Director: Robert Altman
Screenplay: Ring Lardner, Jr. (based on the novel by Robert Hooker)
Stars: Donald Sutherland (Hawkeye Pierce), Elliottt Gould (Trapper John McIntyre), Tom Skerritt (Duke Forrest), Sally Kellerman (Maj. "Hot Lips" Houlihan), Robert Duvall (Maj. Frank Burns), Jo Ann Pflug (Lt. Hot Dish), René Auberjonois (Dago Red), Roger Bowen (Col. Henry Blake)
MPAA Rating: R
Year of Release: 1970
Country: USA
M*A*S*H DVD Cover

One of director Robert Altman's favorite ways of describing how M*A*S*H got into theaters is, "It wasn't released from 20th Century Fox ... it escaped."

Ahead of its time and still one of the most effectively subversive comedies ever to emerge from a major studio, it is of little surprise that there was some resistance in the upper ranks of 20th Century Fox to releasing M*A*S*H back in 1970. Although set in Korea, the connections to the politically charged and publicly unpopular war in Vietnam were too strong ... the mixing of bawdy, sexist comedy with gory, realistic scenes of surgery was too disconcerting ... the blatant contempt for any form of authority was too pronounced ... and on, and on, and on. What were they to make of a war movie in which the Army was made to look like a joke and the only gun fired is a referee's pistol at a football game?

Yet, M*A*S*H did escape from the studio and make it into theaters, and all those qualities that studio executives worried about were exactly what made it so revolutionary. Simply put, there had never been a major movie like it before, and audiences responded to its brash mixture of realism and comedy and they sympathized with the anti-authoritarian stance of its difficult, but likable lead characters.

Based on a little-known 1968 novel by Robert Hooker, a veteran combat surgeon of the Korean War, M*A*S*H is told in loose, episodic style, with much of its dialogue improvised on set (much to the consternation of screenwriter Ring Lardner, Jr., one of the infamous Hollywood Ten who had been blacklisted since the '50s). Director Robert Altman, who was at the time a nearly unknown director with only a handful of small feature films and TV episodes under his belt, understood the material when others didn't, and he realized early on that the story's subversive humor needed room to work; it couldn't be constrained by the demands of traditional Hollywood narrative.

The various episodes center on a threesome of irreverent, but highly talented surgeons at a Mobile Army Surgery Hospital (hence the name, M*A*S*H) a few miles from the frontline in Korea: Hawkeye Pierce (Donald Sutherland), Trapper John McIntyre (Elliottt Gould), and Duke Forrest (Tom Skerritt). Hawkeye and company are not rigid Army professionals, but rather cocky, self-consumed young men who were drafted against their will and thus are willing to do just about anything to flaunt authority and discipline, especially in the form of the head nurse, a straight-laced military clown named Major Houlihan (Sally Kellerman).

What Hawkeye, Trapper John, and Duke hate most is hypocrisy, which they see everywhere, particularly in the authority figures (hence the nickname they give to Houlihan, "Hot Lips," after they broadcast her breathy love tryst with another authoritarian figure, Robert Duvall's Maj. Frank Burns, over the camp's loud-speaker system). There is an element of the carnivalesque in everything they do, where the main point is the inversion of the power hierarchy—to make those in authority look foolish. At the same time, there is a deeply humanistic vein that runs throughout M*A*S*H, as Hawkeye and the others use their rowdy behavior as a form of psychologically distancing themselves from the horrors around them. The true ugliness they see is not their own prankish cynicism, but the stoic nature of Army routine despite the maimed bodies that are flown into their camp every day.

Thus, Altman understood that part of the effectiveness of the humor in M*A*S*H had to emerge from the juxtaposition of the jokes to the grisly mise-en-scene of a frontline Army hospital. Thus, his camera never flinches from the oozing gore of the surgery room, with the comical characters, caked in blood, trying to stop squirting arteries and extract shrapnel.

With its somber hues and military setting, M*A*S*H never really looks like a comedy; Altman doesn't play to easy expectations by trying to make the setting bright and cheery. Rather, he uses the realism of the situation to heighten his characters' idiosyncratic behaviors and unorthodox attitudes. Sometimes, he plays with the mise-en-scene, such when he creates a visual parody of Da Vinci's The Last Supper in the blackly comic sequence in which Painless (John Schuck) decides to commit suicide because he thinks his Don Juanism is a mask for latent homosexuality.

Of course, much of the humor in M*A*S*H is as politically incorrect as you can get. The aforementioned suicide attempt based on the fear of being gay is only one example. It is also hard not to see the constant harassment of Hot Lips as being provoked as much by her gender as by her square rigidity. Yet, in the end, the entire movie has such a subversive effect in every aspect that it's pointless to single out particular groups that are insulted, since just about everyone is at one point or another. Although it is now best remembered as the beloved TV show that lasted for 11 seasons, in 1970 the word M*A*S*H brought to mind a particular attitude—a willingness to undercut authority as a way of checking the powerful—that an entire generation embraced.

M*A*S*H Five Star Collection DVD
The version of M*A*S*H on this disc is the original, uncut, 116-minute R-rated version as it originally played in theaters in 1970, not the 112-minute PG-rated version that has been widely available on video.
Aspect Ratio2.35:1
AudioDolby 2.0 Stereo
Dolby 1.0 Monaural
LanguagesEnglish (2.0, 1.0), French (1.0)
SubtitlesEnglish, Spanish
SupplementsAudio commentary by director Robert Altman
AMC Backstory: retrospective documentary
Enlisted: The Story of M*A*S*H retrospective documentary
History Through the Lens: M*A*S*H: Comedy Under Fire historical documentary
Remembering M*A*S*H : 30th Anniversary Cast & Crew Reunion
Stills gallery
Original theatrical trailer
Film restoration featurette
THX OptiMode test signals
Distributor 20th Century Fox
Release DateJanuary 8, 2002

M*A*S*H has been given a new, THX-certified anamorphic transfer in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio that was overseen by director Robert Altman. The transfer was taken from the color-separation masters because, as a brief featurette included on the second disc notes, the original negatives have been lost and all of the duplicate negatives are worn out beyond repair from striking prints. Because color-separation masters are actually recorded through a filter onto black-and-white stock, there is no fading over time. Thus, M*A*S*H looks surprisingly good for being more than 30 years old. It has always been a low-key film in terms of color, so the color saturation is not particularly striking until the final football scene. The image is clean of any nicks or dirt, and the overall softness of the picture is the film's intended look (Altman notes in the commentary that they used fog filters and diffusers on the cameras, anything to keep the image from looking "crisp and clear"). Hands down, this is the best the film has ever looked on home video.

The soundtrack was remastered from the original three-track mono mix with the use of several other magnetic elements to fill in the gaps. The result is presented in two-channel stereo, and Altman's inventive sound mix, particularly in the use of overlapping dialogue, sounds excellent. All of the nuances of the soundtrack come through cleanly without any hints of distortion or ambient hiss.

Robert Altman's audio commentary is less of a feature-length commentary than it is a series of well-spaced comments. Informative as it is, the commentary is quite sporadic, with lengthy stretches throughout the movie in which he says nothing and you begin to wonder if the commentary has ended prematurely.

The meat of the supplementary material on this "Five Star Collection" edition is in four documentary featurettes. Included on the first disc is an episode of AMC Backstory, which runs 24 minutes. It is a general production history that features interviews with Altman, then 20th Century-Fox studio chief Richard Zanuck, screenwriter Ring Lardner Jr., and stars Donald Sutherland, Elliott Gould, Tom Skerritt, and Sally Kellerman. Some of the main topics covered here include Lardner Jr.'s anger over Altman's improvisational methods that basically discarded his script and the addition of the loudspeakers as a transition device during postproduction.

The first disc also includes an original theatrical trailer in anamorphic widescreen and a stills gallery containing several dozen behind-the-scenes photographs, some in black and white and some in color.

The second disc opens with Enlisted: The Story of M*A*S*H, a more in-depth 41-minute production history (conveniently divided into 15 chapters). It uses some of the same interview footage as AMC Backstory, but adds considerably more participants, including producer Ingo Preminger, associate producer Leon Erickson, editor Danford Greene, and additional actors John Schuck, Rene Abuerjonois, Gary Burghoff, and Michael Murphy.

After all the behind-the-scenes stories of the first two featurettes, the 44-minute History Through the Lens: M*A*S*H: Comedy Under Fire (divided into 18 chapters) is a welcome addition as it connects the movie to the real-life experiences of combat surgeons in the Korean War. Most of the main points of the production history of M*A*S*H are reiterated again, but it is combined with some fascinating interviews with veterans of actual MASH units in Korea who admit that some of the irreverent antics in the movie are not that far removed from really happen when brash young surgeons in medical school were drafted.

Remembering M*A*S*H: 30th Anniversary Cast & Crew Reunion is a 30-minute video document of Robert Altman's being awarded with the Fox Movie Channel's inaugural "Legacy Award" in July 2000, following a five-week retrospective of his films that included a restored print of M*A*S*H on the final night. In addition to the ceremony in which the honorary award was given (Altman's acceptance speech is notable only for its brevity), Altman and a number of M*A*S*H cast and crew member took the stage for some 25 minutes of engaging and often hilarious Q&A with film critic Andy Klein.

Also included on this second disc is a Restoration featurette that opens with several pages of notes by Michael Pogorzelski, director of the Academy Film Archive who was involved in restoring M*A*S*H. His informative notes about how the film's sound and image were restored are followed by several minutes of split-screen comparison footage of the newly restored video master with previous video masters. The comparison is quite striking, not only in terms of sharpness, but particularly in terms of brightness and saturation of the colors (especially in the football sequence).

Copyright © 2002 James Kendrick

Overall Rating: (4)

James Kendrick

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