The most obvious influence of director Robert Altman upon material that existed in book form before the movie and in TV sitcom land as a result of the movie becomes almost immediately apparent to the first-time viewer from the opening scenes. The madness, the unpredictability, the confusion and the chaos of war—even from the perspective a mobile surgical hospital mere miles from the front line where the battle rages—is given metaphorical symbolism through the exchange of dialogue.
Overlapping dialogue had been successfully utilized in films before, most pervasively throughout the film noir genre characterized and given form by its short, staccato effect by fast-talking hardboiled characters. Never had so many characters engaged in so many different conversations going on at the same time a conventional, non-experimental film as MASH, however. So unconventional was Altman’s insistence upon the nature of discourse engaged under such high pressure conditions reflecting the horrifying disorder and chaotic subliminal awareness of operating under those conditions that some of the actors complained to producers that Altman’s style was going to result in an incoherent mess.
Another person unhappy with overlapping dialogue—specifically the need for an increased occurrence of improvisational discourse—was the screenwriter, Ring Lardner, Jr. Ironically, Lardner would take home the film’s only Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay, a win which moved Lardner to remark that he won an award for writing a movie in which not a single line he wrote was actually heard on screen.
Altman’s career following MASH would be one in which overlapping dialogue would become a trademark of his signature. While the success of the technique varied widely—usually dependent upon how important the theme of chaos and the sense of confusion was to the narrative—what finally resulted on screen proved Altman was really onto something. While many filmmakers have tried to replicate the extent to which Altman engaged multiple conversations going on at the same time in MASH, none have yet managed to replicate its success.
A version of MASH in which the dialogue is standard, conventional statement-response would significantly change the entire tenor and remove it of the powerful way it simulates the order found within disorder in all its myriad varieties.