Review by Michael Jacobson
Donald Sutherland, Elliott Gould, Tom Skerritt, Sally Kellerman, Robert
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
wonder how such a degenerated person ever reached a position of authority in the
Army Medical Corps.”
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!
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.
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
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!
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.
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
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.
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.
laughter is the best medicine after all.
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
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.
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
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
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
out the second disc is a restoration featurette, and some Easter eggs for happy
play around with the signpost.