M*A*S*H (Five Star Edition) Review

What can you say about M*A*S*H, a film which kicked off one of the great directoral careers of American cinema, introduced a whole string of talented actors and spawned a 12 year TV success story ? Well, you could say that it remains one of the funniest films ever made long after the vastly overrated TV series has vanished from memory. Or that it's one of the few successful combinations of comedy and drama. Or that it's that rare beast - an anti-war movie that never even comes close to glorifying war. Or simply that it's just a great piece of entertainment. On any level, M*A*S*H is a triumphant movie, one which looks an even more convincing achievement as the years go by and the reputations of those involved have become increasingly weathered.

Supposedly set during the Korean war - a fact deliberately played down by director Robert Altman who considered the film to be about Vietnam - the film deals with a Mobile Army Surgical Hospital, first stop for seriously injured serviceman on the brink of death. The decidedly casual atmosphere created by Lt.Col Henry Blake (Bowen) suits the equally casual staff, headed by Captain 'Hawkeye' Pierce (Sutherland), a brilliant surgeon whose hatred of losing patients is equalled only by his vehement dislike for incompetence and military discipline. Along with similarly inclined chest "cutter" Captain 'Trapper' John (Gould), Hawkeye represents a vital life force in amongst the constant reminders of death which are choppered with ever increasing regularity. Attempts to bring him and his unit into line are doomed to failure but that doesn't stop the likes of Major Frank Burns (Duvall) and Major 'Hotlips' Houlihan (Kellerman) trying to get them put on a charge. Meanwhile, the war goes inexorably and bloodily onwards and the only possible way of dealing with the madness of violent conflict proves to be ever more sick humour along with regular drinking, debauchary and, er, golf.

Altman realises that the only possible and sane response to the madness of war is to laugh at it. Hawkeye and Trapper can't take the situation they find themselves in seriously because to acknowledge it is to give in to it. So they protect themselves with a deceptively casual attitude to life and death while actually fighting against it with their daily skill as surgeons. They despise Burns not only because he is a repressed, self-important idiot but because he is a bad doctor. They eventually tolerate and even respect Hotlips because she is, in Hawkeye's words, a "damn fine nurse". The work is the only thing they take seriously; everything else is an absurd joke - never more so than when death is all around them. Their colleagues feel the same way, each of them being entirely unsuited to the world of army rules and regulations. Even their commanding officer resents the war getting in the way of his fly-fishing. The film is full of outrageously, glorious sick comedy, much of it deliciously funny, but with an important point to make. No jokes, however sick, could possibly equal the sheer obscenity of a country sending its young men to a foreign country to die. The more blood and pain, the more important the jokes become. In other words, what Altman has done here is to make the raging anti-war satire that the film of Catch-22 should have been and it's no surprise that the later film looks oddly tame in comparison. There is genuine anger here, never more so than in the scene set in Thailand when an anally retentive Colonel attempts to stop them operating on a seriously ill child, and genuine horror but there is never needless solemnity or the sort of platitudinous garbage pedalled by the likes of Good Morning Vietnam. Messages are here if you want to find them, but the film doesn't make the mistake of trying to emulate Western Union. Sometimes the smallest ironies are the nicest - the only gunshots in this war film are from a starting pistol during a football game.

As a comedy, the film has worn extremely well. Even when you know the big set-pieces are coming, the timing is good enough to keep an edge of freshness. Hotlips and Burns' lovemaking being transmitted to the camp over the loudspeaker remains of the funniest moments in American cinema, the revelation of Hotlips in the shower is beautifully set-up and the climactic football game has proved to be influential on the sports movie genre, notably the likes of Slap Shot and Robert Aldrich's wonderful The Longest Yard. The verbal humour, much of it improvised, is full of wit and surprise - quoting lines out of context is pretty redundant here, but I particularly relish the exchange between Hotlips and the chaplain Dago Red (Auberjonois) - "I wonder how such a degenerated person ever reached a position of authority in the Army Medical Corps!", "He was drafted.". If that doesn't strike you as remotely funny, M*A*S*H may not be your cup of tea. Me, I'm still laughing about it.

Although Robert Altman had directed three feature films before - including the rather good Countdown with James Caan - and numerous TV shows, M*A*S*H was his big chance to make a film with his style all over it, a style which is now trademarked 'Altmanesque' as directors as varied as Spike Lee and Steven Spielberg use it as inspiration. It's still slightly undeveloped here but the film experiments with the things we have come to know the director best for - a large selection of characters, a whole array of plot strands, fanatical attention to minute detail, overlapping dialogue, superficially disorganised structuring and a wide range of visual and verbal comedy. The dialogue is particularly well achieved. Traditionalists like the late Leslie Halliwell would, for years, get away with calling it inaudible, but it's actually carefully recorded using several different audio tracks to ensure we hear exactly what Altman wants us to hear. Like so much of his technique, what seems disorganised at first glance is actually carefully planned. It's also worth pointing out that this was hardly an innovation - the great Howard Hawks was keen on it, especially in comedy. Altman's skill, gained through years of slogging away in TV, is to create a scene which is full of activity and then focus the viewer's attention on where he wants it to be. His framing is also careful and often used for comic effect, most notably in the "Last Supper" parody (ruined if you watch the film in anything but 2.35:1). This is probably Altman's most immediately approachable film and a good starting point for exploring his extraordinary career. Ironically, the only Oscar the film received went to Ring Lardner Jr. for a script from which barely a single line of dialogue was actually used.

Many of the actors have since become famous but they all have a freshness here that is disarming. Donald Sutherland has never been better than he is here and Elliott Gould only once reached this height again, in Altman's masterwork The Long Goodbye. As a comedy team they are great although it must have been some kind of magic because the other film they made together - the abysmal S*P*Y*S was a fully basted turkey, ready for a well deserved roasting. Robert Duvall gets Frank Burns dead on, refusing to go for any sympathy at all, and Sally Kellerman never again managed to be so funny without being deeply obnoxious. The lesser known members of the cast are fun too. Roger Bowers is a scream as the disinterested commanding officer - every time he appears he makes you giggle by not so much throwing away his lines as packaging them up in a black bin liner for immediate collection - and John Schuck is just right as the suicidal Painless, battling with depression, his sexuality and a very large penis. The only slightly wrong note is sounded by Tom Skerritt's Duke, but that's largely because it's an underwritten part acting mostly as a foil for Hawkeye.

Very few supposedly anti-war films have succeeded quite as well as M*A*S*H but it's hard to explain just why Altman's film works so perfectly. It's ironic that Fox were ploughing enormous amounts of money into two other big war films at the time it was being made but actually made most money on this one, particularly since one of the biggies, Patton exemplifies the problem with most attempts to show the horrors of war. Every time the film tries to show us pointless carnage, it is undercut by the sheer charisma of George C.Scott's central performance, one of the greatest screen performances of all time. In other words, it's in love with Patton. Altman's film makes no such mistake. If war is hell, it's rarely been evoked so intelligently as in M*A*S*H. Just when you think it's going to be the funniest thing you've ever seen, it turns around and bites you with the reality of blood and death. That is a real tightrope to walk and the film walks it brilliantly.

The Disc

This is a Fox Five Star two-disc edition and, predictably enough, it's spectacularly good. Fans of the film are unlikely to be disappointed with what they get here, even if some of the extras are too similar in content.

If you've only ever seen M*A*S*H on pan/scan video or compromise 1.85:1 on television, be prepared for a surprise. This anamorphic 2.35:1 transfer looks better than any other version of the film I've seen. It's not entirely perfect but the restoration work has been painstaking and comprehensive, as the featurette on the disc confirms. The images inside the hospital are intended to look darker than normal and the disc copes very well with this. There is hardly any artifacting and a noticable absence of film grain. There is an occasional softness to the image but this is not a serious problem. Nor is edge enhancement. The closing scenes on the football pitch look particularly striking, especially when you compare them to the version shown on BBC 2 in July 2000.

The soundtrack is equally impressive. Beginning with seriously damaged original elements, the restoration team layered each element of the soundtrack back into place with both the original monophonic track and a new 2 track stereo mix included on the disc. Personally I prefer the original since it seems to capture Altman's careful mix of sounds more faithfully. The speech is clear on both soundtracks however - Altman's ability to focus in on one piece of dialogue over others is particularly impressive here - and the music sounds fine. We aren't talking demo disc material here, but you wouldn't expect that from a largely dialogue based film from 1970. As with the picture, the director was fully involved in the restoration process and this is presumably released with his blessing.

There are, as you would expect, a number of good extras on this DVD. If anything, these are the weakness of the disc although it seems churlish to complain when so much work has been put into them.

On the first disc, along with the film, we get four supplements. Along with the trailer - in bad condition - and an engaging but small stills gallery, we get a 25 minute "Backstory" featurette originally shown on AMC. This is rather too brief and doesn't really get into the film as much as you might hope, especially compared to Mark Kermode's excellent documentary on the recent disc of The French Connection. But there are contributions from many of the key actors and Altman, although as with the other featurettes Robert Duvall is noticable by his absence. The smug narrator is a little irksome too.

There is also a commentary by Robert Altman which is vaguely scene-specific but full of gaps and not especially interesting for much of the time. Altman is always worth listening to but there is an obvious limit to the number of times he can tell the same stories about a film he finished over 30 years ago. His antipathy to the TV series is unexpected however - and shared by me !

We also get the excellent THX Optimode tests on this disc which are useful for tuning up your system.

The second disc contains three more documentaries and a piece on the restoration of the film. The first featurette is another making-of, entitled "Enlisted: The Story Of M*A*S*H". This tends to cover much of the same ground as the documentary on the first disc but it does so in more detail and with a more analytical approach. Some of the interviews appear to be the same but there are a wider range - it's particularly interesting to see Ring Lardner Jr who must be ancient by now. Richard Zanuck also appears, looking even more like a talking corpse than usual. Hearing the same anecdotes again can be wearing, so I recommend you watch this documentary first.

The second is an examination of the film and its relation to the real life M*A*S*H units called "M*A*S*H: History Through The Lens". This contains some great documentary footage and discusses the film along with the original novel by Richard Hooker and the TV Series.

The final documentary is about the 30 Year reunion of the cast and Altman which was filmed for the Fox Movie Channel. This is very engaging and full of enthusiasm. John Schuck comes off best, Elliot Gould is annoyingly self-important and Altman seems slightly embarrassed but the questions are interesting and the anecdotes are nicely informal.

Both discs contain beautifully animated menus with soundbites from the film. There is also an easter egg on the second disc which isn't remotely hard to find. There are a generous 40 chapter stops. The packaging is a double Amaray case which comes with an informative booklet.

The disc is advertised as being the "Uncut Original Version" of the film but is in fact identical to the version that has always been available in Britain.

Fox have come through with an excellent special edition of a great movie. This is an essential purchase for lovers of the film and, indeed, lovers of cinema in general.

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