A 1970 comedy film based on Richard Hooker's novel, M*A*S*H was the first major hit for its director, Robert Altman, and the inspiration for the popular and long-running television series a few years later.
In the midst of The Korean War, the 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital, commanded by Lt. Col. Henry Blake (Roger Bowen), is tasked with patching up the wounded. A pair of fresh draftee surgeons, "Hawkeye" Pierce (Donald Sutherland) and "Duke" Forrest (Tom Skerritt), arrive on the scene; defying all conventions, and soon accompanied by fellow surgeon "Trapper John" McIntyre (Elliott Gould), they proceed to "fix up" the mood in the hospital with their brand of wild black humor.
The film's plot — such as it is — consists of various episodes dealing with the surgeons' on- and off-duty escapades, including their personality clashes with their erstwhile tentmate, Maj. Frank Burns (Robert Duvall), and with the newly-appointed head nurse, Maj. "Hot Lips" Houlihan (Sally Kellerman); Hawkeye's romantic pursuit of nurse Lt. "Dish" Schneider (Jo Ann Pflug); the depression and "assisted suicide" of dental surgeon "Painless Pole" Waldowski (John Schuck); the drafting of the surgeons' South Korean houseboy, Ho-jon (Kim Atwood); Hawkeye and Trapper's trip to Tokyo to operate on a Congressman's son — and play some golf; and a football game against a team from the 325th Evacuation Hospital.
The winner of the Palme d'Or at Cannes, and nominated for five Academy Awards (winning for Best Adapted Screenplay). Also notable as one of several different 20th Century Fox films alleged to have been the first pre-recorded videocassette to roll off the assembly line at Magnetic Video in the fall of 1977.
- Adaptation Distillation: The film took the novel's main themes, stripped out some of the uglier parts, and came up with this.
- Alliterative Name: Painless Pole's real name is Walter Waldowski.
- Aside Glance: Lt. Dish seems to have some unsettled feelings about her use of sexual healing to bring Painless around—until she looks right at the camera and smiles as the helicopter lifts off.
- Ask a Stupid Question...: After meeting Hawkeye for the first time..Houlihan: I wonder how a degenerated person like that could have reached a position of responsibility in the Army Medical Corps?
Father Mulcahy: He was drafted.
- Attending Your Own Funeral: The unit dentist, "Painless Pole", wanted to commit suicide, so they set up a mock funeral for him so he could take cyanide and die in a casket. The cyanide pills were fake, and the only dying he did was in the Shakespearean sense.
- Big Game: The football game between the 4077th and the 325th Evac hospital, which dominates the last third of the film.
- Bigger Is Better in Bed: "Painless Pole" is the "best-equipped" dentist in the Army. After Lt. Dish spends the night with him, she is still in a daze the next morning.
- Blackmail: When Col. Merrill breaks in on Hawkeye, Trapper, and Me Lay performing unauthorized surgery on an American-Japanese infant, they anesthetize him and take compromising photos of him in bed with a prostitute to keep him from talking.
- Book Ends:
- Hawkeye and Duke steal a jeep at the beginning of the film to drive from the depot to the 4077th. At the end of the film, they re-steal the same jeep to go back.
- Hawkeye does his whistle in the opening scene, while Radar does it in the end scene.
- Break the Haughty: Hawkeye, Trapper and Duke do this to Hot Lips. It actually makes for rather uncomfortable viewing, as they choose to sexually humiliate her by broadcasting her sex with Frank to the whole unit, and later by pulling up the shower tent while she's in it and half the camp has Come to Gawk. But by the end Hot Lips has become one of the gang, attending one of their poker games.
- The Cameo: Musician and actor Bobby Troup as Staff Sergeant Gorman, Hawkeye and Trapper's ill-tempered jeep driver in Tokyo. ("Goddamn Army!")
- As in the book, Hawkeye's is "finest kind". Save for one or two occasions, this really didn't carry over to the TV show.
- That little whistle that Hawkeye keeps doing. (Which showed up again in Fantastic Mr. Fox.)
- Chekhov's Skill: We learn early on that Hawkeye and Trapper played football in college, which comes in very handy later.
- Comedic Sociopathy: Much of what Hawkeye, Trapper, and Duke do falls squarely into this.
- Composite Character: Major Frank Burns from the movie is a cross between Captain Frank Burns from the novel and another character named Major Jonathan Hobson, a minor character and religious zealot who lived in the Swamp with Hawkeye and Duke before they got him thrown out for praying too much.
- Confidence Building Scheme: Walter "Painless Pole" Waldowski suffers a case of impotence and becomes suicidal in the belief that this makes him a "latent homosexual". Hawkeye and the other Swampmen "assist" by giving him an elaborate last supper complete with musical accompaniment, even having Father Mulcahy perform the Last Rites, before giving him a suicide pill. In reality, the pill is just a sedative... and when Painless wakes up, he's in bed with a willing nurse. Next morning, Painless is in high spirits again, his confidence restored.
- Cool Shades: Hawkeye wears tinted glasses (although they do appear to also be prescription lenses). Trapper is shown wearing actual sunglasses in a couple scenes.
- Crazy-Prepared: Trapper has just arrived in the camp and is offered a martini, but balks at drinking it without an olive. After he's told that olives are difficult to procure in a war zone, he pulls out a huge jar of them that he just happened to have in his coat pocket, while Duke and Hawkeye stare in amazement.
- Credits Gag: The film ends with the camp P.A. announcer Breaking the Fourth Wall by telling us that "tonight's movie has been M*A*S*H", and reading off the names of the cast.
- Defeat by Modesty: Hawkeye and Trapper's way of getting Hot Lips to stop being such a pain.
- Devastating Remark:
- Frank tells an orderly that he's responsible for a patient's death. The young man believes him, and is reduced to a sobbing mess. This results in Duke belting Frank.
- O' Houlihan tries to give Col. Blake an ultimatum, either have the MPs arrest the crew of The Swamp or she'll resign her commission. Blake, fed up with her, responds, "Goddamnit, Hot Lips, resign your goddamn commission!" O' Houlihan leaves, in shock, wailing about her commission.
- Distracted by the Sexy: During the party to celebrate Trapper's appointment as chief surgeon, Radar tries to sing a solo verse of "Hail to the Chief". However, as he is being flashed by one of the nurses, he is unable to get through more than a few words at a time before dissolving into giggling fits.
- Diegetic Soundtrack Usage: During the "funeral" for Painless Pole, Private Seidman sings "Suicide is Painless", accompanied by Bandini on guitar, as the "mourners" file past his coffin to pay their last respects.
- Don't Call Me "Sir": Hawkeye corrects anyone who calls him Captain Pierce.
- Dueling Movies: Released the same year as that other anti-war satire movie, Catch-22.note
- Dumb Blonde: Hot Lips becomes this later in the movie somehow after sleeping with Duke.
- Echoing Acoustics: In-universe. When Frank and Hot Lips' lovemaking is broadcast to the entire camp over the P.A. system, it's eventually accompanied by a delayed echo effect that alerts the pair to what's happening.
- Embarrassing Nickname: As in the real military, many of the staff members at the 4077th have unfortunate nicknames. Averted/subverted in that none of these characters (apart from Hot Lips) really mind their nicknames; if anything, they embrace them.
- Major "Hot Lips" Houlihan gets her nickname after her intimate session with Frank Burns is broadcast on the radio all over camp, so that everyone hears her exclaiming "My lips are hot... kiss my hot lips!"
- Lieutenant Maria "Dish" Schneider was bequeathed hers by Hawkeye in a deleted scene. It only pops up a couple times in the final cut.
- Then there's Trapper John, who acquired that nickname after being caught "finding fulfillment" with a coed in the ladies' restroom of a Boston & Maine railroad car, and the young woman in question accusing him of having "trapped" her.
- "Spearchucker" Jones claims he got his nickname because he used to be a javelin thrower (it is actually a relatively mild racial reference).
- Camp chaplain Father Mulcahy rejoices in the bizarre nickname of "Dago Red", as he is a redheaded San Diego native.note
- Captain Black, the "gas passer" in surgery, is not a handsome fellow, and so has been nicknamed "Ugly John" by his comrades.note
- When Hawkeye and Trapper go to Japan to perform surgery on a Congressman's son, they are assisted by Hawkeye's old friend "Me Lay" Marston, so named because his preferred pickup line was "Me lay, you lay." Hawkeye tells Trapper that this tactic only worked on about one girl in fifty.
- "Painless Pole" could be taken to refer to Capt. Waldowski's status as a dentist and his ethnicity. Or it could be taken to refer to something else entirely.Ho-Jon: Here he comes! The Jawbreaker!
- Ensemble Cast: Although Hawkeye and Trapper get the most screentime, they are supporting players in a number of the film's vignettes, and there are over a dozen characters who receive enough time and key scenes in the spotlight to be considered major characters.
- Epigraph: Seen at the beginning of the film, as Hawkeye leaves the latrine at the depot.And then there was.....
I have just left your fighting sons in Korea. They have done their best there, and I can report to you without reservation that they are splendid in every way.
I now close my military career and just fade away, an old soldier who tried to do his duty as God gave him the light to see that duty. Good-bye.
—General Douglas MacArthur
I will go to Korea.
—Dwight D. Eisenhower
- Everyone Went to School Together: Hawkeye knows Trapper John looks familiar then finally recognizes him as a quarterback he played against in his college football days. Later they happen to bump into Hawkeye's boyhood chum "Me Lay" Marston at the Army hospital in Japan. The original book goes even further, when it was revealed that Jones' family had been sharecroppers on property that Duke's family owned when they were young children; it was a gift from Duke's father that helped them moved out of Georgia and start a family business, which in turn was what made it possible for Jones to get into college at all.
- Expy: Apart from a few mentions of them being in Korea, the sets, costumes and props are clearly meant to evoke The Vietnam War which was ongoing at the time. This was intentional.note
- Fake Assisted Suicide: "Painless Pole" becomes suicidal after discovering he is impotent. His comrades arrange an elaborate living funeral for him, capped off by a putative suicide pill—but instead of dying he wakes up in bed beside Lt. Dish, who cures his affliction.
- Feedback Rule: The P.A. announcements are routinely interrupted by loud feedback.
- Halfway Plot Switch: Suddenly becomes a football movie for some reason in the last half-hour. One might ask where they got a full football field, plus actual uniforms in Korea; the answer is, one of the Generals had a major thing for running inter-unit football games, and had done it the year before as well.
- Hawaiian-Shirted Tourist: Trapper John wears a Hawaiian shirt in several scenes.
- Hi, Mom!: While taking Ho-Jon to his military physical, Hawkeye is filmed by a newsreel camerawoman, who invites him to say hello to his mother back home. He tells her his mother's deceased, then asks to say hello to his dad instead.note
- Holier Than Thou: Frank Burns is this as well as a hypocrite.
- Hyper-Competent Sidekick: Radar to Col. Blake, and actually a bit more pronounced than it would be in the series.
- If You Die, I Call Your Stuff: When Painless Pole announces his intention to commit suicide, Bandini asks if he can have his record player.
- Imagine Spot: Toward the end when Hawkeye comes into the O.R. to tell Duke they've gotten their orders to go home, Duke has a quick flash of himself emerging from a plane back in the States and being greeted by a loud welcoming party including his wife and kids.note What distinguishes it from the ordinary uses of the trope is the fact that there's actually nothing in the film which would deny this Imagine Spot becoming reality in the nearest future.
- In the Style of: Mike Altman has said that Leonard Cohen was a big influence on his lyrics for "Suicide is Painless".
- Initialism Title: Short for "Mobile Army Surgical Hospital".
- Intimate Psychotherapy: Hawkeye convinces Dish to "cure" Painless Pole of his suicidal inclination by spending the night with him, thereby dispelling his concerns over both his heterosexuality and his ability to perform in bed.
- Invulnerable Knuckles: Averted. When Trapper punches Frank Burns in the face for reducing Boone to tears, he appears to be in as much if not more pain than Burns.
- Jerk with a Heart of Gold: Hawkeye and Trapper can be real assholes sometimes, especially when they pull that stunt with Hot Lips in the shower. But they also plainly care about their work and their patients, as shown when they defy orders to tend to a half-American, half-Japanese infant.
- Kick the Dog: Frank Burns brings the young Private Boone to tears by telling him that his bringing the wrong needle caused a patient's death, even though the patient died before Boone could have brought it.
- "Last Supper" Steal: Painless's "last supper" looks very much like Leonardo's original, with Seidman as Bartholomew, Bandini as James the Lesser, Judson as Andrew, Ugly John as Peter, Vollmer as Judas, Duke as John, Painless as Jesus, Trapper as Thomas, Hawkeye as James the Greater, Murrhardt as Philip, Radar as Matthew, Boone as Thaddeus, and Ho-jon as Simon. They are even making similar gestures to Jesus and the disciples in Leonardo's mural (Trapper is pointing upwards, Ugly John appears to be grabbing a knife, Radar and Boone are talking to Ho-jon, etc.).
- The Loins Sleep Tonight: What convinces Painless Pole that he's a "latent homosexual".
- LOL, 69: During the football game, Judson, in jersey #69, says something which causes an opposing player to attack him and chase him down the fieldnote . Seeing this as an opportunity to boost the team's morale, Major Houlihan leads the other cheerleaders in chanting "Sixty-Nine is divine!", apparently oblivious to the Double Entendre.
- Meaningful Background Event: While the surgeons are playing poker toward the end of the film, we see a jeep rolling past the tent bearing a corpse covered in a white sheet. This was originally part of a (deleted) subplot involving Ho-jon getting wounded in action and then dying in surgery.
- Mistaken for Servant:
- Due to Hawkeye using his rank insignia to pin a busted zipper on his bags in the opening scene, Duke assumes that he's the driver to get him to the 4077th. Hawkeye doesn't bother to correct him until they have arrived and are eating and Col. Blake asks about the "stolen jeep".
- Later, as Radar is moving Hawkeye and Duke into the Swamp, Vollmer stops to question his "billeting these enlisted men in the officers' area", then gives an embarrassed salute when corrected.
- Mood Whiplash: The surgical scenes are graphic even by today’s standards, and were downright shocking by 1970 standards. They are a massive contrast to the wacky nature of the rest of the film. Of course, that's part of the point—the characters engage in wackiness because of the horrible things they have to see and do.
- Naked Freak-Out: Hot Lips has one of these, as part of the process of her haughty being broken. As far as everyone else involved in the incident is concerned, it's just Naked People Are Funny combined with Pass the Popcorn.
- Narrative Profanity Filter: In-universe, when Col. Blake (who's just returned from a visit with Gen. Hammond) spots Hawkeye and Frank Burns talking in the mess tent (after Burns's lovemaking with Houlihan was broadcast to the whole camp the night before) and asks Radar to tell him what they're saying. This ends up helping Hawkeye, as when Burns snaps, Radar's Tactful Translation makes it look like he attacked Hawkeye for no reason.Hawkeye: Does that big ass of hers move around a lot, Frank, or does it sort of lie there flaccid? What would you say about that?Radar: Um... Hawkeye's questioning the Major on a point of anatomy.
- Never My Fault: As Duke says of Frank Burns, "Every time a patient croaks on him he says it's God's will or somebody else's fault."
- Noodle Incident: More of a Noodle Insult. One of the opposing players in the football game calls the African-American Corporal Judson a "coon", trying to invite an attack to get him thrown out of the game. Spearchucker tells him the name of the guy's sister and tells him "Use it!". Judson walks up to the line, and we don't hear anything but the normal background noise of the game, but the opponent suddenly lunges at Judson and chases him all over the field.
- Office Golf: Hawkeye and Trapper play an impromptu game of this in Col. Merrill's office.
- O.O.C. Is Serious Business: To indicate to Hawkeye how seriously depressed Painless Pole is, Father Mulcahy mentions that Painless had told him that poker was "only a game".
- Pet the Dog: Despite the fact that he and the others have relentlessly bullied her the entire movie Trapper makes a big point of letting Hot Lips, and everybody else in earshot, know that she’s a damn good nurse.
- Playing Sick: Hawkeye and co. try to get Ho-Jon medically disqualified from serving in the Korean military by giving him drugs that accelerate his heart rate and cause a spike in his blood pressure. Unfortunately, the doctors examining him notice that he has been working at an American hospital and tell Hawkeye that they think Ho-Jon took the wrong medication by accident, so they're keeping him under observation for a few days before examining him again. The Korean doctor isn't fooled for a second and subtly accuses Hawkeye of doping up Ho-Jon while giving Hawkeye credit for a "nice try".
- Pom-Pom Girl: The nurses—led by Hot Lips—serve as these for the 4077th during the football game, while the 325th Evac has a squad of regular cheerleaders.
- Prank Gone Too Far: After Hawkeye goads Frank into attacking him in the Mess Tent, we see a straitjacketed Frank glaring at the camera and being driven off to a mental hospital, presumably as a precursor to receiving a Section 8 discharge. Rather than celebrating Frank's departure, Hawkeye and Trapper's somber expressions indicate they didn't mean it to go that far.
- Precision F-Strike:
- During the football game, Painless Pole tells an opposing player, "All right, bud, your fuckin' head is comin' right off!" The line (an ad-lib by actor John Schuck) was the first use of the F-word in a major American studio film.
- Staff Sergeant Gorman, Hawkeye and Trapper's driver in Japan, repeatedly grumbles "Goddamn Army!" The film literally ends on a repeat of the line.
- Present-Day Past: Korea ca. 1950 looks and feels a helluva lot like Vietnam ca. 1970. Once again, though this was entirely intentional on Altman's part.
- Random Events Plot: The film, rather than following a coherent narrative, is more of a series of unrelated episodes depicting a year in the life of the 4077. For the most part, once a major subplot—Painless Pole's "suicide", Hawkeye and Trapper's Japan trip, the football game—is wrapped up, its effect on the rest of the "story" is minimal. That said, the novel is if anything even more random and unstructured, and it's a testament to Ring Lardner Jr.'s screenwriting that he managed to distill it all into something that at least had some slight organization.
- Repeat Cut: A western black comedy is a very odd place for this to pop up, but nonetheless it is used to emphasize a particularly hard hit on Spearchucker in the football game.
- Red Oni, Blue Oni: In the football game the serious ringer-filled 325th Evac team wears blue jerseys and the more boisterous 4077th wears red.
- Rhyming with Itself: The verses of "Suicide is Painless" follow an AAAA rhyme scheme, but the first and last verses both have the same word at the end of lines 1 and 4 ("see" and "me" respectively).
- Running Gag:
- The camp's bumbling P.A. announcer, who can never get through an announcement without having to back up and repeat whole phrases after tripping over the words. At one point, he announces that Bandini is performing a surgical procedure that the other doctors may want to observe, and ends up having to spell the word "popliteal"note when he cannot pronounce it.
- When it comes to taking orders, Radar is always one step ahead of Henry while Vollmer is about two steps behind; several times during the film, Radar anticipates Henry's orders before he even starts saying them, then Vollmer shows up to take those same orders just as Radar goes off to carry them out. This exchange just after the opening credits is typical:[Henry, Radar, Painless, and Vollmer watch as another group of wounded are carried off to Pre-Op]
Radar: Yes sir! [the rest of his dialogue overlaps with Henry's] I guess I'd better call Major Burns...
Henry: I want you to get a hold of Major Burns...
Radar: ... tell him we're gonna have to put a couple of the day shift onto the night shift...
Henry: ... tell him we're gonna have to hold a couple of surgeons over from the day shift onto the night shift...
Radar: I'll put a call in to General Hammond in Seoul...
Henry: Get General Hammond down there in Seoul...
Radar: ... I hope he sends us those two new surgeons...
Henry: ... tell him we gotta have those new surgeons right away...
Radar: ... we're sure gonna need 'em! [races off]
Vollmer: [readying his clipboard and pencil] What was that, sir?
Henry: I gave everything to Radar! [points]
- Screw the War, We're Partying: Pretty much the attitude of the entire 4077th staff (save for Frank Burns and Hot Lips) when they're not actually in surgery.
- Shoe Shine, Mister?: Snippets of the song "Tokyo Shoe Shine Boy" are played twice, once shortly after Hawkeye and Duke arrive at the 4077th and once just before Radar tells Hawkeye he and Duke have received their discharge papers. The song (an actual tune from 1951, which was also included on the soundtrack album to the movie) is sung in Japanese, except for the words "Tokyo Shoe Shine Boy" in English.
- Shout-Out: The P.A. announces screenings of such war movies as When Willie Comes Marching Home, Halls of Montezuma, The Glory Brigade... and M*A*S*H.
- Soundtrack Dissonance:
- It opens with an angsty folk song playing over scenes of wounded soldiers arriving by helicopters, and the other songs in the film also provide an ironic counterpoint to what's happening on screen, as well as the goofy loudspeaker announcements.
- Private Seidman's rendition of "Suicide is Painless", sung during the mock funeral along with guitar accompaniment, is much more in the style of mid to late '60s folk music that sprung out of the Civil Rights/Vietnam Era (think Joan Baez) as opposed to anything from the early '50s, which was dominated by "Hit Parade" crooners like Eddie Fisher and Patti Page.
- The heroic-sounding march music that occurs when Hawkeye first appears on screen, making a rather unobtrusive entrance.
- Source Music: Several tunes, either instrumental or sung in Japanese, are played over the P.A. throughout the film.
- Southern-Fried Private: Duke is kind of this, though he's actually a captain.
- Spared by the Adaptation: Ho-Jon. In the novel, he survives, but was killed off in Ring Lardner’s script. Ho-Jon was originally planned to be the soldier who receives Col. Blake's blood, as well as the corpse being hauled away at the end. Instead the Korean soldier was changed to a North Korean POW (although certain shots show that it plainly is the same actor, Kim Atwood) and the corpse is a random background event.
- Spiteful Spit: One of the 325th Evac's football players spits a stream of water into Radar's ear in the locker room.
- Springtime for Hitler: Director Robert Altman couldn't come up with lyrics "stupid enough" for the theme song "Suicide Is Painless," so he gave the task to his 14-year-old son Michael, who wrote the song in five minutes. Instead of "stupid" lyrics, the song turned out to be tremendously moving.
- Suicide Is Painless: The theme song is the Trope Namer. It Makes Sense in Context.
- Training Montage: Briefly during the football vignette, though it plays out more like Training the Peaceful Villagers.
- Unsympathetic Comedy Protagonist: Despite being the film's Designated Heroes, Hawkeye, Trapper and company are this through and through. If you root for them at all it's only because their antagonists are even bigger Jerkasses than they are. Watch how they push around and bully the staff of the military hospital simply because they want to get the fairly minor surgery out of the way so they can play golf. The film has to redeem them by using their tactics to later save a baby over the objections of the same colonel they'd pushed around earlier. Had they simply followed protocol, he might have been better disposed to the unauthorized procedure.
- Video Credits: Clips of the actors as the PA rattles off their names.
- Wacky Fratboy Hijinx: Or the military equivalent thereof.
- You Wouldn't Hit a Guy with Glasses: Invoked by Hawkeye after he baits Frank Burns into attacking him in the mess tent.