“Attention: Tonight’s movie has been M*A*S*H. Follow the zany antics of our combat surgeons as they stitch their way along the front lines operating as bombs and bullets burst around them, snatching laughs and love between amputations and penicillin, as they put our boys back together again.”
M*A*S*H began life as a novel written by an actual Korean War Army surgeon under the pen name Richard Hooker. He based the character of Hawkeye on himself and most of the other characters on actual personnel that were stationed with him at a real M*A*S*H unit. The book was written for the screen by longtime blacklisted screenwriter Ring Lardner, Jr. Lardner was intrigued by the anti-authority message the book had, likely due to his own experiences with the government. He was one of a group of Hollywood talent that refused to testify before the Senate Committee on Un-American Activities. They were thrown in prison and blacklisted in the industry. This particular group became known as The Hollywood Ten. Whatever Lardner’s ideas might have been for the movie, they were enough to get a select group of producers excited about the property and got the ball rolling. We won’t ever really know what those concepts might have been exactly. In the hands of, at that time, new director Robert Altman, the script was practically discarded almost in its entirety. Altman had his own views which were inspired more by the still raging Vietnam War than what he considered an obscure historical event he believed most Americans didn’t even remember. All mention of Korea was deliberately left out of the film. When the studio caught on they forced him into providing a scroll at the film’s beginning that set the location. To Altman and pretty much everyone working on the film they were making a movie about Vietnam, not Korea. He incorporated his own anti-establishment, some might call subversive, ideas and made a film that Lardner would exclaim was nothing like his script. He encouraged rampant improvisation from the cast and little of Lardner’s dialog actually remained.
Altman’s set was chaotic and lacked discipline. He was counting on the studio ignoring him because he knew they were engaging in two very high profile big budget war films at the time. For the most part, that’s exactly what happened. The two stars, Gould and Sutherland, were unhappy with the way things were progressing and did their best to get Altman fired. They would shout to anyone who would listen that the director was crazy, and they didn’t mean it figuratively. Even today, while Sutherland is willing to admit that the film turned out the way it should have, he still believes Altman should have been put in a mental institution. Altman was able to get away with his antics for the most part because of his small budget and the fact he hired mostly new actors to fill most of the roles. Fourteen out of the film’s 30 speaking parts went to actors appearing in their very first film. To Altman’s credit, the film went on to enjoy tremendous success, and many of the film’s unknown actors went on to become household names.
The problem with the film, at least for me, is that it never really goes anywhere. It’s really just a collection of vignettes in the same settings with many of the same characters. There is no plot or story at all. Perhaps in the original screenplay there was something more. We’ll never know. It’s interesting that when the film went to edit even Altman began to worry that the film had no cohesion to it. All of those speaker announcements were added later, after the film was shot, in an attempt to bring the pieces together a little better. Unfortunately, it never really happens. The film stands as a symbol of guerilla filmmaking, but its legacy is the long standing television series, a fact that I think did not sit too well with Altman. He mostly refused to talk about the series, and I can’t say that I blame him at all.
Ask anyone about M*A*S*H and I’ll bet the first thing they think about is the long running television comedy that wasn’t afraid to get serious with their laughter. They recognize names like Hawkeye Pierce, Frank Burns, Trapper John, and Hot Lips, but when they’re thinking about those iconic characters the faces they see are Alan Alda, Larry Linville, Wayne Rogers, and Loretta Swit. But fans of the hit movie that started it all see a different group of faces. They see Donald Sutherland, Robert Duvall, Elliott Gould, and Sally Kellerman. In fact, the only actor who would play their role for both the film and series was Gary Burghoff, who was everyone’s favorite teddy bear huggin’ corporal. The truth is there were considerable differences between the two shows.
One of the most glaring differences is in the two main characters. They switch positions between the film and series. In the movie it is Trapper John who is the superior surgeon and chest specialist. He is named chief surgeon here. In the series these attributes would fall to Hawkeye. In the film, the main theme has lyrics which were written by Altman’s young son. The song, Suicide Is Painless, refers to a major scene in the film where the camp’s dentist, Painless (Schuck) is afraid he’s turning gay because of his recent failure to perform for one of the young attractive nurses. In a fit of depression he contemplates suicide and the camp throws him a big going away dinner. The camp is very much the same and utilizes many of the same sets as the film did.
M*A*S*H is presented in its original aspect ratio of 2.35:1. The 1080p image is arrived at with an AVC/Mpeg-4 codec. The release has one of the steadiest bit rates I’ve ever seen. It almost constantly stays in the 28-29 mbps range. The image is serviceable but not a lot better than that. It’s often soft and doesn’t bring out the level of sharpness and detail you might have already gotten used to. Colors are dreary, and much of that was likely an intentional effect. In fact the entire drab nature of the film can be attributed to Altman’s distinctive style choices. That means this really is about as good as this film will ever look. I never saw a standard DVD of the film, but I suspect this is an upgrade, I’m just not sure that it matters.
The DTS-HD Master Audio track is pretty solid for what it needs to do. This is a dialog heavy film so that there weren’t near as many problems in the audio presentation. In fact, I found some solid lows during the helicopter scenes. Mostly the center and mains carry the weight. A few ambient sounds and effects fill in just enough to keep the sound from coming off as too claustrophobic. Remember that the original film was mono. The mix doesn’t dramatically change the tone of the film, which is exactly as it should be.
There is an Audio Commentary with director Robert Altman. Obviously it’s an older track that has been used for previous DVD releases. He pontificates a lot and wants us to be very sure we understand his politics and feelings for authority. He’s told these stories so much you likely couldn’t have helped but have heard them before.
All of the extras are in SD.
It also bears pointing out that the film arrives in one of those flimsy unprotective eco-boxes. How about if studio execs and actors spent a few less hours in the limo and private jets to save the planet and stop pretending this is about anything more than saving a few pennies. Simply put, these eco-boxes are a joke. It’s ridicululous!
I should also mention that while there are some nice long features here the amount of reused footage and overlapping information is some of the worst I’ve yet encountered.
Enlisted – The Story Of M*A*S*H: (40:53) This one plays out like inside baseball. It’s a lot of Robert Altman, Richard Zanuck, and Ingo Preminger talking about the various controversies surrounding the making of the film. A few cast members join in from time to time. We learn that it was the first non X rated film to drop the F-Bomb. That honor went to John Schuck, who tells us he never did learn how to pronounce his last name.
M*A*S*H – History Through The Lens: (44:08) This is actually a television documentary on the film that was originally called Comedy Under Fire. The film compares the film to the real Korean War M*A*S*H units, talking to actual veterans who served in these units. The last 15 minutes deals with the television series. Again a lot of it is comparing the screen version to the real thing. There’s a lot of vintage footage from the Korean War.
Remembering M*A*S*H – 30th Anniversary Cast And Crew Reunion: (30:02) This is a Fox Movie Channel presentation. They awarded Robert Altman with their first annual Legacy Award. The first part of the feature is taken from the award ceremony itself. The second part took place after the award and a screening of the film. Several cast members joined Altman on stage and they spoke casually about the film and Altman.
Trailer/ Portuguese Trailer
In a bit of irony, I discovered a mere hour after watching the film on Blu-ray that Larry Gelbart, the man responsible for bringing the film to television, had just died. As much as I do remember this film and enjoyed it somewhat, I’m afraid this is a case where I simply believe the television series was so much better. The film actually doesn’t play as well as it did before the popularity of the series. Not to take anything away from it or Altman, but it just felt wrong somehow after all of these years. I’m afraid anyone watching it for the first time will have an even harder time accepting it for what it should be. It certainly deserves its place in history, but it’s not the masterpiece Altman appeared to believe that it was. “That is all.”