Raphael Pour-Hashemi has reviewed the Region 2 release of M*A*S*H. The fantastic anti-war satire that spawned a massive spin-off television series and forced Donald Sutherland, Elliott Gould and director Robert Altman into the limelight. Fox have also released the film on a very good 2-Disc Set.
There are so many layers to M*A*S*H it’s a wonder the film was ever described as a comedy. Often surpassed in people’s opinions by the landmark spin-off television series that closely followed it (which is itself rightly hailed as classic comedy) the film is an underrated treasure from a man who would soon emerge as one of the leading directors of the late-twentieth century – Robert Altman.
As a film, M*A*S*H is not so much a comedy but a scathing attack on whatever it deems suitable enough to destroy, similar to something such as Dr. Strangelove or The Candidate. Humour from the film is generated out of absurdity, insanity or farce, as opposed to traditional comedy that utilises the usual slapstick conventions. M*A*S*H is the type of film that anyone expecting an easy ride will clearly not enjoy. This isn’t Blazing Saddles or The Naked Gun; rather than poke fun with a smile on its face, M*A*S*H wears a smile but struggles to contain its own aggression.
Produced in 1970 and set during the Korean War, which itself was famously used as a smokescreen to represent the topical Vietnam War, M*A*S*H deals with an Army Field Hospital struggling to maintain their own composure amidst the intensity of war. Episodic (like war itself) and containing many protagonists, M*A*S*H has lost none of its importance more than thirty years after its initial release.
M*A*S*H focuses on Captain Benjamin Franklin ‘Hawkeye’ Pierce (Donald Sutherland) and Chief Surgeon Captain John Francis Xavier ‘Trapper John’ McIntyre (Elliott Gould), two gifted surgeons who have the highest respect for their work and little time to take anything else seriously. Whatever their pastimes, from womanising, bucking authority, playing golf or signing ‘ringers’ to their army football team, it’s obvious that Hawkeye and Trapper hold the army system that contains them with the utmost contempt. It’s hard when watching M*A*S*H not to feel the same way as they do.
With regards to the war itself, M*A*S*H doesn’t hide its opinion of the conflict. The only gunshot that can be heard during the film is from an announcer’s pistol during the third act’s football game. Hawkeye and Trapper also con army bureaucracy into aiding their operation on a ‘civilian’ baby, as if suggesting that even though one side of the army employs them their Hippocratic oath remains unbiased. Without Fox studio’s help, Altman aimed to remove any reference stating the war to be in Korea, further reinforcing the notion that the general attack of the film’s subject matter was aimed at the Vietnam War and not the Korean War. Also, never throughout the film is the audience given any reason as to the causes or origins of the war, as if suggesting that the film is deliberately straying from the political side of matters.
Authority figures in M*A*S*H are regarded as the enemy, and seem hellbent on subverting the heroic medical efforts of Hawkeye, Trapper and co at every opportunity. If Hawkeye and Trapper break a petty law, they are often threatened with arrest, despite the two men being the best surgeons on the field and desperately needed for the army’s war effort. Indeed, Major Margaret ‘Hot Lips’ O’Houlihan (Sally Kellerman) tries to have the two removed of duty after being the victim of one of many of their cruel practical jokes. Notice however, that we the audience only come to respect Hot Lips when she has substituted her own androgynous authority for her own regained femininity, and actually seems to want to become part of Hawkeye and Trapper’s circle. It’s as if she only becomes likeable when she halts her efforts to bureaucratically fight Hawkeye and Trapper.
There are many pieces of evidence within M*A*S*H to suggest that the film is an anachronistic piece of filmmaking clearly abandoning any notion of political correctness. Having said that, there are also just as many pieces of evidence that could be used to defend the film against these charges. At least every opinionated sub-group of society has attacked the film on occasions over the years. Women have often had a field day with M*A*S*H citing Hawkeye and Trapper’s behaviour towards women as chauvinistic. Also, it has been claimed that women characters in the film are depicted as little more than sex objects designed for the men to fool around with after having a hard day at the office. M*A*S*H also found itself trouble concerning its only major black character Captain Oliver Harmon Jones (played by Blaxpoitation star Fred Williamson) whose nickname in the film was ‘spearchucker’. When asked why in the film, Jones replies “because he used to throw the javelin”. Also, gay rights activists were angered by the fact that the character ‘Painless’ feels the need to turn to suicide rather than to come to terms with his homosexuality. Also, when Painless confronts the group about his sexuality they treat it as a joke and concoct an elaborate fake suicide scheme in order for Painless to reaffirm his heterosexuality.
Although it is easy to criticise the film over these offences, it does reveal a failure to understand the film for what it is trying to put across to the audience. Anyone who seriously accuses the film of not adhering to political correctness must also have an issue with the political correctness of war itself. The main argument of M*A*S*H is that war is such a futile, bloody exercise in humanity that one must abandon any sense of ritual, convention or political correctness and embrace one’s own instinct in order to survive. Essentially, M*A*S*H is arguing that it is essential for Hawkeye and Trapper to engage in any childish pastime they desire, so long as it keeps them sane and fit for their duty. By its very nature war is barbaric, and so its soldiers must be barbarians too.
Directed with anarchic control by director Robert Altman, M*A*S*H is a stylish satire that suggests a director who ultimately saw the bigger picture when compared to his cast. Stars Elliott Gould and Donald Sutherland both attempted to have Altman fired during the production, fearing that the film would ruin their careers. In hindsight, both men admit wrong over the matter, and rightly cite the film as a landmark of both of their filmographies. Harold E. Stine’s cinematography is deliberately murky; almost as if Altman doesn’t want any beautiful cinematography to glorify any of the proceedings. The theme song Suicide Is Painless, is one of the most lyrically lethargic and yet musically addictive songs to ever grace a feature film, and it has since become one of the most memorable. Although the dialogue was largely improvised, Ring Lardner Jr. won an Oscar for his script, even if he publicly disowned the final version of the film on the basis that it was almost totally removed from his screenplay.
Ironically, the academy awards chose to honour another war film for that year’s Best Picture Oscar, and that was Patton, a film that chose to revisit World War II as opposed to focusing on the contemporary political turmoil of the US. M*A*S*H is different in tone and structure to Patton, but both serve their own agendas admirably.
To conclude, M*A*S*H is a deliciously witty and eventful film packed with tremendous bite and a densely-layered satirical edge. Alan Alda and co ensured the series became more popular, but this original movie version of M*A*S*H has lost none of its charm. It even pays homage to Da Vinci’s Last Supper!
Academy Awards 1970
Best Adapted Screenplay – Ring Lardner Jr.
Academy Award Nominations 1970
Best Director – Robert Altman
Best Supporting Actress – Sally Kellerman
Best Film Editing – Danford B. Greene
Presented in anamorphic 2.35:1 widescreen, the picture quality is average at best, with grainy, muddy images exhibited on a print that shimmers on occasions and lacks sharpness. Granted, most of the murky look of the film is intended, but the film has been presented in better visual versions before, and it would appear that the Region 1 release demonstrates finer picture quality.
The sound mix is presented in 2.0 stereo and complements the film well, as the chaotic, muffled original mono track was deliberately designed to contain many different elements of sound at one time. The lack of a 5.1 remix is surprising, but this mix would have been totally unnecessary.
Menu: A very good animated menu that is in keeping with the style of the film and is backed by the Suicide Is Painless theme. For added aesthetic effect, the viewer can change the menu picture and audio by selecting a different part of the field hospital, such as Showers, Operating Theatre, Swamp etc.
Packaging: The two discs are housed in a stylish minimalist packaging that is displayed in a transparent single amaray with an extra slot for the second disc. Chapter Listings are printed on the reverse of the inlay and are visible through the transparent amaray. This amaray is also protected by a cardboard dustcover outer casing.
Audio Commentary By Robert Altman: The commentary by Altman is screen-specific but very dry. There are numerous pauses throughout, and he doesn’t offer much in terms of new anecdotes on the film. What Altman does offer is fun to listen to, and he is honest and direct regarding his views on the film and his battles with the studio, but on the whole the commentary is quite ponderous.
Backstory: M*A*S*H: This is a twenty-four minute revisionist featurette designed to document how the film came to be made. It features key interviews with the cast and crew and incorporates many clips of behind-the-scenes footage. Worthy highlights include Gould and Sutherland admitting that they tried to have Altman fired, and Altman also mentions this, and holds no obvious grudges. The featurette is short enough to maintain interest, especially as the ‘backstory’ of the film version of M*A*S*H is interesting in its own right.
Theatrical Trailer: A lengthy three minute 1969 trailer of the film that foolishly presents many of the film’s highlights but in a way that ensures that these highlights are completely bereft of any context, therefore not promoting the film in the best available comedy setting.
Stills Gallery: A good collection of colour/black-and-white publicity stills and behind-the-scenes stills of the film. There are nearly fifty in total, and each are accessible via user navigated controls.
Enlisted: The Story Of M*A*S*H: This is a very good thirty-nine minute documentary focusing on the story development of M*A*S*H and how Altman rejected most of the tone of Ring Lardner Jr’s script (which itself was based on a Richard Hooker novel) in favour for more zany comic action. Nearly all of the major cast and crew contribute interviews, and the contemporary documentary setting allows the participants to be more forthright regarding their own recollections.
M*A*S*H: Comedy Under Fire: This is a forty-two minute History Through The Lens programme devoted to illustrating the relevance of M*A*S*H as a historical allegory. Featuring strong narration and manipulative editing tricks, the programme is an interesting left-field approach to a film and how real-life can shape its core.
M*A*S*H Reunion: This is a twenty-eight minute featurette devoted to the Fox-backed cast and crew reunion of M*A*S*H. If anything, this featurette showcases the number of first-time stars of the film that went on to tremendous careers, such as Deep Space Nine’s Rene Auberjonois, or the Blaxpoitation star Fred Williamson. The featurette illustrates how popular the film has become and how iconic a director Altman has become, and is worthy because of this. Donald Sutherland is notable by his absence from the reunion. There is a funny joke from this featurette concerning the fact that Altman’s son Mike (who at fourteen penned the lyrics to the world-famous Suicide Is Painless theme) made more money from the film than his father did, due to royalties he received from co-writing the theme song (which even became a number one UK hit ten years after the film was released)!
Arguably one of the best anti-war comedies ever produced (and far more successful than Mike Nichols’ rival Catch-22), M*A*S*H is a triumphant satire that maintains it charm and relevance every year, even if the Vietnam/Korean wars have since faded from memory. The two disc DVD release is very good indeed, with some fine extras and decent picture and sound quality, even if a few minor extras that are featured on the Region 1 version (such as a restoration featurette and a few hidden easter eggs) are missing from this Region 2 release.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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