dissects the military code.” Moreover, Altman “preferred to fraternize with the enlisted men. He would remove his insignia in order to visit the island’s NCO facility, which had the added attraction of Aussie enlisted women.” Contrast this impulse with Altman’s declaration, regarding the casting of MASH, that “I went through the script and gave names to all these characters I wanted and put one or two lines in for each of them… I’d done this in television before, when I would give six people one line each in order to have extras whom I could talk to.” (Thompson explains via endnote that “Normally, only an assistant director can address extras on a movie set.” )

Moreover, Altman’s propensity for drinking and socialization during the period of downtime he enjoyed during the war seems to link up with the director’s management style, particularly with respect to MASH. McGilligan mentions the “night-long beach parties with the nurses from the Australian hospital unit,” the “awesome poker games,” and the “plenty of booze and cigarettes and socialization” : “In the end, the partylike MASH may be the most autobiographical of his combat zone depictions.” This certainly jibes with the leisurely, convivial atmosphere among Altman and his actors during the filming of MASH: “[A]t nightly get-togethers, everybody got ‘squiffed’ and made egalitarian comments about the rushes,” writes McGilligan. Regarding the film’s production, AMC’s Backstory reports, “the actors started bunking down in tents around the set, and inhibitions began running wild.” Tom Skeritt, the actor who plays Duke in the film, said in an interview for Backstory, “It was a very crazy camp, it was a very mad set. Robert Altman allowed us to be foolish and carry on.”

Altman’s career in the entertainment industry began when he learned filmmaking at the Calvin Company in Kansas City. Here, the incipient director created his first works: mainly industrial films for Calvin, but also some unsuccessful local features, such as 1956’s The Delinquents, a teen exploitation film imitative of Blackboard Jungle, which was nonetheless a modest success. It was at this time that Altman went to Hollywood, where Alfred Hitchcock, impressed by The Delinquents, tapped the 31-year-old to direct two episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Altman thus began a decade-long TV career, which included episodes of action shows such as Combat!, Bonanza, and The Whirlybirds, a “bottom-of-the-barrel” TV series described by TV Guide as “A Western with helicopters.” Altman’s TV career was marked both by frequent sparring with TV executives over his unconventional style and by his pursuit of creative autonomy, which he described as auteurism. Altman’s TV experience, particularly with respect to the low-rent Whirlybirds, taught him a lesson which he would later utilize in the filming of MASH: that working on a project with a low budget and low studio interest offered an intentioned director a great deal of autonomy.

It was during Altman’s TV career that he met agent George Litto, who for a time provided representation for the upstart director. Litto had a very cavalier, antiauthority attitude of his own, taking on controversial clients such as the blacklisted Lardner. Altman directed two features before MASH: the 1968 Warner Brothers space race film Countdown, the ending of which was changed by studio executives, and the 1969 independent feature That Cold Day in the Park, a surreal sexual thriller which Altman considered to be his “first” true film because of the level of directorial control which he exerted over it. By 1969, Altman had been working for five years on a World War I flying film, The Chicken and the Hawk, which Altman says never progressed very far in the production process due to his lack of credentials and the expense required in making the film. It was at this time that Altman received a copy of Lardner’s MASH script through Litto, read it, and loved it.

Altman was, however, not exactly in the running for director. Yet Litto recognized what a great fit Altman was for the feature: “The same unorthodox line, the caustic, biting, sardonic humor, outrageous humor, black comedy. I knew Bob understood this, liked this and wanted to do this.” As the rejections from potential directors piled up, Litto proceeded to screen for Lardner and Preminger That Cold Day in the Park to illustrate Altman’s “talent and art” capacities, as well as some of Altman’s earlier comic shorts to show off Altman’s “wild sense of humor.” After one meeting, Altman was brought on board.

Fox, while dubious about Altman’s directorial capacities, was willing to accept the decision, albeit at a severe pay cut. Litto’s original package for Altman — a salary of $100,000 and 5 per cent of the film’s profits — was cut to $75,000 and zero points. Litto told Altman, “They don’t want you. If you tell them you don’t accept the deal, they’ll be the happiest studio in town today. You really want to fuck them? Take the deal.” He did. Regarding Altman’s lack of bargaining power, Preminger remarked decades later in an interview for Enlisted: The Story of MASH, “I had a director who was not able to give me any conditions, because he was the one whom I hired, and he was like a pussycat. I’m sure he’ll never again be as nice and pliable as he was with me.”

***

In reality, Altman wasn’t quite as pliable as Preminger suggests with respect to the casting of the film. Before Altman signed on, Preminger cast Donald Sutherland, an out-of-work actor who had appeared in The Dirty Dozen (1967), as surgeon Hawkeye Pierce, one of the three main roles of the film. When Altman came aboard, he first tried to get Sutherland fired; later, he tried to reduce Sutherland’s billing. Preminger also brought in Elliott Gould, who had received an Oscar nomination for his role in the hit counterculture film Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice. Gould was originally slated to play “Duke” Forrest, Hawkeye’s womanizing friend, but the actor had misgivings about affecting a Southern accent; he received the ultimately larger part of “Trapper John” McIntyre, the third subversive surgeon. The role of Duke was filled by Tom Skerritt, who had appeared in a television pilot directed by Altman and considered him a mentor during the 60s.

Rounding out the starring cast: Sally Kellerman, who initially wanted the role of Lt. Dish, was instead given the bigger role of “Hot Lips” O’Houlihan , the chief nurse, after one meeting with Altman; Robert Duvall, who had played Boo Radley in To Kill A Mockingbird (1962) and was one of the bigger names on the set, played the hypocritical zealot Frank Burns; Roger Bowen, an unknown actor, played the camp’s commanding officer Henry Blake; Rene Auberjonois, who had had some experience in theater but was as well an unknown, played the camp chaplain, Father Mulcahy; and David Arkin, who initially had a limited role as Sgt. Vollmer, became one of the most pivotal voices in the film — that of the camp’s ubiquitous P.A. system.

One of the more interesting aspects of the actual credits of MASH is the long list of actors billed with “introducing”: JoAnn Pflug (Lt. Dish), Gary Burghoff (Radar O’Reilly), John Schuck (“Painless Pole,” the well-endowed dentist), Bud Cort (the baby-faced Pvt. Boone), Kim Atwood (Ho-Jon, the houseboy), Timothy Brown (the anesthesiologist “Me Lay” Marston), and pro footballer Michael Murphy (“Spearchucker” Jones). In all, “fourteen of the twenty-eight speaking roles belonged to actors to actors making their motion-picture debuts.”

This glut of fresh faces and small roles was no accident. As stated earlier, Altman had a propensity for larger casts, and he used the opportunity provided by MASH to expand upon this tendency first exhibited, albeit in a limited fashion, during his television career. “I went up to San Francisco, where there was a lot of Theater of the Absurd going on and you could see twenty-five people interacting on stage. I hired about twenty actors for MASH, many of whom had never been in a movie before… So I went through the script and gave names to all these characters I wanted and put one or two lines in for each of them.” Moreover, the film’s limited budget necessitated the use of unknowns and lesser-knowns.

In the filming of MASH, Altman gave very limited direction to his actors. “I don’t understand acting, by which I mean I don’t understand how they do it… Burt Lancaster in Buffalo Bill said afterwards, ‘Altman didn’t give me any directions.’ … That’s not what I do. I try to create an atmosphere where these actors can stretch into it.” The free-flowing nature of the MASH production — on a set in remote Malibu Creek State Park where actors not involved in the scene at hand would “play touch football, poker, one o’ cat, wade in the stream, and pick wildflowers” — allowed for a great deal of spontaneity and improvisation on the part of the actors. Some of the film’s more memorable moments — such as Father Mulcahy blessing a jeep and the Painless Pole telling the opposing player (played by a very real, and very large pro football player) in the scrimmage line “your fuckin’ head is coming right off” — were invented on the fly during filming. Altman so delighted in these inventions that he later fought successfully to have the historic profanity included in the film’s final cut. For his part, Altman himself invented the Last Supper tableau and came up with the idea of Radar talking over Col. Blake’s lines very spontaneously on the set.

The egalitarian atmosphere of the set and Altman’s lack of direction caused difficulties for the film’s two biggest names, Sutherland and Gould. The duo, fed up with Altman, unsuccessfully tried to have him fired. The drama threatened to sink MASH’s tiny, unorthodox production, which Altman was attempting to “sneak through” past Fox executives more concerned with big budget pictures Patton and Tora! Tora! Tora! contemporaneously being filmed. Ultimately, Litto and Preminger successfully secured peace on the set. Gould later remarked on the affair: “It was like Bob had his whole family together — except for me and Donald, who were separate. He was hurt and offended, which I didn’t understand.” After finding out about the attempted coup from Gould some time after the production, Altman said that if he had known, he would have quit. Such was Altman’s creative respect for the actors he didn’t quite understand.

In the editing process, Altman made a number of important decisions that ultimately influenced the film’s unique comic pacing. It was in the editing studio that Altman meticulously shuffled the film’s sound, composing MASH’s unique overlapping dialogue and balance of non-diegetic sound. The film’s fast-paced humor is partially a result of Altman’s insertion of quick cuts in the middle of lines of dialogue, usually the reactions of comic straight men — essentially, dead weight. Notably, Altman added a loudspeaker because he felt the film needed something for segues.

It was out of this freewheeling, isolated little world in hilly Southern California that Altman and his crew together put MASH together, on schedule and under budget. From this novel and rather slapdash production process — involving the creative minds of over two dozen people, a lineage traveling from Hornberger to Lardner to Altman to his actors, then back to Altman — emanated this wildly successful and influential wartime attack on a plethora of American social, cultural, and political values.

***

Structurally, MASH is a series of vignettes centered on the experiences of Capt. Hawkeye Pierce in the 4077th MASH unit in Korea. The inciting incident of the film is Pierce’s arrival; the film ends with his departure. Yet there is exists, at face value, no conventional plotline which unifies the events depicted in the film. Pierce, with his surgeon friends “Trapper John” McIntyre and “Duke” Forrest (both of whom also arrive and depart within the scope of the film), engage in an aimless series of disparate “zany antics” incited by external events (such as Trapper John’s orders to go to Japan) or their own capacity for mischief (such as when the gang conspires to have Hot Lips, the uptight head nurse, humiliated in the shower). There is simply no overarching, unifying plot to MASH: the audience is simply given bits and pieces of a broader story of these doctors attempting to maintain their sanity through the application of their jocular and uniquely subversive dispositions. The surgeons drink, they golf, they gamble, they prank, and somehow they find time for surgery. Then, one day, they are told that they can go home, and so they leave.

In my estimation, MASH can best be divided into six distinct episodes, each more or less featuring its own miniature, unified plot: (1) the “Frank Burns sequence,” in which Hawkeye, Duke, and Trapper arrive and consequently conspire to get the incompetent surgeon Maj. Burns removed; (2) the “Painless Pole/Last Supper sequence,” in which the trio helps the camp’s suicidal dentist; (3) “Margaret’s humiliation/Ho-Jon’s conscription,” a rather interstitial, fragmented series of events in which Hot Lips is humiliated and Hawkeye’s Korean houseboy-cum-bartender is drafted; (4) the “Japan sequence,” where Trapper and Hawkeye go to Japan on a special assignment; (5) the “Football sequence,” where the MASH unit conspires to win a large sum of money in a football game against the Army team; and (6) the “end sequence,” a brief series of scenes describing the departure of cast at the war’s end.

Mirroring the fragmented structure of the film, the moral and political message of MASH is itself is a broad pastiche of acute social criticism — that is, criticism of militarism, of nationalism, of faith, of bureaucracy, of greed, of racism, of repressive social mores, of hypocrisy, and of propaganda — held together by the basic relationship between each individual social aspect and war. The film’s criticism of, for instance, religion is entirely focused on the role of religion in promoting or fostering human conflict. Similarly, the film’s criticism of greed is predicated on both explicit and implicit suggestions of war profiteering (as well as Hawkeye’s subversion of the idea of petty theft as he steals a jeep for no real material benefit of his own).

All of these attitudes and institutions that are targets of MASH’s satire are not merely figures of the turbulent political atmosphere of the 1960s. Instead, Altman’s social critique is a timeless one, one which exists beyond any single conflict. MASH is a film based on a book about the Korean War and modeled by a WWII veteran to attack the causes and functions of the ongoing Vietnam War. There are no actual references to Korea in the film, with the exception of the opening scrawl — added at the behest of studio executives who were balked at the idea of pitching a blatant or even ambiguous attack on the Vietnam War. Yet this was Altman’s blatant political intention:

  • to attack the callous attitudes of political and military leaders who blithely conduct warfare seemingly without serious concern for the casualties involved and without candor towards the public;
  • to attack the fervid, all-consuming jingoism which conflates patriotism with unquestioning assent for military expeditions and fosters an obsession with military practices;
  • to attack the conservative institutions of religion which implicitly supports conflict through the commingling of faith and patriotism;
  • to attack a bloated and dysfunctional military bureaucracy, one which places the singular concept of order above all else;
  • to attack a broad range of repressive and outmoded social mores regarding sexuality, profanity, and vice — all rendered inane in the backdrop of death and psychological turmoil on the front lines;
  • to attack the pervasive hypocrisy of those who are guilty of propagating these institutions and social myths;
  • and to attack media — specifically propagandistic Hollywood cinema — which serve to glamorize and otherwise misrepresent the nature of war.

The three military conflicts mentioned above — as well as the relevant social politics of the 1960s — compose the antecedents and the frame of reference for MASH. Indeed, it was in the backdrop of the Vietnam War and the social upheaval of the 1960s that the film found its staggering success. Yet Altman’s forward-looking political message resonates past any single conflict or any particular decade; MASH postulates basic, universal human tendencies which foster nationalistic violence. In essence, MASH is not a film about one specific conflict, whether Vietnam or Korea; on the contrary, it is a piercing vision, rooted in the zeitgeist of 1960s society, of the institutions and social constructs which foster conflict and obfuscate the reality of war. MASH is a film which hails the social revolution of the 1960s as potential saviors of a militaristic American society riddled with corrupt institutions and speaks to a young, radically liberal generation in affirming their suspicions about the hypocrisies and the fallacies of those in charge. It is a film that visually and thematically subverts cinematic conventions in the service of subverting social conventions. And it is a film that legitimizes the faithlessness, the sexual liberation, the vice, and the profound cynicism of this new generation through the constant affirmation that the antidote to a society gone mad is insanity.

***

“I shall go to Korea.”

– Dwight D. Eisenhower,1952

“The first priority foreign policy objective of our next Administration will be to bring an honorable end to the war in Vietnam.”

– Richard M. Nixon, 1968

Perhaps Richard Nixon’s vague and entirely untruthful campaign promise of securing an honorable peace in Vietnam was running through when Altman’s head when he chose the two quotes that scroll across the screen as Hawkeye is introduced (at the insistence of studio executives who demanded an explicit mention of Korea), one by Douglas MacArthur, the other a version of the Eisenhower quote above. Perhaps Nixon’s bald-faced lie — in 1970, a few months after the release of MASH, Nixon actually extended the war into Cambodia — seemed to echo the more truthful pledge made by his erstwhile boss. In November 1952, President-elect Eisenhower indeed physically went to Korea, ultimately securing an armistice with the North Koreans just a few months into his administration — barely three years after the start of the war. By contrast, Nixon inherited a far less popular war going on its tenth year.

Besides the none-too-subtle comparison between Eisenhower and Nixon, the historicity of the quote casts an ironic light on the film. Hawkeye arrives in Korea, to work against his will in the war effort, as Eisenhower insists that he too will arrive, albeit to secure peace. It thus characterizes Hawkeye as a supporter (or perhaps harbinger) of peace and places this film about events during the Korean War in the interesting situation of being introduced with the events leading to the conflict’s end. As well, the Eisenhower quote establishes the sheer transience of the film’s world: temporary relationships which will end when the characters return home and a mobile encampment in a foreign land that can (and will eventually) be taken down in just a few hours’ time.

The pervasive transience of the film’s milieu eliminates the significance of the military conflict which serves as the film’s backdrop. Indeed, one of the pivotal contradictions of MASH is that it is essentially a war film without war; therefore, the film’s basis entirely subverts the traditional premise of a war film. No battles are depicted in MASH despite the unceasing flow of graphic, bloody casualties into a military hospital just “three miles from the front line.” Moreover, no gunshots are heard over the course of the entire film, except for the two which are fired from the referee’s pistol during the football sequence.

This contradiction is entirely on display during the film’s opening credit sequence, in which medical helicopters float ethereally around the Korean hillside, prominently displaying the bloodied, injured soldiers they carry. The opening theme is a folk song with an upbeat melody juxtaposed with mordant lyrics and a perverse message: “Suicide is Painless.” In this very first sequence, the audience is prepared for the dark, subversive tenor of the film. The juxtaposition of military wounded with a song extolling the virtues of suicide blatantly challenges the social narrative of heroism in war and honor in dying in combat. Moreover, while helicopters as a military implement first gained widespread use during the Korean War, in 1970 they were much more reminiscent of combat in Vietnam, where the dense jungles of Southeast Asia and remoteness of villages necessitated the widespread deployment of combat helicopters. This sequence thus served as a blunt reminder of the grim, asymmetrical warfare transpiring overseas against a resilient enemy scattered across exotic terrain. Additionally, within the film, the helicopter sequence serves to establish the remoteness of the MASH unit itself, as the broad, panoramic shots of the dirty, green-hued camp surrounded by the wooded hillside place the entire film in a singular, isolated location. The distance between the war and the medical unit is another significant aspect established here; these helicopters become in the film a presence signaling the arrival of gravely wounded soldiers from an unseen and unheard conflict.

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