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Category:    Home > Reviews > Comedy > Satire > Literature > Vietnam > Korea > War > M*A*S*H (1970/aka MASH/Fox Blu-ray)

M*A*S*H (1970/aka MASH/Fox Blu-ray)


Picture: B-     Sound: B-     Extras: B     Film: B+



For the latter half of the 1960s, Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove defined and redefined comedy, military comedy and counterculture comedy.  It many imitators (including ones with scripts by Terry Southern) did anything and everything to imitate its form and style in all kinds of ways, but it was Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H (1970, here in its uncut R-rated version) that took that comedy approach the next step forward.  More than Catch-22, M*A*S*H found a new way to portray the chaos that is military life in a way that would not be challenged until Kubrick made Full Metal Jacket (reviewed elsewhere on this site) over a generation later.


Before it became a big hit TV series explicitly about Korea with two spin-offs (After M*A*S*H immediately bombed, while Trapper John, M.D. was a hit), this original feature film version of M*A*S*H was explicitly about Vietnam and only a last-minute word crawl-cum-disclaimer that “told” us it was Korea despite everything we see looking exactly like Vietnam (Altman uses a mocked version of the Fox Fanfare to “wink” at the audience that this is fraudulent when it runs) of the time, we see the first film to be able to deal with the conflict as far as it could at the time and it would only be after the U.S. left that we would see a more explicit film like Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter (1978) go further.


The film begins with the arrival of Captain Benjamin Franklin “Hawkeye” Pierce (Donald Sutherland) and Captain “Trapper John” Francis Xavier McIntyre (Elliott Gould), two surgeons who have developed a unique sense of nonsense as their way of dealing with the many bloody bodies coming in.  The film set new standards for how graphic this could be and the madness and confusion were upped not only by a great cast giving great performances, but one major innovation that became an inarguable Altman innovation, overlapping dialogue of an intensity the Hollywood Studio System would have rejected.


As people talk over each other, the absurdity just increases more and more.  Then there are those other great actors in great performances like Roger Bowen as Col. Henry Blake, Sally Kellerman as the original Major Margaret “Hot Lips” O’Houlihan, Tom Skerritt as Capt. Augustus “Duke” Forest, Robert Duvall as Major Frank Marion Ferret Face” Burns, Rene Auberjonois as Father Mulcahy, Jo Ann Pflug as Lt. Lisa “Dish” Schneider, John Schuck as Capt. Walter “Painless” Waldowski, Bud Cort as Pvt. Boone, Carl Gottlieb as Capt. “Ugly John” Black, Fred Williamson as Capt. Olivier “Spearchucker” Jones and Gary Burghoff as Corporal Walter Eugene O'Reilly, the only one here to repeat his role on the TV show.  He lasted the whole series.


For those only familiar with the TV series, the film will be a shock.  If some of those names are not enough of a surprise, the film’s broad attitude and off-beat manner in action is more open and very raw as compared to the show and most other military productions.  There is chemistry all over the place, especially with Gould and Sutherland, but they were never able to recapture this despite an attempt with the espionage comedy S*P*Y*S (reviewed elsewhere on this site).  Though his screenplay adaptation of the Richard Hooker novel was changed by Altman and Fox censors, Ring Larder, Jr. received an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay and rightly so.  Though this may not seem too dated now, it was shocking in its energy and irreverence at the time and became such a huge hit for Altman that he would have creative freedom few directors ever achieved and he even would form a small studio he used for years before he sold it.  You know it as Lionsgate.


The surgery arena mirrors the war arena, but any humor (like people making fun of or even humiliating each other) may be funny on the surface, but really (in something rarely addressed about the film) mirrors the lack of concentration U.S. entry in Vietnam (replacing the French) entered in with that would help to spell the failure of the whole operation to the fall of Saigon and this film happened five years before that end.  It shows that it was more than just a problem of having one’s arms “tied behind their backs” but of a general unpreparedness (read arrogance) that sowed the seeds of failure.  Here, it is in dark microcosm.


One thing that is inescapable no matter what Fox added to the film is that the conflict has to do with massive U.S. power (at its early post-WWII Peak) against a world Communist menace (monolithic or not) in a third-party space.  Vietnam was not like World War II and would not even be like the 1950s intervention in Korea.  It was something very new and was also a toll to bury The Great Society under and the audiences who made M*A*S*H a hit at least implicitly knew this.  Others understood its darker intents.


Yet, there is something quintessentially American (and Americana) about the kind of madness in the film, including the sexual attitudes, sex jokes (like the grand one about impotence and revival) and even sports references that continue to make the film ring true.  With a draft then in effect, the characters knew they had to be there whether they liked it or not, but were determined to make the best of it and “make it home” even if some of them never made it back home.  The situations constantly hit the nail on the head and have become an important reference point about Vietnam in general the TV show never could.


Part of that is in the shooting (discussed in the picture quality section below) and part of it is in the combination of noise, chaos and subject matter.  It is a masterful film that reminds us about the mistakes made by the U.S. then and (despite “terrorism” and terrorist organizations not having a specific nation-state of origin despite some state sponsorship thereof) how nation-states on both sides of a nuclear-age Cold War waste more resources than anyone should are bound to repeat those mistakes no matter how the world has changed, it reminds us that there will always be a counterculture discourse sooner or later to react to any madness gone wrong, no matter how hard governments and the rouge corporations who support them squeeze people.


Any “peace thing” thing blowing over is only a fantasy and M*A*S*H always understood this.  Though it has some rough spots, this is the film where Altman became a master of cinema and eventually one of it chief architects as we know it now.  That imitators of the most successful commercial imitator of his style (Crash) are still being made is the most obvious evidence of this.  However, Paul Thomas Anderson (more for better than worse) has been the filmmaker to most emulate the purest of Altman in Magnolia, Boogie Nights and There Will Be Blood, so Altman’s influence is only just beginning.  M*A*S*H will always be in the forefront of that influence and that is why it is worth revisiting more than ever.



The 1080p 2.35 X 1 AVC @ 29 MBPS digital High Definition image is from an older HD master, but is still better than the old DVD edition.  Some have said that some of the original scope image might be missing from the very ends and that is a valid argument, but this is the first time the film has been delivered with a definition close to the film.  The film was shot by Director of Photography Harold E. Stein, with its color desaturated in a way that robs the frame of the typical nature and camouflage colors of al the War genre films up to that time.  Red (especially for blood) is the most prominent color and the Blu-ray captures that realistically enough for the first time outside of film.


However, some shots are not as good as others, the film needs some restoration work and though it is meant to be a somewhat soft film, this is even still a bit softer than it should be.  I had hoped for a better transfer and the film needs one, but it still handles the blacks and whites better that the DVD and the makers used a telephoto lens to flatten the wide areas (shot in real anamorphic Panavision) to create a whole new look and feel like nothing anyone had seen on film before.  Kubrick would push this idea to the limit with Barry Lyndon (1975) when Altman did his own epic, Nashville.


Originally a monophonic optical theatrical sound release, the Blu-ray offers a Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono track for purists and even better DTS-HD Master Audio (MA) lossless 5.1 mix that does its best to upgrade the sound, which is constant.  Between the non-stop noise, overlapping dialogue, Johnny Mandel score, classic theme song and other sound effects, it is very complex for a monophonic film so the DTS (if not using al the original sound stems) brings that sound out better in part by not being lossy like the old Dolby Digital AC-3 codec.  Altman joked that Mandel and his son Mike Altman made more money off of the theme song Suicide Is Painless (with lyrics in the film version here) than he ever made on the whole film.  It too remains a classic.


Extras include stills, the original theatrical trailer, Portuguese trailer, AMC Backstory installment on the film, The Complete Interactive Guide To M*A*S*H, Remembering M*A*S*H: 30th Anniversary Cast/Crew Reunion, two documentaries (Enlisted: The Story Of M*A*S*H and M*A*S*H: History Through The Lens) and a feature length audio commentary by the late, great Robert Altman himself.  That’s great and fans will even want more, but this will do well for now.



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