Stanley Kubrick. Sidney Lumet. George Roy Hill. According to film critic Daniel O’Brien, these Hollywood luminaries were among a dirty dozen or so who all turned down the opportunity to direct a film adaptation of Richard Hooker’s comic novel about the shenanigans at a mobile Army surgical hospital during the Korean War. Many personal and idiosyncratic reasons may have been at play in the decisions of these directors to say no…although the most likely contributing factor in all cases was probably the fact that MASH would be opening in movie theaters roughly around the same time as the movie version of a similarly absurdly comic anti-war novel, Catch-22. The sticking point being that Catch-22 was one of the defining novels of the 1960s while Hooker’s MASH would not make any significant register on the countercultural revolution until after the film had made it famous.
Robert Altman finally landed the unenviable task of going head to head with the anti-war that defined the Vietnam War generation and proceeded to make a film that defined a movie generation as much as Catch-22 had defined a literary generation. MASH was also a huge box office hit—the only real blockbuster in Altman’s long and legendary career—that far outperformed its more famous competitor and, as a result a budget five times less, it was ultimately a much more profitable film than Catch-22. A critical hit as well as a commercial hit, MASH won an Oscar for its screenplay and was named the best comedy movie of the year at the Golden Globes. MASH also leaped from the number 56 spot to the number 54 spot on the two American Film Institute lists of the 100 greatest American films of the first hundred years of movies released in 1998 and 2007. On the AFI’s list of the 100 funniest movies, MASH landed squarely in the top 10 by taking the 7 position. In addition, the movie’s theme song, “Suicide is Painless” was named AFI’s 66th greatest movie tune.
Much of the surprising success of the film adaptation of MASH is likely due to the fact that while screenwriter Ring Lardner, Jr. and director Robert Altman decided to maintain the novel’s Korean War setting from the previous decade, the overall philosophical outlook makes it feel much more like it is set in the Vietnam War currently taking place when the film was released. Since Vietnam is far more similar to Korean than Italy, this transference of the anti-war countercultural sentiment in vogue at the time was far easier to pull off in MASH than in Catch-22. In addition, Altman’s trademark signature style of overlapping dialogue featuring an ensemble cast of characters rather than focusing on one or two stars enhanced the overall thematic atmosphere of a community of people being so trapped within an absurd world not of their own making that the only possible response to the random violence taking place around them was dark humor. In this way, the 4077th Mobile Surgical Army Hospital located in Korea in the 1950s becomes a microcosm of America at the end of the 1960s.