20th Century Fox | 1970 | 115 mins. | Rated PG
Now highly regarded as a raucous comedy punctuated by realistic surgery scenes, it’s important to remember that when MASH was released on January 25, 1970 in New York City, America had spent more than a decade embroiled in the Vietnam conflict. As a result, much of the country was ready for a film with an anti-war message. Directed by Robert Altman and written by the once blacklisted Ring Lardner Jr., MASH went a step further, becoming the first film to blatantly say, Screw the Army. Altman and the others understood that Vietnam was no laughing matter, but by delivering their message in a raunchy comedy they gave Americans the freedom to express their disapproval for the war, without disparaging the troops.
Based on an obscure novel MASH: A Novel About Three Army Doctors by Richard Hooker, the script was rejected by fifteen different directors before Robert Altman agreed to do it. Oddly enough, stars Donald Sutherland and Elliott Gould spent a lot of time trying to get Altman fired, reportedly feeling that the director (MASH was only his second film), was to inexperienced to take on such a monumental project.
It’s 1951, and the 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital operates a mere three miles from the front lines during the Korean War. In conditions which would drive the sanest of men crazy, surgical and off hours hijinks unfold as Trapper John McIntyre (Elliott Gould), Hawkeye Pierce (Donald Sutherland), and Duke Forrest (Tom Skerritt) find numerous ways to subvert superiors including Major Frank Burns (Robert Duvall), Major “Hot Lips Hollihan (Sally Kellerman), and Colonel Henry Blake (Roger Bowen), chase after wary nurses (Jo Ann Pflug as Lieutenant Dish) and have fun with syringes during an epic football game—always aware they’re living in a war zone where the primitive operating room conditions and the oft injured soldiers are anything but joyful.
Though Lardner Jr. won an Oscar for his screenplay, Altman later admitted that he used the script only as a springbroad, preferring lots of improvisation and changes during filming. That sort of chaotic, free-for-all approach is evident in the film itself. While the characters mentioned above make up the core cast, the credits at the end lists over twenty five people, all of which have at least a moment in the film that is carved out especially for them. MASH gave rise to two of Robert Altman’s most distinguishable characteristics as a director—his use of overlapping dialogue (you’ll be hard pressed to find more than a dozen lines that don’t overlap) and his sudden zooms, used to capture both humor and horror. When you think about it, it’s amazing overlapping dialogue wasn’t used regularly before this; It’s normal, people talk over each other all the time. From a film standpoint, the constant chatter forces the audience to pay attention; to decipher what’s important and what’s gibberish. In the case of MASH, a movie with numerous characters and a loose plot (with the Korean War connecting it all), overlapping dialogue serves as a clever device to draw viewers into the craziness.
Smartly, Altman also employs the use of a loudspeaker to help maintain a sense of continuity; a gag that works largely because it provides another avenue for humor. While much of the fun comes from one anti-establishment dig after another, it’s that approach that both underscores the absurdities of war and makes MASH as funny as it ever was, nearly forty years after the films theatrical release.
P.A. Announcer: [clears his throat] Attention. Tonight’s movie has been “M*A*S*H.” Follow the zany antics of our combat surgeons as they cut and stitch their way along the front lines, operating as bombs –
P.A. Announcer: operating as bombs and bullets burst around them; snatching laughs and love between amputations and penicillin.
MASH comes to Blu-ray with a 1080p/AVC-encoded transfer that looks pretty good for a film released in 1970. There’s not much fine detail to be found here in faces or clothing, but after seeing the film numerous times in standard definition, the upgrade in resolution is still noticeable. The transfer displays the limited color palette well, with lots of olive drab and dusty khaki, with the occasional dash of bright red blood. The image shows well during the football game, with red and blue uniforms popping nicely off the screen. Black levels are appropriately ratcheted through much of the film, preserving details in all but the darkest of shadows and providing contrast that’s not too hot and not too cold. While this isn’t the best restoration I’ve seen, MASH has never looked better.
The film is given a solid DTS-HD MA 5.1 surround track on Blu-ray, but the dated source material can’t do much with it. The dialogue has an occasionally muffled quality. While the original mono track (which is also included) has been expanded to a 5.1 mix, for all intents and purposes it could be stereo, as there’s very limited use of the rear channels. While the film does sound fuller than it ever has before,the age of the material means this track is nothing to really get excited about.
MASH includes the following special features:
• Commentary by Director Robert Altman: This isn’t a very strong track, with little anecdotes interspersed among periods of prolonged silence. Altman strongly disliked the MASH television series, even going so far as to call it “racist” and the antithesis of everything he was trying to do with the film. The documentaries included on the disc cover most of the material here in a more engaging way.
• The Complete Interactive Guide to MASH: When you turn this feature on, an avatar of each character appears whenever he/she is on screen, and little icons pop up every time someone takes a drink, flirts, mentions religion, or resorts to violence. There are icons for “suicide, spirits, sanctity, shenanigans, fisticuffs, court-martials,” and of course, an “Altman mumble meter” which appears anytime there’s overlapping dialogue.
• AMC Backstory: MASH (SD, 24:27) This episode of AMC’s Backstory covers the creation of MASH, from its origins as novel, through its turbulent shoot, marked by disagreements between Altman and his leading men, and finally examining the profound effect that the film had on both audiences and the moviemaking business. The program features interviews with Robert Altman, producer Richard Zanuck and several members of the cast.
• Enlisted: The Story of MASH (SD, 40:53) This one features interviews from just about everyone involved, plenty of interesting anecdotes and some archival, behind-the-scenes footage of Altman on set.
• Remembering MASH: 30th Anniversary Cast & Crew Reunion (SD, 30:02) In July of 2000, Fox Movie Channel honored Robert Altman with a special legacy award and reunited many of the cast and crew members from MASH for a 30th anniversary screening of the film. Jack Lemmon and a Harry Belafonte congratulate the director via prerecorded video and then Altman himself takes the stage to say a few words. “I’m overwhelmed,” he says, “and I like being ‘whelmed.'” After the screening, film critic Andy Klein interviews a panel of eight cast and crew members, who discuss the experience of working on the movie. Much of the information provided has been discussed in the previous features, but its nice seeing Altman and several cast members again.
• Still Gallery (1080p, 5:44) Contains lots of great on-set photography.
• Theatrical Trailer (SD, 3:06)
• Portuguese Trailer (SD, 3:01)
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