M*A*S*H

M*A*S*H was Robert Altman’sbreakthrough, earning the director an Academy Award nomination and a Palme d’Or while the last wheezes of the sixties faded away, and tapping into general anti-Vietnam War feelings and the counterculture’s desire for subversion so well that it turned a very healthy profit. It’s hard to think of today’s audiences flocking so readily to a film containing so much difficult-to-hear, overlapping dialogue, no clear, defining plot and a bunch of barely-known actors in lead roles (Donald Sutherland, Sally Kellerman, Tom Skerritt and Elliott Gould were all fairly green at this point; Robert Duvall was better known, but his best work was still to come in the years ahead), but they did in 1970. It’s set during the Korean War but clearly about Vietnam, it’s often very funny (even if the antics of the frat-like medical doctors are ultimately annoying), and it sarcastically takes down military life and American obsessions time and time again: confusion reigns throughout, with people talking over one another and garbled tannoy announcements adding to the chaos, while everyone seems more interested in the result of a football match than the outcome of the war itself. While all the shenanigans are going on Altman consistently inserts injured bodies and bloody, life-saving operations into the mix, gently working a slightly serious edge into his film. It’s also got one of the greatest ever theme tunes, with lyrics famously penned by Altman’s then-14-year-old son Mike, and it’s well cast, too (though I actually prefer the long-running TV performances by Loretta Swit and Alan Alda over anything in the movie). (****)