Fox // 1970 // 116 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Daniel Kelly (Retired) // October 5th, 2009
Everyone has bad films that they like, guilty pleasures that most human beings would need to be held at gunpoint in order to endure. By the same token, there are motion pictures heralded as champions of cinema, movies with stellar reputations and peppered with awards nominations that, well...don't really do it for you. One such feature for me is Robert Altman's M*A*S*H, a film following a group of raucous American surgeons in Korea in the year 1951 trying to keep their sanity using practical jokes and ridiculous escapades in the face of war. I can see the appeal and admittedly some of the performances and jokes do work, yet for me a vague sense of tedium overshadows proceedings.
The narrative is more like a collection of skits and dramatic interludes focusing around the film's main protagonists, including lively Hawkeye (Donald Sutherland, Six Degrees of Separation), loudmouthed McIntyre (Elliott Gould, Friends), and put-upon Hot Lips O'Houlihan (Sally Kellerman, Delgo). The acting in M*A*S*H ranges from acceptable to excellent, Sutherland's quick witted and at times surprisingly vulnerable turn providing a delightful highlight. He also shares a good comic chemistry with Elliot Gould who plays the bear-like McIntyre with a commendably bawdy attitude and fiery delivery of dialogue. Others aren't given the same generous dollops of screen time but still do well and showcase a solid dose of clowning; Robert Duvall (We Own the Night) plays it straight to great effect as an uptight and charmless surgeon whilst Kellerman herself adds a stiff upper lip to several of the movie's most amusing scenes. Certainly the problems I have with M*A*S*H don't stem from any sort of thespian standpoint.
On release in 1970, M*A*S*H must have seemed like an awfully crude and at times risqué slice of film; today, it's pretty tame but at its time, the feature was a sex romp like few had been exposed to before. Essentially that is what M*A*S*H is for large stretches of its runtime, the only thing separating it from utter juvenile nothingness is its consistently grueling scenes of surgery. Altman does cleverly incorporate this grimy aesthetic to remind audience members that his farce is more than just a few 20-somethings goofing about, it's primarily about them utilizing humor to keep the gory and horrible side of war at a mentally sufferable distance. In this way, the movie captures a depth that at least provides its reputation with a meaty substance of sorts, it's not all about the gags folks.
The narrative is exceedingly loose and feels remarkably overlong, adding to a slight hint of dullness that envelops the picture from about the 20 minutes mark. M*A*S*H has some very fine moments, but it feels disjointed, and it's this lack of structure that makes it hard to digest in one big 116 minute whack. To add further salt to the ever widening wound the laugh quota is patchier than most would like to admit, at least it is in 2009. I can see how in 1970 M*A*S*H might have found more giggles amongst audiences mostly ignorant to its sort of frat-style comedy, but the years have severely dulled the impact of such eye popping filmmaking approaches. Every week we are shoved a multitude of multiplex-filling comedies that owe a little something to M*A*S*H, and as a result and possibly a little unfairly the Altman source film occasionally feels stale.
I need to make it clear that I don't hate M*A*S*H, its irreverent momentum offering up some joyously anarchic comedic mayhem and at least a few good performances. However, time hasn't been kind and it's hard to deny that the story doesn't suffer from a vaguely nauseating sense of disconnect. It remains a movie worth checking out for its heritage, but don't be surprised if you're a little underwhelmed by what you find in 2009.
The Blu-ray disc is a good one, packed with bonus features and looking pretty in hi-def video. The film looks a lot smoother and clearer than it did on its previous DVD incarnation whilst still holding onto some of that rugged charm that marks out Altman's shooting style. The extras flow freely and house some shocking truths, for a start it transpires that Sutherland actually wanted Altman off the project, suggesting he was both cluttered and disorganized. Imagine his wish at the time had gone through? Altman offers up a commentary to go beside the in-depth featurette, and together the combination covers just about everything you might ever want to know about this caper. Adding some further trivia value is an interactive guide, which offers up further tidbits of movie-related knowledge. Also for your hi-def viewing pleasure you can watch the trailer and check out a stills gallery, exactly the sort of special content this hi-tech format was designed for. Still overall I was pretty happy with this release, especially given the treatment some other catalogue features have been shoehorned with on their way to Blu-ray.
It hasn't dated well, but the Blu-ray release is pretty great. It's not like
me handing out a guilty verdict is going to change anything, despite my lack of
love M*A*S*H has long been ingratiated into the cinematic hall of
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Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (French)
Running Time: 116 Minutes
Release Year: 1970
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Image Galley
* Interactive Guide