WHAT'S IT ALL ABOUT?
Robert Altman's M*A*S*H is a strange brew. It's episodic and chaotic yet cohesive; it's hilarious yet medically horrific. The director took a cast full of unknowns and an adaptation of a novel that nobody read and came up with a rambling comedy classic that was, for its day, surprisingly irreverent and appalling.
Sometimes it's a fluke that certain movies exist at all. M*A*S*H is one of those movies. Altman was far from the studio's first choice as director, and whenever studio representatives viewed dailies, they complained about the film's bawdiness and bloodiness. The cast often felt that Altman had no idea what he was doing. (In fact, Donald Sutherland and Elliot Gould even approached the studio to have the director fired.) Ostensibly set during the Korean War, this 1969 film is of and about the Vietnam War, and everyone was sensitive to an entertainment that essentially ridiculed US efforts there. Even when Fox suits viewed finished footage following principal photography, they believed the project was dead in the water. And yet here it is, an undeniable movie classic, celebrated as part of Fox's impressive Five Star Collection.
The film's lazy, meandering story tends to follow the crudely eccentric adventures of three doctors stationed at the 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital (MASH): Hawkeye (Sutherland), Trapper John (Gould), and Duke (Tom Skerritt). But M*A*S*H pays equal attention to minor characters such as Major Burns (Robert Duvall), Hotlips O'Houlihan (Sally Kellerman), and Radar (Gary Burghoff, who would be the only cast member to join the later TV series). Outlining the film's episodic plot is difficult. Suffice it to say, this bunch of slackers and "Army clowns" spend their days tossing back martinis, playing practical jokes, and getting laid—at least, when they're not consumed with the war's wounded in the surgical tents. There's a terrific disparity between the film's heaps of low humor and gory scenes of war injury. Altman plays that up in this antiwar film, asking his audience to consider two very different forms of madness.
M*A*S*H was nominated for five Oscars (including Best Picture) and won for Best Adapted Screenplay (for Ring Lardner Jr., one of the last of the infamous "Hollywood 10")—which is strange when you consider that Altman and his cast virtually ignored Lardner's script! According to Tom Skerritt, about 80 percent of the film was ad-libbed.
You're probably more familiar with the long, long TV series that M*A*S*H inspired. It's one of the most critically acclaimed and popular series in the history of the medium. And yet Altman doesn't like the series, calling it "the antithesis of what we were trying to do." He even misremembers the name of the series' star as "Alan Albert" in his commentary.
HOW'S IT LOOK?
Fox presents a newly restored M*A*S*H in a generally pleasing anamorphic transfer of its original 2.35:1 theatrical aspect ratio. Definitely not an image that will knock your socks off, it betrays the film's 30 years with occasional murkiness. However, flesh tones are natural, and background detail is above average though tending toward slight softness. Film grain is present, but of course not intrusive. However, dirt specks and scratches are more evident than I expected from this restoration.
Of course, the military color palette of M*A*S*H has an appropriately muted look, almost as if you're watching much of the film through a medical gauze, or through a constant fog of smoke. Colors tend toward gray-greens and yellows, and the transfer accurately displays this "Korean" setting. Toward the end, during the football game, reds and greens and blues are suddenly more vibrant, ending the film on a colorful, somewhat happier and hopeful note.
HOW'S IT SOUND?
Fox offers two English audio tracks on M*A*S*H—the original mono presentation and a new Dolby 2.0 mix. (There's also a French language track.) Neither English track is very dynamic, but the stereo presentation is the preferable one. Surround effects are nowhere to be found.
Altman's trademark overlapping dialog is as inscrutable as ever, and a slight loss of fidelity (in combination with weak source material) doesn't help matters. There's noticeable hiss and tinniness.
WHAT ELSE IS THERE?
This Five Star Collection edition of M*A*S*H boasts a fair number of extras, but unfortunately there's a significant amount of overlap. On the first disc, you'll find a Robert Altman commentary that has obscenely long periods of silence. He's got a few interesting anecdotes to share, but the vast majority are repeated (and repeated again) in the featurettes. I looked forward to this commentary, but after listening to it, I would recommend skipping it in favor of the other supplements.
Also on the first disc is a 25-minute made-for-TV featurette called M*A*S*H: Back Story, produced by the American Movie Classics (AMC) channel. You learn how the book became a script and how the script became a film. It features illuminating new interviews with most of the stars. This was my favorite featurette of the set. Rounding out the first disc is the film's anamorphic widescreen trailer, which plays up the characters' sexual escapades, even misrepresenting them a bit!
The second disc holds four more featurettes. The 42-minute Enlisted: The Story of M*A*S*H essentially takes the same route as the first disc's featurette but in more detail. Here's where the repetition within the supplements becomes tiring. This is the third time you'll hear some of these stories. The 44-minute M*A*S*H: Comedy Under Fire contains still more duplication but has a broader focus, sharing some actual history of Korean MASH units, complete with real doctor and nurse interviews. A third featurette is the quite welcome 30-minute M*A*S*H Reunion, which chronicles the 30th anniversary theatrical debut of the restored film. Following the presentation, film critic Andy Klein interviewed several cast members, with the notable exceptions of Sutherland, Skerritt, and Kellerman. Although this featurette provides even more redundacy, I liked its "town hall" feel. Finally, a Film Restoration piece shows some side-by-side comparisons of old and restored footage, so we can get a feel for the restoration efforts behind this DVD.
WHAT'S LEFT TO SAY?
When all is said and done, this edition of M*A*S*H will be an extremely welcome addition to any movie library. You might consider saving some of the supplemental material for later viewing, because redundancy is definitely a problem. You'll find DVDs that boast better image and sound quality, but Fox has done an admirable job with what was available.