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To what extent does genre theory, knowledge of technology at the time and understanding of the socio-political situation in America and Vietnam contribute to an understanding of M*A*S*H?

MASH, a film based on a novel is a very interesting film because of the way it goes against Hollywood’s cinema. It was created on as low a budget as possible to keep the financier’s eyes away from the set where it was being shot. It was during the editing time that Paramount studios found out about this film but it made the release.

Adaptation of a screenplay

Trapper John is the self-portrait of Richard Hooker whom wrote MASH and based the novel on him and the experiences that he had during his time as a surgeon in Korea. It was written in the 1960’s and released in 1968 when an anti-authoritarian feeling was very present in America with the feeling that there was no point in fighting wars in other parts of the world. This national mood is very helpful in understanding the novel. When we move onto the film we see that Twentieth Century Fox took on Ring Lardner Jr. whom was blacklisted. After some time searching for a director Robert Altman was chosen, director of many previous films. Although based in Korea it was to be taken as a direct reflection of events in Vietnam at that period of time, criticizing both of the military body as a whole and the deployment to a war thousands of kilometers away from home to fight what was felt to be another man’s war.

Authorship and technology:

An unknown cast of actors were chosen in order for the director to shine rather than the actors. It was made at the same time as Patton and another major war film at the time and Altman’s aim was to keep the film below budget so that his unconventional style would make it hopefully to the editing room. He cut costs on sets, location and actors. The low budget of the film was intended to keep attention away from MASH so that the unconventional directing and subject matter would remain.

Although he seemed not to be in control and he was breeding diss-satisfaction behind the sets within the film there is such energy that we would feel that the cast know themselves as well of screen as they do on screen. If at moments the cast were becoming less comfortable with all that was happening at least during the shooting no real diss-satisfaction succeeded in permeating to destroy the chances of the film being made. 

Visually for scenes such as in Tokyo with the camera being followed by the main characters we get a point of view shot of people whom would otherwise have been seen from a third person impersonal view. This helps to bring the viewer into having an experience that would help bring the willing suspense of disbelief to another level. This would be helped through technology like cameras, faster film stocks etc. allowing for an unchained camera and the use of in shot lights (practicals) would make a shot otherwise impossible to do quite interesting and in some ways key to the plot in particular from the surgeon whom disrespects army standard procedures.


Another element of this can be seen through the architecture of the sound within the film such as the mess tent at the beginning of the film. We hear the two main characters speaking whilst at the same time there is overlapping sound with a discussion that the colonel is having with Radar to find out whom they are. It establishes firstly how unconventional these two new surgeons are and secondly how the military would view this as being very different from army procedures. The overlapping sound allows for the telling of two stories simultaneously to save time in exposing and setting up the characters.

The inclusion of the song Suicide is Painless would be contrary to a lot of people’s expectations for the beginning of the film. Already from the start we know that it will be different because of the way it enforces the hopelessness of the war. It is ironic that a song about suicide should begin for a film about two surgeons since this would go against the doctor’s code of conduct. The opening credits themselves help to bring the film into far more of an actuality because of the juxtaposition of both elements to bring acceptability to all that is happening. This song symbolizes both the process of war and the way in which people are de-humanized to serve as canon fodder as well as to show the despair/sadness which comes from living far from what our lives are about.

Through the use of the public service announcement system is an interesting feature of the film because the statements were recorded during the Korean war and added into the film both to help us see what was happening outside the camp in the rest of the world but also for the different daily routines of the camp. This linking device from scene to scene was an accidental feature which helped carry the story along was not thought of until the cutting room phase where it was found that linking the various scenes would be to complicated without this simple but effective device.

Character development

The characters within this film are an important of the film, without whom it may flop. Trapper and Hawkeye are the two drafted surgeons who are in Korea against their will and would rather go home than continue to serve in this useless war. Hawkeye that is another key character helps move along the plot through leading all the events, stealing the jeep as soon as the film begins and bringing it to the MASH unit. The colonel is then another integral part of the film through his unstereotypical method of running the camp where he drinks all the time without being in control of the camp. With our regular army clowns whom are Major Houlihan and Major Burns we are given a vision of what the military is supposed to be where two people are striving to get what they believe is right.

Major Houlihan and religion dominate Major Burns. He is showing to us what a regular army person is supposed to be through discipline and order. He is flawed though through his religious belief in Christianity where the anti-Christian feeling is shown through the aggravation which Hawkeye and “Trapper” feels with the religious chatter. Major Burns is himself going against his own teachers through getting involved with Major Houlihan when he has a wife waiting for him in America. All these elements come together fairly quickly within the film to get him kicked out of the unit and sent to an asylum center.

Major Houlihan is an interesting character because she has spent her life being in different military bases and so is a regular army clown stuck in a nurse’s uniform. She serves as an anti-hero because although she is a woman neither Trapper nor Hawkeye want her. In a mess hall conversation between Nurse Houlihan and Trapper she critics their antics and there is a very powerful moment where we see that although Trapper is a womanizer he will not have Houlihan. The effect this has on the audience is quite profound because of whom Trapper is. Houlihan throughout the film is always trying to be far more important than she is as shown through her union with Burns to write reports complaining about all that is going on within the MASH unit. As her character develops she is broken after the shower incident and becomes far more part of the background, as if a loss of confidence was felt through the disrespect she has received.

Genre theory

This film may be located within Black comedy because of its comical portrayal of draughted doctors whom go against the army and calls those such as “Hotlips” regular army clowns going both against the government as well as the military efforts in Vietnam and Korea. Within this film is the music at the beginning of the film with words such as Suicide Is Painless? showing what people thought that fighting in war was about. The satire within the film can clearly be seen through Major Burns whom is religious. Colonel Blake and other higher figures are alcoholics and fairly relaxed.

It may fit into the war film genre because of it’s set being a mobile Army surgical hospital but whereas in other films we see the point of view of the soldiers in this film we are shown the view which the doctors would have had. In so doing it went against the stereotypes of the Genre and brought a whole new element towards war films. One of the strengths of this film is that it blends the horrors of wars as shown through the graphic depiction of operations. These operations at the time of the release of the film must have been truly horrific for the audience whom although used to seeing the horror film genre had not yet been shown what may happen to a person’s body when fighting against inhuman weapons like grenades and more which may destroy life without effort.  The humor that is brought into this scene is very important for the film not to get a different certification. The moment at which the surgeon asks for his nose to be scratched suddenly relaxes the audience so that they do not see it as being as bad as it would have been through withholding humor.

A key scene within this text is the depiction of the soldiers whose dilemma about having several future wives but not being able to get it up force him to think about suicide and so through the pill scene we get both the theme of suicide but within this the impression that going to war is also suicide. The scene is one of the most powerful in the film because of the lighting, the music, and the allusion to the last supper by Leonardo Da Vinci and more. It is important because of the feeling of fighting a war, which is so remote from America in terms of distance, the problems of relationships over such a long distance and finally the importance of friends. Without the dark humor of the scene someone would have given up life.

Within the film we find that genre theory is an important element to understand the significance of MASH because knowing the context of the Genre as the genre will affect who will see the movie. Through being a comedy people whom enjoy seeing the lighter side of life will enjoy the film. At the same time through its being a war film part of the audience who is so used to seeing glorious battles on the screen will instead see the not so glorious side of the mobile army surgical hospital and anti-war sentiment may thus be awoken or emphasized. With knowledge of events such as the 1968 student riot which took place in Paris and the analogue example of it through the doctor’s disregard for authority we are encouraged to think differently and see independence from authority more casually. The anti-war movements, which were taking place in America against the Vietnam War, are both a reflection and a result of the film’s anti-authoritarian sentiment. People whom no longer saw the point of fighting a war thousands of miles away from home for certain ideologies saw MASH, not as a film about Korea but rather saw it as a film about Vietnam. Conclusively with the use of overlapping dialogue and more emphasizing the chaos of the scenes and the use of unconventional angles allowed through changing technology the film becomes a very powerful element of film making. Overall the feel and look of the film allow it to stand out from films of that period because of its innovation.



Apocalypse Now

Black Hawk Down

We Were Soldiers

In particular:

M-A-S-H (Five Star Collection) and in particular

? AMC “Backstory” Behind-The-Scenes Featurette
? “Enlisted: The Story of M*A*S*H” – New Documentary
? “M*A*S*H: History Through the Lens” – Background Documentary

Websites: for access to other sites


Film Theory and Criticism: introductory readings, second edition, Gerald Marshall Cohen, Oxford University press

Cinema Studies: The Key Concepts, Susan Haward

Mastering Modern History, Norman Lowe

Diplomacy, Henry Kissinger

Manufacturing Consent: , Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky