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Blu-ray Review: M*A*S*H (1970)

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Based on Richard Hooker’s novel MASH: A Novel About Three Army Doctors and, as it turns out according to the extras, on Ring Lardner Jr.’s script, to the screenwriter’s initial chagrin, Robert Altman and the cast deliver a brilliant military farce equal to classics like Duck Soup and Dr. Strangelove.

In fact, while M*A*S*H is celebrated as an antiwar film, set in Korea though made about Vietnam, the anti-authority anarchy plays out very much like an R-rated Marx Brothers movie would have particularly because there’s not so much a story taking place but rather characters making their way through a series of comedic vignettes. However, the film isn’t solely about getting laughs as the bits of comedic insanity are separated by the insanity of war as the seemingly never-ending supply of the bodies never abates.

As the film opens, we meet Hawkeye Pierce (Donald Sutherland) and Duke Forest (Tom Skerritt), two newly arrived surgeons to the front whose skills in the operating room rival their moves with the ladies. Rather than wait to be assigned a jeep, Hawkeye’s character is defined immediately by his decision to steal one and head off to the 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital. Once at camp, they immediately put their stamp on the place by requesting the pious Frank Burns (Robert Duvall) be removed from their quarters and teaching Ho-Jon, a local teenager, how to make martinis. They soon get a new tentmate, Trapper John McIntyre (Elliot Gould), who proves his worth by pulling olives out of his jacket, a luxury they have endured without.

The time is passed by drinking and carousing and playing pranks on those who don’t join in the fun, namely Frank and chief nurse Margaret Houlihan (Sally Kellerman), who earns the nickname “Hot Lips” after a passionate night with Frank is broadcast over the camp PA system. Yet they still find time to do good work. By creating a mock assisted suicide, they prevent “Painless Pole” Waldowski (John Schuck), the unit's dentist, from killing himself after he thought his performance failure with a nurse meant he was a homosexual. Trapper and Hawkeye go to Japan to operate on a Congressman’s son. After a very funny football game against General Hammond’s team, Hawkeye and Duke get their papers to go home, and the war keeps going.

The video is presented in a 1080p high definition transfer with an aspect ratio of 2.35:1. Videophiles may be disappointed in the sharpness, but when the film was shot, Altman purposely used a lot of diffusion and wanted the image to look dirty to contrast it with the pro-war films 20th Century Fox was shooting at the time: Patton and Tora! Tora! Tora! It almost looks like DNR was performed, but Altman clarifies this in supplementals.

The color palette is mostly muted earth tones. The characters wore olive drab uniforms and lived in olive drab and tents. The few instances of bright color are the white uniforms and red blood in surgery and a few outfits Hawkeye and Trapper wear, such as their golf attire.

The soundtrack doesn’t make much use of the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1. It is mainly dialogue, a good portion of which overlaps, making it tough at times to make out everything being said, but that’s Altman’s style. The front center presents the majority of the audio as both the surrounds and subwoofer get minimal use. Might as well use the mono track.

The Special Features offer a Blu-ray exclusive interactive feature for fans revisiting the film. It keeps track of elements such as Spirits, Sanctity, and Shenanigans. There’s even an Altman Mumble Meter to count the moments of overlapping dialogue.

All the other features are brought over from the DVD release. They are presented in standard definition and repeat some material. There’s a commentary track by Altman but he doesn’t speak continuously and long pauses occur. He covers the making of the film and trying to stay under the studio executives’ radar. He also mentions Gould and Sutherland trying to get him fired early on because they didn’t trust his methods. He didn’t like the TV series. Thought it was racist, and he got Alan Alda’s name wrong.

AMC Backstory: M*A*S*H” (24 min) – Altman, producer Richard Zanuck, film critic Richard Schickle, and many members of the cast talk about the film for the cable channel program.

“Enlisted: The Story of M*A*S*H” (41 min) – This doc is much better and makes Backstory superfluous. Though it covers the same ground, it’s more in-depth, and features more interviewees.

M*A*S*H: History Through the Lens” (44 min) – This History Channel Program uses the movie to tell the story of the real war surgeons.

“Remembering M*A*S*H: 30th Anniversary Cast & Crew Reunion” (30 min) – Held at LACMA theater in 2000, the Fox Movie Channel presents Altman their first Legacy Award and a discussion of the film with the cast. I was lucky enough to be in audience and appear on camera a couple of times seated in the back.  It's good to live in Southern California.

The humor of M*A*S*H is not dated and nor diminished on repeat viewings. Classic moments like Margaret’s outburst in Colonel Blake’s tent and Radar’s non-reaction to getting spit on still illicit the same laughs. However, with that being said, just being on Blu-ray does not make it “even funnier” as the case jacket states, and the moments the war are sobering amidst all the inebriation.

I strongly recommend adding this Altman masterpiece to your collection especially for those interested in making films because a lot of rules are broken, yet it works.

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About Gordon S. Miller

Gordon S. Miller is the artist formerly known as El Bicho, the nom de plume he used when he first began reviewing movies online for The Masked Movie Snobs in 2003. Before the year was out, he became that site's publisher. Over the years, he has also contributed to a number of other sites as a writer and editor, such as FilmRadar, Film School Rejects, High Def Digest, and Blogcritics. He is the Publisher of Cinema Sentries. Some of his random thoughts can be found at twitter.com/ElBicho_CS
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