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M*A*S*H

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Donald Sutherland, Elliott Gould, Tom Skerritt, Sally Kellerman, Robert Duvall
Director:  Robert Altman
Audio:  Dolby Digital Stereo, Dolby Mono
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 2.35:1
Studio:  20th Century Fox
Features:  See Review
Length:  116 Minutes
Release Date:  January 8, 2002

“I wonder how such a degenerated person ever reached a position of authority in the Army Medical Corps.”

“He was drafted.”

Film ****

Does one really take a sore spot in American culture and strip it of all its solemnity, making it utterly absurd and ridiculous?  If you’re Robert Altman, you do!

The year was 1970 and the ugliness of the Vietnam War was really starting to take its toll in this country.  Politics was coming to light as a dirty game, racial and sexual tensions were at an apex, and people were beginning to believe the good old United States of America was no longer infallible.  The decade would, appropriately enough, begin and end with two films exploring the insanity of the war.  Apocalypse Now said virtually everything that needed to be said about Vietnam.  But nine years earlier, M*A*S*H said it in a different way.                 

Though the opening titles confirm that the movie (like the novel and later TV show) takes place during the Korean War, one of director Altman’s first scriptural changes was to remove the word “Korea” from every page of the script.  There can be no doubt which war he really wanted to talk about in his film.

The movie is comically genius in a completely unrestrained, chaotic kind of way.  Techniques that Altman would later become renowned for were in their infancy here…overlapping dialogue, free moving cameras, allowing and encouraging as much improvisation as possible with the actors.  Before shooting was completed, he had angered nearly everyone involved…his stars Donald Sutherland and Elliott Gould tried to get him fired behind his back, screenwriter Ring Lardner, Jr., was seeing more and more of his script completely reworked, and the executives at Fox were starting to say that M*A*S*H would be the worst film in the history of the studio!

The reins were indeed loose, but not dropped.  Altman’s reckless and somewhat guerilla style of filmmaking gave the picture just the tone and style it needed for its subject matter.  The comedy was freewheeling and dangerous…much like his characters Hawkeye Pierce (Sutherland) and Trapper John McIntyre (Gould), Altman was belittling authority at every chance he got.

Even more daring was the gruesome operating room scenes, which often were juxtaposed against the humor of the script.  No film had ever depicted surgery so graphically, and again, many thought the director was insane to incorporate such imagery into what was supposed to be a comedy.  But again, there was a clear point…the insanity of war was rooted in the reality of war.  Take away the carnage, and all you have is a juvenile sex romp with a military background.

Despite the doubters and naysayers, M*A*S*H went on to gross an impressive $80 million at the box office and garner five Oscar nominations (with a win for screenplay).  It became hailed almost instantly as an entirely new and groundbreaking form of comedy, and Altman went from madman to genius seemingly overnight.

The years later would be kind to both Altman (with films like Nashville, McCabe & Mrs. Miller and more) and to M*A*S*H itself, which became one of America’s most popular television shows, running an amazing 11 seasons.  This country, despite the decade of unrest, was more than ready for this kind of comedy.

Perhaps laughter is the best medicine after all.

BONUS TRIVIA:  The lyrics to “Suicide is Painless” were penned by Robert Altman’s then 14 year old son, Mike.  And though it’s a war movie, the only gunshots heard are from the referee’s pistol at the football game finale!        

Video ***

M*A*S*H has never enjoyed a quality home video presentation, either on tape or on laser disc…with this DVD, Fox has corrected the two major issues:  the picture is now in widescreen, and has been restored.  The THX certification is a nice touch, but it’s not an entirely perfect picture.  Though better than ever before, there are still instances of image softness and muted colors from time to time.  Overall, though, the print has been cleaned up and is certainly brighter…the difference is very noticeable.  Flesh tones look natural, and color containment is much better and more solidly represented.  There is a restoration demonstration on Disc Two, which shows what a tremendous difference the cleaning up efforts made.

Audio ***

The stereo mix sounds quite good…clean, with the music and the immortal theme song sounding better than ever.  The original mono mix is also included, and a quick comparison shows the stereo mix has more dynamic range and, of course, the added benefit of panning during specific scenes.

Features ****

This double disc set from Fox’s Five Star Collection is loaded, starting with Altman’s commentary track on Disc One…occasionally sparse, but generally containing good information.  There is also an AMC Backstory featurette, which sums up the history of the M*A*S*H production succinctly, with interview pieces from cast and crew.  The original trailer and a stills gallery rounds out the first disc.

Disc Two contains two full documentaries… “Enlisted:  The Story of M*A*S*H” is very well done and delves into even greater detail about the making of the picture.  There are plenty of retrospective interviews with Altman and his cast and crew, including thoughts from Ring Lardner, Jr.  The second documentary, “M*A*S*H:  Comedy Under Fire” (not “History Through the Lens”, as billed on the box), deals with the entire phenomenon of M*A*S*H, from novel to movie to TV show, and how this long loved comedy became a part of American culture.  Finally, there is a 30th anniversary reunion special taped in 2000 at a film museum in Los Angeles, bringing Altman together again with many of his old collaborators…a real treat.

Rounding out the second disc is a restoration featurette, and some Easter eggs for happy hunters.  Hint:  play around with the signpost.

Summary:

M*A*S*H ushered in a new era of filmmaking for the 1970s, and established Robert Altman’s reputation as an experimenter and innovator.  This movie is just as funny today as it was thirty years ago, and its playful yet potent message hasn’t been lost, either.  This Five Star Collection DVD from Fox represents the best home video presentation for this movie…restored to full length and original R rating, in anamorphic widescreen, and with a bounty of extras to boot.  Recommended.