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M*A*S*H: Special Edition (MASH)

MGM/20th Century Fox . R4 . COLOR . 111 mins . PG . PAL


There is little doubt that most of us are far more familiar with the television series M*A*S*H than the movie that spawned it. Running for 11 seasons, it was a ratings winner, an audience favourite, winner of numerous awards, and introduced the world to actors such as Alan Alda and Loretta Swit. However, few probably realise that the television series materialised only after the screenplay for a movie sequel to M*A*S*H, the Robert Altman film of 1970, was roundly criticised as being well below the standard of the original. Indeed, many are possibly not even aware that M*A*S*H was a movie at all, such was the overwhelming success of the television series.

Filmed in 1969, and released in January 1970, M*A*S*H proved to be an instant hit, even though there were many things working against it. It is based on the book of the same name by Korean War veteran Robert Hooker. The film was initially turned down by numerous directors and was shot in the USA rather than in South Korea as director Robert Altman wanted. It starred a large cast of relative unknowns, and the actors rebelled several times during shooting, believing Altman was crazy, incompetent, and 'winging it'. Eventually, they began to realise that Altman did indeed have a vision for the film, and it was his style of direction, encouraging the actors to be natural and divert from the script repeatedly. Screenplay writer, Ring Larder Jnr, however was not so easily appeased, claiming over 80% of what was eventually in the film was not what he had written. Even upon completion, there were many studio executives who believed that even for an R rated film, there was too much blood and gore for audiences who would respond better if the emphasis was on the comedy. Of course, this would have spelled disaster for the film, for it is the juxtaposition of humour in the face of horror and tragedy that makes this film succeed. That, and the enthusiastic response of the test audiences.

History and circumstance also played a part in almost rendering the film as unreleasable. The USA was still heavily committed to the war in Vietnam, and although M*A*S*H is set at the 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital in South Korea, the intent was to let audiences go with their own beliefs that this film was actually about Vietnam. This was a deliberate ploy by Altman, who wanted no references to Korea in the film, but eventually conceded to include some on-screen textual comments about the Korean War from General Douglas MacArthur and Dwight D. Eisenhower to be overlaid at the beginning of the film.

The cast includes Elliott Gould, Donald Sutherland, Tom Skerritt, Sally Kellerman, Robert Duvall and Gary Burghoff. The characters they portray are essentially the same as those in the television series and include Hawkeye, Hotlips, Frank Burns, Radar, Colonel Blake, and Trapper John. Like the series, the movie is a combination of gags, pranks, and high jinks, mixed with tragedy, human endurance, dedication, and friendships, using war as a backdrop. If you are only familiar with the actors from the series, it may take a little time to get used to seeing different people in the key roles, but your patience will be rewarded.

Trivia spot. Gary Burghoff (Radar) was the only actor that reprised his character in the television series. M*A*S*H was the first Hollywood movie to include the 'F' word. The lyrics to the beautiful theme song, Suicide is Painless, were written by Altman's 13 year-old son. The television series lasted 11 years, four times longer than the Korean War itself. The last M*A*S*H was decommissioned in 1997.


M*A*S*H is presented in an aspect ratio of 2.35:1 and is 16:9 enhanced. The transfer itself is not particularly brilliant, but looks as good as it has since it was filmed. The most frequent problem is the number of film artefacts. There are some white sparkles in particular, and the odd larger white mark. There are a few black spots also, but in general these are not severe and are not too distracting. The other thing to note is the colouring, as for a film that is over 30 years old this is not too bad. The colours are not particularly vibrant, but I suspect this was intentional as the film is set in South Korea during wartime. Just as the weather is dark and damp, so are the colour hues and contrasts. Skin tones though are fine, and there is little to no evidence of colour bleeding, cross colouration or noise. Oh, there is an awful lot of green.

The overall picture is a little on the soft side, but as Altman tells us in his commentary, this is deliberate and was created by placing 'fog filters' on the camera lens. Shadow detail is fair, but worsens during the numerous in-tent scenes. Most detail is retained, but you will need to be looking closely. Again, this is probably deliberate, to enhance the bleakness of war. Black levels are generally constant and display no evidence of noise. There is also no detectable layer change.


Sadly, there is no 5.1 mix on offer, and only a Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo mix. Films such as M*A*S*H, although dialogue driven, have numerous opportunities for a full 5.1 mix to increase the ambience ten-fold. It is essentially a war film, and while bombs and explosions are rare to the point of non-existence, such films do benefit from a 5.1 treatment to really draw a viewer in.

Robert Altman's style is to allow the actors to be as real as possible, so there are numerous actors talking at the same time, and it is not always possible to pick up every word. However, this is how real life is when you are trying to follow several conversations, so is quite acceptable. There are English subtitles for those interested, but there are many omissions of words and phrases, as Altman's style does not allow you time to read the numerous concurrent conversations. When you add in the dialogue in the operating tent, muffled by surgical masks, it can be quite challenging. Generally though, all dialogue is decipherable, free from excessive jargon, and synchronisation is fine. There are not a lot of low frequency sounds, and therefore the audio does not fill the room, and all but the front speakers are quiet. There is little separation of right and left speakers, nor panning or voices off screen. There is not a lot of music either, apart from the beautiful theme tune and some short incidental pieces.

The only genuine flaw is a total sound drop out from 23:47 to 23:49 and the last two words of a sentence are completely missing, as is the background noise.


This Special Edition of M*A*S*H has quite a decent number of extras, and a choice of five different audio accompaniments for the main menu. Is this a first? There is the almost obligatory Photo Gallery consisting of 44 stills, both 'behind-the-scenes' and from the feature. There is also a Theatrical Trailer, with a running time of 3:00. It is presented in the same aspect ratio as the feature, but is in Dolby Digital 1.0 mono.

The main disc in this two disc release also includes a short (23:29) featurette entitled Backstory: M*A*S*H. It is presented in full frame, with scenes from the film included at 2.35:1. It is narrated, and includes interview footage. I would assume that it was meant for a television screening at some time, such is its structure. Rounding out disc one is the Commentary provided by director Robert Altman. Not being a real fan of commentaries, I found this to be more of a chore than usual for two reasons. One, it is very much filled with trivia, and budding filmmakers are unlikely to learn much about Altman's techniques, plus it has frequent and lengthy pauses. The second reason is that the commentary was the last thing I watched, and much of what Altman has to say is said in the numerous featurettes.

Disc two has three featurettes. The first is entitled Enlisted: The Story of M*A*S*H, lasting 39:13. It is also a full frame presentation with scenes from the film inserted at 2.35:1 and is in Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo. It includes many interviews with various cast and crew and is quite interesting and informative. The second featurette, M*A*S*H: Comedy Under Fire lasts 42:19 with the same specifications as the previous featurette. This one, however, explores M*A*S*H a little wider in that it includes references and footage from the television series as well. It is more a history of M*A*S*H and the war itself than a study of just the film. It also has interviews with cast and crew as well as Korean War veterans, who confirm the realism of the film's portrayal of humour as a tool for preserving one's sanity in such horrific circumstances. It includes some deliberate myth shattering such as a reminder that the television series ran four times longer than the actual war, and that although the 'M' stands for 'mobile', the 4077th moved just once. Yet, as one veteran tells us, his M*A*S*H moved 27 times in just 11 months!

There is also one not-so-deliberate amusement provided by Loretta Swit, who shows us that she will never live down the nickname "Hotlips" while she persists with those collagen injections. If you have seen Goldie Hawn in The First Wives Club you will know what I mean.


After watching both discs I was starting to tire of the whole thing, which is a shame as it really is a great film, even by today's standards. It relies on dialogue and the performances to make it work as opposed to lots of action, explosions and graphic gore. It does have elements of gore, sprinkled throughout the film to remind us that whilst a stint in South Korea between 1950 and 1953 may appear to have been one big practical joke with laughs galore, in reality it was anything but. It makes no secret that it is an anti-war film, even if this notion was lost on many audiences in the 1970s. The actors have largely gone on to bigger and better things, and the movie gave rise to a successful television series, which also made the careers of many of its cast. As the famous quote goes, "War is hell!", but sometimes you just gotta laugh.

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      And I quote...
    "Attention! Tonight's DVD is M*A*S*H. A landmark anti-war film that was both controversial and inspirational. That is all."
    - Terry Kemp
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