Based on Richard Hooker’s novel MASH: A Novel About Three Army Doctors and, as it turns out according to the extras, on Ring Lardner Jr.’s script, to the screenwriter’s initial chagrin, Robert Altman and the cast deliver a brilliant military farce equal to classics like Duck Soup and Dr. Strangelove.
In fact, while M*A*S*H is celebrated as an antiwar film, set in Korea though made about Vietnam, the anti-authority anarchy plays out very much like an R-rated Marx Brothers movie would have particularly because there’s not so much a story taking place but rather characters making their way through a series of comedic vignettes. However, the film isn’t solely about getting laughs as the bits of comedic insanity are separated by the insanity of war as the seemingly never-ending supply of the bodies never abates.
As the film opens, we meet Hawkeye Pierce (Donald Sutherland) and Duke Forest (Tom Skerritt), two newly arrived surgeons to the front whose skills in the operating room rival their moves with the ladies. Rather than wait to be assigned a jeep, Hawkeye’s character is defined immediately by his decision to steal one and head off to the 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital. Once at camp, they immediately put their stamp on the place by requesting the pious Frank Burns (Robert Duvall) be removed from their quarters and teaching Ho-Jon, a local teenager, how to make martinis. They soon get a new tentmate, Trapper John McIntyre (Elliot Gould), who proves his worth by pulling olives out of his jacket, a luxury they have endured without.
The time is passed by drinking and carousing and playing pranks on those who don’t join in the fun, namely Frank and chief nurse Margaret Houlihan (Sally Kellerman), who earns the nickname “Hot Lips” after a passionate night with Frank is broadcast over the camp PA system. Yet they still find time to do good work. By creating a mock assisted suicide, they prevent “Painless Pole” Waldowski (John Schuck), the unit's dentist, from killing himself after he thought his performance failure with a nurse meant he was a homosexual. Trapper and Hawkeye go to Japan to operate on a Congressman’s son. After a very funny football game against General Hammond’s team, Hawkeye and Duke get their papers to go home, and the war keeps going.