Director Robert Altman's 1970 war feature was and still is generally regarded as one of the best of the genre. While the long-running success of the TV show that it inspired has somewhat overshadowed the movie itself, Fox's new 5-star DVD edition of the film gives viewers another chance to explore the film in a new (and restored) light.
The film takes place in the Korean war, but was also certainly also viewed as an anti-Vietnam picture as well. "MASH" stars Donald Sutherland, Elliott Gould, Tom Skerritt, Sally Kellerman and Robert Duvall as doctors stationed in Korea, performing surgery on the injured who were brought in. To take their minds off the horrors that they had to view on a daily basis, many of them play pranks or try otherwise crazy events to try and get their minds off the situation.
The film's story is rather undefined, but Altman capably blends the threads of plot together into a film where we are shown the unexpected, day-to-day lives that the characters lead. While some of the film does provide comedy, there's also some sequences throughout the film that show some rather graphic moments (and, as Altman discusses in the commentary, there were definite objections to showing it).
As with many of the director's other films (especially apparent in the director's recent "Gosford Park"), "MASH" shows the director able to cover a great deal of characters. It's the actors though, that really complete their characters, as Sutherland, Duvall and others really give their best efforts. While I have disliked some of the director's films ("Dr. T and the Women", "Ready To Wear", etc.), "MASH" really sees Altman at his finest, working with great material and an exceptional ensemble cast.
VIDEO: "M.A.S.H." is presented by 20th Century Fox in 2.35:1 anamorphic, THX-Approved widescreen. The film has been restored, with assistance from director Robert Altman. Still, while this is an improvement over previous editions, this is not an exceptional looking image. The film is dark and a bit soft by design, adding to the subdued feel and tone of the movie. Sharpness and detail aren't great, but at least the picture offers satisfactory definition.
Aside from the mild softness in the image, there aren't a great deal of other problems. The restoration has cleaned up much of the wear on the image, but there are still a few minor specks that have managed to stick around for this presentation. I didn't notice any problems with pixelation or edge enhancement and there's even only a minor amount of grain here and there.
Colors? Well, there really aren't many. The subdued (as to be expected, given the material) color palette is rendered accurately here, with mainly greens and browns showing through in many scenes. Flesh tones looked accurate and natural. The film has a definite "look" to it and that is presented probably the best its ever looked here.
SOUND: Both a new stereo soundtrack and the original mono soundtrack are included. The stereo edition does provide a fairly decent experience, as the soundtrack doesn't sound as thin as I'd expect from a film that's over 25 years of age at this point. The music remained flat, but still came through sounding at least somewhat crisp, while dialogue and effects were clear, but a bit rough at times.
MENUS: As per usual (especially with their "5-Star" titles, the animated menus that Fox has produced are quite tasteful and appropriate, with good use of film-themed images and music.
Commentary: This is a commentary from director Robert Altman. The track is informative, but the only problem is that there are some fairly sizable pauses of silence at times during the track. Altman discusses, in quite honest terms, issues with the reaction to the film, as well as other elements like locations, casting and improvisation with dialogue. He also talks quite a bit about troubles he had working with the studio, who seem to have had considerable reservations about some aspects of the film. It's not an outstanding commentary, but I thought it was a good and enjoyable one more often than not.
Backstory: This is a 25-minute documentary from AMC that proved to be quite enjoyable. The documentary provides a very good overview of how the irreverent comedy was produced - and the rather long and occasionally bumpy road to the screen it encountered. Both the studio and some of the lead actors were not pleased with the way that the production was proceeding, but Altman was able to keep things under control enough so that the studio would leave him and the film be - that is, until it reached the editing room, where battles over the film began anew.
Also: A still gallery, the film's trailer and THX Optimode tests are available on Disc 1.
Restoration Demonstration: Although the documentaries are the main features of the second disc, this restoration demonstration is quite interesting. Starting with several text screens that explain the history of the film materials and restoration process, we then are shown three split-screen comparisons of before-and-after restoration - and the results are impressive.
Enlisted: The Story Of M.A.S.H.: This is along the lines of "Backstory", in that it gives a further analysis of the production of the film. It does also go over the some of the same ground as the former presentation at times, but still does provide some interesting comments about the battles that went on between the director and the studio, as well as stories about what went on on-set. Interview footage with Altman, Zanuck, Gould, Sutherland, writer Ring Lardner (whose script was not followed, much to the writer's anger) and many others are provided. 40 minutes.
MASH: Comedy Under Fire: This is a documentary that lasts about 45-minutes and really does a strong job covering both the production of "MASH" and the realities that doctors faced in the operating room in Korea, who often spent 80-hours straight working and barely had a moment where they weren't faced with the horrors of war. Interviews with these real-life war doctors are provided, as are interviews with the cast and crew of the film. While there is some chat about the film's production, this mostly serves as a fascinating presentation of actual historical information and events. Pleasantly, the documentary is even broken into quite a few chapters for easy access.
Fox Movie Channel: MASH Reunion: In comparison to the other three, is the the most "thin" documentary, but still is a very appreciated addition to the more than satisfactory group of supplements that Fox has provided for this addition. This documentary shows Altman getting an award from the Fox FX channel at a celebration for the picture, as well as a discussion by Altman and some of the other memebers of the film's cast and crew. While some new tidbits are offered here, this often does go over the same ground of the struggles to release the picture that the other documentaries offered.
Final Thoughts: A very well-made and well-acted dark comedy, "M.A.S.H." really remains a classic and one of the finest works of Altman's career. The DVD presents the film with good audio/video quality and a great deal of supplemental features. The $26.98 price tag for the 2-DVD set is a total bargain from 20th Century Fox, who again proves without a doubt that they are the studio producing the strongest DVD editions today.