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M*A*S*H
Blu-ray Edition

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Donald Sutherland, Elliott Gould, Tom Skerritt, Sally Kellerman, Robert Duvall
Director:  Robert Altman
Audio:  DTS HD 5.1, Dolby Mono
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 2.35:1
Studio:  20th Century Fox
Features:  See Review
Length:  116 Minutes
Release Date: 
September 1, 2009

“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 were the gruesome operating room scenes, which often were juxtaposed against the humor of the script.  No prior 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 is looking pretty good for its age, and thanks to Blu-ray, fans get a chance to really see a cleaned up version of the film.  It's not perfect...four decades take their toll, and some of the overall images are a little soft, but clean.  Colors are slightly muted here and there, but overall, probably as good as can be expected, and certainly better than the movie's many prior incarnations for home video.

Audio ***

It was hard to tell a difference even though this DTS HD track is the first true digital surround sound available for the movie.  It sounds fine, but there's not a lot of use of the subwoofer or the rear channels, and dynamic range, even with the football game, is only moderate.  Still, a pleasant experience for a 40 year old movie.

Features ****

Isn't it terrific when a single Blu-ray disc can give you everything a double DVD release had and more?  This offering does just that, starting with a commentary from the late Robert Altman…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.

There are also 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.

Now, with this Blu-ray issue, there's also a complete interactive guide to the movie.  If you choose it, icons pop up throughout to help you keep track of the characters or other amusing facts, like how many drinks Hawkeye downs or how many court martials Trapper John SHOULD have racked up.

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 forty years ago, and its playful yet potent message hasn’t been lost, either.  This terrific new Blu-ray edition from Fox is just the treat fans have been waiting for!

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