Raw, ragged, mordantly hilarious, and savagely cruel, M*A*S*H (1970) was not Robert Altman’s first movie. The 45-year-old director had been in the business for 15 years, directing over a hundred hours of TV episodes and a few feature films, before shooting the first frame of the film. Yet M*A*S*H in many ways stands as the first “Robert Altman” film. Bustling with spontaneous ensemble performances, captured with a restless camera, and enriched with a dense soundtrack of competing conversations and extraneous sounds, it set the tone and style of his filmmaking for the rest of his career.
The film did not originate with Altman. Screenwriter Ring Lardner, Jr. discovered the novel, a black comic memoir of life in a mobile army surgical hospital during the Korean War written by Richard Hooker (a pseudonym for H. Richard Hornberger), and he thought it would make a great movie and a possible comeback project after spending years blacklisted by Hollywood for his politics. His agent, George Litto, took the book to Ingo Preminger, a former agent anxious to move into production, and they sold the package to 20th Century Fox. All they needed was a director, but all the big directors they approached turned them down. Litto was also Altman’s agent and Altman was very interested, but he couldn’t even get a meeting until the A-list filmmakers passed on it.
Ingo Preminger brought in Donald Sutherland and Elliott Gould, rising stars with counterculture credentials, to play the practical-joking doctors Hawkeye Pierce and Duke Forrest. Gould told Altman that, while he could put on a southern accent for Duke, he felt more confident about another role, Trapper John McIntyre, and Altman made the change. Altman then cast the rest of the film with relative unknowns, drawing from old friends and collaborators (Tom Skerritt as Duke, Michael Murphy, Robert Duvall) and actors from the San Francisco theater community (John Schuck, Rene Auberjonois, Bud Cort, Sally Kellerman, and others). The publicity department boasted of fourteen feature film debuts in the twenty eight speaking roles and Altman gave everyone their moment.
Plays on Turner Classic Movies on Tuesday, October 29