Robert Altman’s satirical ‘war is hell so let’s call it a garden party’ black comedy, M*A*S*H (1970) has since entered the collective public consciousness as a cinematic rebuttal to corrupt politics and, more to the point, its’ casualties of war. Set at the height of the Korean conflict, the film is not so much a critique of political injustices as an exposé on human superficiality; treating everything - from the misogynist exercise of looking up a lieutenant’s skirt to performing crash surgery on a diplomat’s son - with equal portions of laconic comedy and centralized disdain.
Altman’s overlapping narratives and dialogue help to augment the chaos and immediacy of life in 4077’s medical unit. Helming this fiasco are Captains Benjamin ‘Hawkeye’ Pierce (Donald Sutherland) and Augustus ‘Duke’ Forrest (Tom Skerritt) – a pair of skilled surgeons with malice for conquest and bloodshed.
They are joined by Trapper John McIntyre (Elliot Gould), a kindred spirit who enjoys raising his own bit of hell. There’s plenty to keep this motley troupe busy, from plotting against the idiotic Major Frank Burns (Robert Duvall) to concocting elaborate fantasy scenarios about Margaret ‘Hot Lips’ Houlihan (Sally Kellerman).
Altman’s original intention was to have the film stand in as a nondescript rebuttal against Vietnam, but that premise was thwarted by nervous Fox executives who insisted that a subtitle identifying the location as Korea be inserted to clarify any mix up that an audience might have. After viewing rough cuts, Fox didn’t really expect much to come of the film. In fact they were not even sure it would turn a profit.
A discrepancy in artistic license cost Altman his ‘points’ or percentage of the gross he would have otherwise recouped once the film proved its cynics wrong. Instead, Altman later mused that the film did not receive a general release but was allowed to “escape” into the public domain.
Mike Altman, the 14 year old son of the director, penned the lyrics to the film’s theme song ‘Suicide is Painless’ and, as per Altman’s ongoing feud with Fox, out-grossed his father’s returns. When the dust had settled and claws were drawn back, the resulting work emerged as a devious and deliciously pointed anti-establishment stab that found renewed life as one of the most celebrated television serials of the 70s and 80s. War may be hell, but Altman’s take on it remains a sublime perversion.
Fox has released M*A*S*H twice on DVD in identical transfers with the same extras. The only difference seems to be in repackaging. The image quality is quite astounding, considering how awful the film has looked for so many years. The anamorphic widescreen image exhibits refined details and solid blacks. Whites still register as a dull pasty gray and flesh tones are more orange or pink than natural looking, but overall the quality on these discs will not disappoint.
Digital anomalies are a non-issue for a visual presentation that is quite smooth. Film grain is obvious but non-obtrusive. The audio is a 5.1 Dolby Digital remastering effort from original mono stems with inherent limitations in fidelity and clarity. Extras include an extensive ‘look back’ retrospective, vintage featurettes, audio commentaries and the film’s original theatrical trailer. Highly recommended.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)