Satirizes Warfare Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

With the United States deeply divided over the Vietnam War and antiwar sentiment especially high among college and university students, the motion picture M*A*S*H, an irreverent dark comedy set in the Korean War but evoking the war in Vietnam, lampooned military protocol and accentuated the horrors of war. The film was a huge commercial and critical success and inspired an award-winning television series that ran for eleven seasons.

Summary of Event

By the fall of 1970, the Vietnam War Vietnam War (1959-1975);protests had stirred significant antiwar sentiment in the United States. Not only had the war taken more than twenty-five thousand American lives by that point, the Viet Cong’s Tet Offensive in 1968 had raised widespread doubts about the U.S. military’s ability to win the war. At home, the baby-boom generation, many now in college, had become particularly vocal in their opposition to the war. Protests against the war were sweeping across college and university campuses throughout the nation, and the brutal suppression of student protests at the University of Wisconsin and at Kent State University in Ohio fueled the question of whether the war was worth the price being paid. M*A*S*H (Altman)[MASH (Altman)] Satire [kw]M*A*S*H Satirizes Warfare (Jan. 25, 1970)[MASH Satirizes Warfare] [kw]Warfare, M*A*S*H Satirizes (Jan. 25, 1970)[Warfare, MASH Satirizes] M*A*S*H (Altman)[MASH (Altman)] Satire [g]North America;Jan. 25, 1970: M*A*S*H Satirizes Warfare[10690] [g]United States;Jan. 25, 1970: M*A*S*H Satirizes Warfare[10690] [c]Motion pictures and video;Jan. 25, 1970: M*A*S*H Satirizes Warfare[10690] [c]Entertainment;Jan. 25, 1970: M*A*S*H Satirizes Warfare[10690] [c]Popular culture;Jan. 25, 1970: M*A*S*H Satirizes Warfare[10690] [c]Radio and television;Jan. 25, 1970: M*A*S*H Satirizes Warfare[10690] [c]Social issues and reform;Jan. 25, 1970: M*A*S*H Satirizes Warfare[10690] Altman, Robert Lardner, Ring, Jr. Preminger, Ingo Sutherland, Donald Gould, Elliott Skerritt, Tom Kellerman, Sally Duvall, Robert

In the middle of this climate, Twentieth Century-Fox Twentieth Century-Fox[Twentieth Century Fox] Film Corporation (now Twentieth Century Fox) released a darkly comedic film focusing on the irreverent escapades of the surgeons at the fictional 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital (MASH) during the Korean War. M*A*S*H, which was released in the United States on January 25, 1970, was the brainchild of Ring Lardner, Jr., an Academy Award-winning screenwriter who had been blacklisted during the McCarthy era, and producer Ingo Preminger Preminger, Ingo , who had once been Lardner’s literary agent. The film was adapted from an obscure 1968 novel written by Richard Hooker. Hooker, a pseudonym for New Jersey surgeon Richard Hornberger Hornberger, Richard , served in a MASH unit in Korea and had spent the next fifteen years writing a fictional account of his iconoclastic unit. Once Preminger sold the idea to Twentieth Century-Fox, he quickly hired the principal actors. Unable to secure a more prominent director, however, he was forced to turn to Robert Altman, who had directed nothing of any acclaim and had worked for much of his career in television. Altman’s innovative directorial style—emphasis on character rather than plot, loosely structured scenes, improvised and overlapping dialogue—proved to be a good match for Lardner’s witty and acerbic script.

Most of the cast was made up of newcomers to the screen, and even the principals, though established actors, were largely unknown. The film’s top billing went to Donald Sutherland, a character actor primarily known for a small but memorable role in the film The Dirty Dozen. The other two leads, Elliott Gould and Tom Skerritt, were even less recognizable. Gould had made only four movies over the previous six years, most notably Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, and Skerritt’s work had been almost exclusively in television. The film’s most prominent female role went to Sally Kellerman, who was, like Skerritt, working primarily in television. Robert Duvall had the most experience in feature films, including a well-received performance as Boo Radley in To Kill a Mockingbird.

Billed as a comedy, the film’s episodic humor was tempered by frequent scenes in bloody operating rooms and by a mean-spirited quality to many of the jokes, often seeking laughs at the expense of women, religion, and minority characters. The film opens with the arrival in Korea of two new surgeons, Hawkeye Pierce and Duke Forrest, who quickly establish their disdain for military protocol by stealing a jeep, making passes at the nurses, and mixing martinis in their quarters. When they discover that the surgeon with whom they share a tent, Frank Burns, is devoutly religious (though later revealed to be hypocritical in his beliefs), they demand that he be moved out of their tent and eventually engineer his removal from the camp in a straitjacket. The arrival of a third iconoclastic surgeon, Trapper John McIntyre, and a rigidly bureaucratic head nurse, Margaret O’Houlihan, draws the battle lines between military protocol and cavalier irreverence even more sharply. O’Houlihan acquires the nickname “Hot Lips” after the surgeons eavesdrop on, and broadcast to the entire camp, an amorous episode with Burns, and is later exposed to the entire camp while showering to settle a bet among the surgeons.

Most of the other episodic storylines are no less irreverent. When the camp dentist contemplates suicide because of fears of sexual impotency, the surgeons create a parody of the Last Supper culminating not in the dentist’s death, but in his seduction by one of the nurses, a suggestively nicknamed Lieutenant Dish. When Pierce and McIntyre are sent to Tokyo to perform surgery on a congressman’s son, they visit geisha houses, play golf, and put an anesthetized colonel into a compromising situation. Later, when the 4077th is challenged to a football game by another outfit, they recruit a former football star, an African American surgeon with the nickname “Spearchucker,” to help them engineer a victory.

Executives at Twentieth Century-Fox were horrified by the chaotic results. They were especially concerned that, since the movie made no mention of being set in Korea, audiences would assume the setting was Vietnam and be offended by a perceived criticism of the war America was fighting at the time. To ease the concern, Altman added a prologue with explicit references to Korea, as well as adding to the movie a series of 1950’s-style announcements to the camp over a public address system. Lardner too was concerned about the movie’s mayhem. He felt his script had been distorted by Altman’s unstructured direction and the improvised dialogue, but the results proved effective nonetheless. Lardner won the Academy Award Academy Awards;Best Adapted Screenplay for Best Adapted Screenplay for M*A*S*H.


Most of the audience recognized M*A*S*H’s implicit allusions to the Vietnam War, so the younger generation embraced the movie as an antiwar vehicle. On the other hand, the absence of any explicit political message led older viewers to see the film as the sort of parody of military bureaucracy that had been part of American culture for decades. This widespread appeal led M*A*S*H to become the third highest grossing film of 1970, earning more than $30 million (a large sum in 1970’s dollars) in the first year following its release. The film also enjoyed high praise from critics. It won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival and a Golden Globe Award Golden Globe Awards for Best Comedy Film, and was nominated for five Academy Awards, including Best Picture.

Two years after its release, the film inspired a television series by the same name. Originally a zany comedy but later exploring more serious themes, the series ran for eleven seasons and won fourteen Emmy Awards. Its final episode in 1983 remains as the most watched episode in television broadcast history, garnering about 70 percent of the night’s viewership, an audience of 125 million.

The film proved to be a springboard to fame for Altman, who earned an Oscar nomination for M*A*S*H and went on to direct a number of highly acclaimed films, including Nashville, The Player, and Gosford Park. Among the actors, Duvall and Sutherland enjoyed especially successful careers following M*A*S*H. Duvall later won a Best Actor Oscar for Tender Mercies, one of six nominations across his career. M*A*S*H (Altman)[MASH (Altman)] Satire

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Apel, Otto F., Jr., and Pat Apel. MASH: An Army Surgeon in Korea. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1998. An account of the workings of a Korean War Mobile Army Surgical Hospital by the unit’s chief surgeon. The autobiographical work emphasizes many of the same themes as Richard Hooker’s novel, including the irreverent attitudes of the medical staff toward army protocol and the brutal conditions under which they worked.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hooker, Richard. M*A*S*H: A Novel About Three Army Doctors. New York: William Morrow, 1968. The episodic and stylistically inconsistent, though nonetheless humorous, novel on which Lardner’s screenplay was based.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Self, Robert T. Robert Altman’s Subliminal Reality. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2002. An insightful examination of Altman’s films, his idiosyncratic filmmaking style, and his subtle commentaries on human nature and society.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sterritt, David, ed. Robert Altman: Interviews. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2000. A compilation of seven interviews, some of them quite extensive, conducted by seven different journalists (or pairs of journalists) with the director of M*A*S*H.

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Categories: History