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Robert Altman's M*A*S*H

Updated on December 30, 2015

Robert Altman

Director - Screenwriter - Producer
Director - Screenwriter - Producer | Source

The man behind the camera

Robert Altman is the master of fictional realism, his documentary like approach to shooting creates an immersion unlike any other. Altman made his trademark roving camera style ubiquitous to his career, his earliest exercise of it was in his breakthrough film M*A*S*H, this is where verisimilitude comes into play, the improvisation from naturalistic actors and realistic sound managed to create some of the most immersive and characteristic movies ever to hit New Hollywood.

M*A*S*H

Poster
Poster
The shock of reality
The shock of reality
Sitting around, waiting for what?
Sitting around, waiting for what?

Don't show the war

Seeing is believing, but seeing the unseen is to believe what you didn't know you could. Robert Altman seems to show anything but the war, in the anti-war comedy M*A*S*H, which approaches the subject in a unique and unbeaten method that actually antagonises the war more than any Omaha Beach Scene (Saving Private Ryan, 1998) could.

It's obvious to say that the longer the shot the more realistic and immersive it appears, but to what effect does Altman use this? Observe Paul Thomas Anderson, his copycat, where he uses long takes for that heightened artistic, dramatic effect, Altman (while it naturally remains dramatic) uses it to display an uncompromised truth, the ugliness of war and the aftermath of what could have been an 'Omaha' scene. This use of long takes creates a much more poigniant statement about the ugliness of war than any battlefront scene.

Here comes the psychoanalysis

It's easy to say that the unique and interesting characters bring interest, depth and "character", but what is actually interesting is the way in which they interact with one another and how it's all relative to the situation. This is where the dark satire comedy comes into play because this is the mask for every character.

"The only weapon we have is comedy" ~ Robin Williams

Robin Williams said it best, and these characters do it best. The best thing about this comedy is that not only is it funny to watch it's also incredibly telling. The viscious way each character attacks and preys on one another out of some kind of self preservation and safety in numbers tactic that the team use to cope with the stress of war. As the film progresses Hot-Lips grows as a member of the team, as she learns to deal with the way the team works, she becomes integrated. Every character has their own double standards and are often hypocritical, even the very religious Frank Burns goes against his moral code with Hot-Lips, this is understandable in the war, people have to be able to cope. Through all the roasting they get because of this hypocrisy, it's soon realised that the team themselves aren't perfect, but as Hot-Lips learns this and grows accustom to the situation at hand, she copes much better when part of the team after understanding is achieved.

Eveyone has to cope in a war, and considering comedy is deemed as one of the best coping mechanisms, it becomes understandable why every character hides behind this mask. The joking around and make fun at the expense of others, when boiled down to it's real meaning, is just another way to survive the war. Hot-Lips learns this best.

Where did this come from?
Where did this come from?

Football is war, no it isn't

The best asset of a Robert Altman film is its satirical nature, and what works best in M*A*S*H is that this is, not only an anti war movie, it's a great satire of war movies, pinnacling with the football scene.

The scene has no real intent other than satire, what's interesting about M*A*S*H is that it is not so clearly 'just' an anti-war movie, it's compiled of so many other things completely irrelevent to war. The extent that Altman is willing to go in order to not show you 'the war' is incredible. The football scene sits amongst a random collection of scenes just adding to that feeling the characters get when trying think about anything but war. It would be strange to try and attribute the scene as something with something meaningful or poigniant to say about the Korean conflict, but rather it simply helps build the film's overall story surrounding the conflict and its effect on the characters. The scene fits perfectly into the narrative, its very funny and never breaks the film's pace or tone while doing everything to keep true to the film's message without so directly addressing it. This scene's strange aversion further emphasises the film's genius, there's more horror to war than just on the battlefield and an explicit depiction of violence isn't the only way to examine the truth.

The End

M*A*S*H's most poigniant moment comes at the end. Some team members know they're going home but after the shock happiness wears off, it leaves a look of realisation on Hawkeye and Duke Pierce's face. After all that they've seen and done, they're now going home, and this is all over, the cruel things they've done. They're leaving people to deal with what's left of the war, with all the things that they've had to do to just get by through these hard times, and while it's over for them, they realise still what's left for others. It's a look of happiness that turns into shock, they're not quite sure how to react. Pierce responds with "right now" in the middle of brain surgery, and while comical, it's that moment of truth that through all the joking and friendship, they've been witness to some of the most tragic events they'll ever see, and they can't wait to leave, right in the middle of surgery, but even still, he has to finish what has been started.

Conclusion

What we're left with here is a disturbingly complex look at a group of characters, surviving some of the most emotionally destroying situations known to man. The way the camera just looks around the scene, the naturalistic performances of the character and improvisational dialogue creates a world unlike any other. Altman created one of the most unapologetic movies about the Korean conflict, a vision so truthful that the military wouldn't show it in their theatres because of its anti-war message and instead they chose to run Patton instead, as the film was more complimentary to the military. It's a comical satire in its own right with an dramatic anti-war message at its core plus one of the most perceptive takes on war and the war movie genre, that America has ever produced.

It's interesting to note that the film struggled to be released. When Altman was discussing this he said "This film wasn't released - it escaped." It's a good job it did, as it's probably one of the most important movies ever escaped.

MASH Trailer

Cheap enough used (DVD)

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