The M*A*S*H universe, consisting of Richard Hooker's novel, this in many ways groundbreaking film by Robert Altman, and the ensuing TV series created by Larry Gelbart and Gene Reynolds both outlasted and transcended the Korean War upon which it was based. M*A*S*H was Altman's first big commercial success (actually one of few during his career), and established him as one of the new auteurs of American cinema.
Seen today, 50 years after its release, it's almost impossible to view the movie version independently of its enormously successful television counterpart. The latter owes much of its success to Altman's visionary film, not least the offhand form in which the camera follows various characters and situations in a seemingly impromptu manner, but also the undeniable sarcasm which underlines it all.
Still, Altman's satire is so riddled with cynicism that it to a large degree kills the comedy. His episodic, unnarrative style makes the film look like a faux documentary, especially during its first half, but the writing isn't funny enough to give the mockery enough punch. Compared with the TV series, the film version is colder, with a lot less heart. Donald Sutherland and Elliot Gould's Hawkeye/Trapper aren't disillusioned humanitarians like Alan Alda and Wayne Rogers' characters, they're more like nihilistic, sexist bullies – and with a lot less charm to boot.
That being said, such a comparison between the two formats may be unfair in essence. What Altman's film has is a greater sense of the meaninglessness and arbitrariness of war, something which combined with the solid production design gives it a good deal of authenticity in the midst of all the buffoonery. There is merit in M*A*S*H's anti-war theme, but as a comedy it's lacking and hasn't stood the test of time all that well. Again, compared with Gelbart's creation, the comedy in Altman's version is more caustic, but also goofier and less brainy.