by shael stolberg for FILMbuttton
What can you say about M*A*S*H? What can you say about Robert Altman? What can you say about Ring Lardner, Jr?
It would be very simplistic to say one was a film, the other a director and the latter a screenwriter.
A more realistic statement could be that one is an award winning film (Palm d’Or, Academy Award, Golden Globes – for full list list click here), one was an award winning maverick filmmaker who used inventive techniques to present his story (full film bio here) and the other was a legendary blacklisted writer who was one of the Hollywood 10, and then went on to write films like THE CINCINNATI KID and win an Oscar for M*A*S*H (for full list click here).
Truth be told, books have been written about all three of them. Compilations, Retrospectives, Lifetime Achievement Awards etc etc etc.
A some what well known, but still interesting, fact about the film M*A*S*H is that it very nearly did not get made and when it did the studio almost gave up on it. The producer Richard Zanuck called “a turkey” and actually tried to take their name off of it. Also their was a very real difference of opinion between Altman & Lardner Jr. regarding the authorship of the film. Lardner Jr. had written the screenplay in 1969 based on the novel written by Richard Hooker the year previous. Altman came to the project after many directors had already pasted on it.
According to Gerard Plecki in his book ROBERT ALTMAN “The multiple conversations in M*A*S*H are witty and acerbic: their effectiveness is also a result of the director’s pacing and his ear for colloquialisms. Much of the repartee, and many of the humorous insults, propositions, and sarcastic interjections, however, were Lardner’s words. Altman’s timing and writing, and Lardner’s comic dialogue, constituted the unusually rich aural qualities of M*A*S*H, and caused serious disagreements between the director and the screenwriter about the importance of the screenplay.”
William Johnson in Film Quarterly concluded that the film “is not really about army life or rebellion … it is about the human condition, and that’s why it is such an exciting comedy.”
In my opinion, M*A*S*H is an amazingly inventive, funny and a bit subversive film with great performances, not only from the lead actors but also the many actors in which M*A*S*H was there debut film. Most notably, Gary Burghoff, who played Cpl. Walter “Radar” O’Reilly so well that he continued in that role for 8 of the acclaimed TV Series M*A*S*H’s 11 seasons. Having “Radar”, nicknamed that because he may know what’s happening before it does, repeat exactly what Col. Blake (Roger Bowen) was ordering him to do at the same time was one of the approaches Altman used to get his point across. Show me don’t tell me as it were. This technique came across so well they continued it on the TV series. At times, M*A*S*H feels like a bunch of vignettes that make up the whole. The Pro’s from Dover, Frank & Margret, Painless’s Problem, The Football Game etc. This is a style that Altman uses to great effect through out his career in films that include NASHVILLE, SHORTCUTS & GOSFORD PARK to name a few.
All of the above films are playing as part of the TIFF Summer Series – COMPANY MAN – THE FILMS OF ROBERT ALTMAN as well as some of my other favourite Altman films including MCCABE & MRS. MILLER introduced by Vilmos Zsigmond, CALIFORNIA SPLIT, THE PLAYER, and SECRET HONOR.
If you have not seen an of these films on the big screen do yourself a favour and check at least a few of them out. TIFF is also screening the Canadian Premiere of ALTMAN a documentary by Ron Mann with both he and Altman’s widow, Kathryn Reed, who Co-produced the film in attendance on August 1.
To quote the late great Roger Ebert “See you at the Movies”.