This 1970 satire on the Korean War, in my estimation, faced a number of hurdles in terms of its cinematic ambition. First, it represented one of master director Robert Altman's early forays into film-making following a long career in TV and, whilst there are some hints of the magical touches he would show in his later (superior) films McCabe And Mrs Miller, Nashville, The Player and Short Cuts, for me this film is more of a mixed bag. Second, the film was, of course, succeeded by the long-running (and, for me, significantly superior) TV series, which, admittedly with a much extended scope (around 50 times the film's duration, if my calculations are correct), allowed much deeper character and plot development.
Having said this, there are, of course, many things to commend the film version. Ring Lardner Jnr.'s Oscar-winning screenplay is in large part hilarious, particularly during the superior first half of the film. Altman also assembled an all-star cast (or, at least, soon to be stars) and there are many standout performances. As the trio of rebellious, philandering doctors variously arriving at the Mobile Army Surgical Hospital, each of Donald Sutherland ('Hawkeye' Pierce), Elliot Gould ('Trapper John' McIntyre) and Tom Skeritt ('Duke' Forrest) are suitably sardonic in the presence of authority figures. Similarly, there are superb character parts delivered by Roger Bowen as the camp's commanding officer, Colonel Henry Blake, René Auberjonois as the resident chaplain Father Mulcahy and (soon to play the same memorable character in the follow-up TV series) Gary Burghoff as Corporal 'Radar' O'Reilly. For me, however, the film's acting honours go to the marvellous pair of Sally Kellerman (who was nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar) as the uptight, stickler-for-rules, and sexually repressed Major Margaret 'Hot Lips' Houlihan and Robert Duvall, who demonstrates his outstanding acting versatility in this comedic role, as the equally uptight, religious fanatic Major Frank Burns. Unlike the majority of the film's cast who, for me, do not live up their TV series equivalents, Kellerman and Duvall are the exceptions, delivering two of their finest ever big screen performances.
The first half of Altman's film is a delightful series of comic vignettes which serve to develop the anarchic roles of the Hawkeye, Trapper and Duke characters and, in particular, their increasingly fractious relationship with the superficially upstanding pair of Hot Lips and Frank. This section of the film includes the hilarious scenes where Hot Lips and Frank's tempestuous coupling finds itself being broadcast to all and sundry on the camp's PA system and that where Hot Lips' true hair colour is 'investigated' by Hawkeye & Co. during the infamous shower scene. There are many great lines of dialogue here too, such as that where Hawkeye has again disgraced himself, causing Hot Lips to question, 'I wonder how a degenerated person like that can have reached a position of responsibility in the army medical corps?', to which an onlooker replies, 'He was drafted'. Also, during the early sections of the film Altman repeatedly emphasises the sheer horror of war, and the nature of the characters' day jobs, by showing (moderately) gory scenes of the surgery that Hawkeye and colleagues routinely undertake.
These more serious reflections on the nature of war are, for me however, underdeveloped throughout the film - and, indeed, particularly when this element is compared with the TV series. Similarly, the latter half of the film, which features the episode where Hawkeye and Trapper travel to Tokyo and the final set-piece of the inter-camp football match are less funny (relying in part on more slapstick humour).
For me, therefore, this is not up with Altman's very best films, but is still worth seeing for its plus points.