Our reviews of M*A*S*H: Season Six (published July 28th, 2004), M*A*S*H: Season Seven (published January 19th, 2005), M*A*S*H: Season Nine (published January 11th, 2006), M*A*S*H: Season Ten (published May 15th, 2006), M*A*S*H: Season Eleven (published January 31st, 2007), M*A*S*H (Blu-Ray) (published October 5th, 2009), and M*A*S*H: Goodbye, Farewell And Amen (published May 23rd, 2007) are also available.
"Suicide is painless…"
It's been only a few years since I found out that the TV show "M*A*S*H" was based on a Robert Altman movie (you can stop laughing now). As strange and naïve as it sounds, I never knew that the hit show actually started as a full length motion picture (with a mostly different cast). While I've seen the show many times, I can't really recall much about it—I remember that Alan Alda was one of the leads, and that the final aired episode drew a record number of TV viewers. That's about as far as my knowledge extends for the TV show. My experiences with the movie is even less. After seeing The Player I immediately became a Robert Altman fan (even if I was disappointed by such follow-ups as Short Cuts and The Gingerbread Man). Needless to say, I was excited to receive Altman's M*A*S*H for review on DVD. Starring Donald Sutherland (Ordinary People), Elliot Gould (American History X) and Tom Skerritt (TV's Picket Fences), M*A*S*H comes to DVD in a double disc set as part of Fox's "Five Star Collection" series.
Facts of the Case
Welcome to the wild and wacky 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital, a place where the wounded and the healthy come to heal…and laugh! Close to the battlefield, the M*A*S*H unit is filled with all kinds of doctors and army personal trying to cope with the everyday reality of war. Instead of having a true beginning, middle, and end, M*A*S*H bounces all over the place as it follows a group of misfits and wackos doing their jobs, experiencing sexual escapades, and lounging around. There's the laidback "Hawkeye" Pierce (Sutherland), the lusty but abrasive "Hot Lips" Houlihan (Sally Kellerman), the religious yet hypocritical Major Burns (Robert Duvall, The Godfather), the irascible "Trapper" John McIntyre (Gould), the young and peppy "Duke" (Skerritt), and an assortment of other oddball army surgical staff members. With partying and boozing the order of the day, the 4077 is trying to survive and stay sane in a war that could drive anyone crazy!
It's funny—some movies stand up over the test of time, yet others seem to age and wilt under the pressure of the years. M*A*S*H is a good example of the latter. Back in 1970 I'm sure that M*A*S*H was a new and original comedy for audiences to chew on. The overlapping dialogue, offbeat gags, and raunchy humor must have been a departure from some of the other mundane comedic fare hitting the theaters. Unfortunately, this reviewer found it to be somewhat long and only mildly intoxicating. Maybe my memories are ingrained too deep in the TV series (which weren't that deep to begin with). However, I'd like to think that the reason I didn't laugh as much as I'd anticipated was due to the fact that M*A*S*H is really a time capsule of its era.
This isn't to say that M*A*S*H isn't funny. The non-linear screenplay by Ring Lardner, Jr. (adapted from a novel by Richard Hooker) is filled with a lot of jokes and one liners that were highly amusing. One gag (and probably the most famous) has the male crew of the 4077 taking bets on if Houlihan's "curtains" match her "drapes" while she's showering. Moments like these are what made (and, to some extent, still make) M*A*S*H an irreverent and even groundbreaking comedy. One of the most amazing things was seeing certain actors looking like they'd just gotten out of college! Many of them were given their start in M*A*S*H by Altman and have gone on to become highly successful actors and actresses. Elliot Gould and Donald Sutherland make amiable and amusing leads as they snicker and quip their way through the film. I especially enjoyed Gould's absurd sense of humor; this is the type of guy you want helping you to plan your bachelor party. The bulk of the cast is also very good; Kellerman as Houlihan plays her character with humorous hysterics; Robert Duvall, as usual, is dependable and interesting; and Gary Burghoff is great as the spacey 4077 Corporal Radar (who would also reappear in the 1972 acclaimed TV series).
Much of the story is connected through a series of short scenes and discussions. While there are some story arcs, overall this is in the vein of a slice-of-life comedy, though I think I'd readily call this a slice-of-war comedy. Characters often weave in and out of the film as if it's a large tapestry (Altman would continue to work this way in future films like Nashville and Short Cuts). While this can be an intriguing way of making a film, here it sometimes becomes more distracting than one would like. Altman and his cast actually used the screenplay more as a skeletal structure than a solid script; much of the film ended up being improvised (to the dismay of the writer).
M*A*S*H was released at the height of the Vietnam War (though set in the 1950s Korean War), and as such there was strong opposition to the fighting and our reasoning for being in that terrible war. M*A*S*H possibly gave some people a welcome release from their fears, worries and anger. In a way maybe M*A*S*H isn't a bad movie to watch in our own troubled times—after September 11th, 2001, we all need some kind of diversion and laughter to get us through the horrors of war. M*A*S*H may not be the movie it was thirty years ago, but it can still entertain and—at times—make us think.
M*A*S*H is presented in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen. The original camera negative for M*A*S*H was lost years ago, and as such Altman and his team had to find the best looking prints around to restore M*A*S*H to its intended glory. Because of this the image tends to be a mixed bag; there are some spots that look great, yet others that look dark and grainy. Overall the colors looked slightly worn and dark. Black levels were generally solid, though I did spot some gray in a few key scenes. Thankfully, edge enhancement and halo were non-present, though a small amount of digital artifacting was seen in the very beginning. I could endlessly complain about the general condition of this film, but the fact is that it's not a bad print—just a mediocre one. I am thankful that Fox released this edition of M*A*S*H in its original widescreen version—the film has so many examples of Altman's use of the whole picture space that a pan and scan version would have been a bastardization.
Audio is presented in Dolby Stereo, as well as the original Dolby Mono track (in both English and French). The stereo track on this disc seems to run side by side with the video portions—while the bulk of the dialogue is well heard, there isn't a lot of depth of fidelity available on this track. One problem that I had on this track was the fact that there was a lot of overlapping dialogue. Normally this wouldn't be a huge hindrance in a film, but with the age and condition of the original source elements for the soundtrack (not good, not good), it was a bit disappointing being forced to hear certain dialogue while straining. Also included on this disc are English and Spanish subtitles.
M*A*S*H is part of Fox's "Five Star Collection," a series of DVDs that feature famous films getting the royal treatment. Aside of the movie and its video/audio components, the first disc also includes a few extra supplements. The first is a commentary track by director Robert Altman. While this isn't the most thrilling commentary track ever recorded (there's way too many silent gaps during the movie), Altman still has a few funny stories and production remembrances to share with his audience.
"Backstory: M*A*S*H" is a feature that was originally made of AMC and is a documentary about the making of the film. I was impressed with how through this feature was, including everything from screen tests to interviews with director Robert Altman and actors Elliot Gould, Tom Skerritt, Donald Sutherland, and Sally Kellerman. For an in-depth look at the film, this feature can't be beat. Also included on this first disc is a gallery of black and white and color photos, an anamorphic widescreen theatrical trailer that's in pretty shoddy shape, and a THX Optimode test for your sound system and television set.
Starting off disc two is "Enlisted: The Story of M*A*S*H," a 40-minute long documentary on the making of the film. Much like "Backstory," "Enlisted" is a very through documentary which includes interviews with Altman, writer Ring Lardner, Jr., Elliot Gould, Michael Murphy, Donald Sutherland, Tom Skerritt, former Fox president Richard Zanuck, producer Ingo Preminger (brother of famous director Otto Preminger), John Schuck ("Painless"), Sally Kellerman, and Rene Auberjoneois ("Father Mulchay"). Much like the other features, this is filled with behind-the scenes tales and anecdotes.
"M*A*S*H: Comedy Under Fire," hosted vocally by Burt Reynolds, is a look at the political aspects of the film, and how the comedy came to play with the real life war going on. This feature also included interviews with Altman, the producers, writers, and cast members. This feature also has a lot of information about the actual war being waged at the time of M*A*S*H's production and release. This feature is sort of like a historical documentary as well as a behind-the-scenes look at the film.
"M*A*S*H: Reunion" was a Fox Movie Channel exclusive that takes place at an award ceremony honoring Altman with a special Fox Legacy Award. After the award show there are eight participants from the film who sit down for a discussion with film critic Andy Klein to discuss even more about the making of the film. By the time I'd gotten around to this feature (which includes lots of duplicate stories and information), I was ready for a break from the 4077th army unit.
Finally there is a section about the "Film Restoration" process that is partially text and partially film. After the text section there are some examples of a split screen shot that show exactly how good the restoration looks compared to old VHS copies of the film. If the transfer isn't in perfect shape, you can sleep nights knowing that it's at least ten times better looking than previous incarnations.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
My main problem with the film was the fact that it wanted to sometimes be ultra-silly, and other times sentimental and even challenging. While this isn't a bad way to go, I didn't think the effect meshed as well as it could have with M*A*S*H. Otherwise, M*A*S*H is worth seeing if just for watching Elliot Gould pontificating about martinis and the importance of olives.
It's considered a classic and it spawned a long running TV show. I wasn't overly thrilled with the film, but others may find this to be a side-splitting comedy. Fox has done a very nice job on M*A*S*H: Five Star Collection, though it's too bad the video and audio portions of the disc couldn't be cleaned up any better. Otherwise, the supplemental materials should be a nice way for new and old fans to dig into the history of M*A*S*H's production.
M*A*S*H is found not guilty on the grounds that there's a war goin' on! Case dismissed!
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary by Director Robert Altman
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