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MASH: Five Star Collection

Today, it's hard for anyone too young to remember the Beatles' breakup to watch 1970's hit war comedy MASH and appreciate deep down how shocking the movie was in its time. Brilliantly if eccentrically directed, written, and acted, it still hits all the right notes as an iconoclastic, anti-authoritarian sarcasm comedy. In 1970 MASH was so fresh, fearless, and inventive that the Pentagon attempted to ban it and the Hollywood review board tried to slap it with an "X" rating — a kiss of death that, fortunately for that war-weary generation and those that followed, was protested and changed. Once it hit the screens, some reviewers dismissed it as merely low vulgarity. Others found offense that this comedy was quite plainly "about" Vietnam, the most divisive subject in the U.S. at the time. However, Richard Schickel, Pauline Kael, and other respected voices championed it, and it received a raft of Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture and Best Director. It took the Grand Prix (now the Palme d'Or) at the Cannes Film Festival, as well as the Golden Globe for best comedy.

With a practically aggressive insouciance, MASH became a lens that focused the spirit of its time and projected it to a hot point on the sidewalk ants of authority figures, religious piety, and conventional movie-making techniques and content. (The way it treated sexuality with casual offhandedness pretty much crisped all those targets at once.) Decades and several wars later, MASH remains funny, occasionally disquieting, and an example of impromptu American filmmaking that helped open the gates to one of the most innovative and productive periods of cinema history. If its bite and sass have diminished for today's new audiences, for whom smart-ass crassitude is as common as cornflakes, consider that a testimony to the attitude, style, and technique it pioneered and infused into American popular movies.

Less a traditional narrative than a youth-oriented middle-finger-flip to conformist, pre-Vietnam American values, MASH is virtually plotless. How much time passes from beginning to end — weeks? years? — is unclear. Instead, with his syncopated, improvisatory guerrilla-production style and quicksilver ensemble cast of ad-libbers, maverick director Robert Altman drops us into almost random scenes of work and mayhem at a Mobile Army Surgical Hospital during the international "police action" in Korea, 1950-53. What structure Altman allowed comes loosely bootlaced together by our merry prankster protagonists, the "Pros from Dover" Trapper John McIntyre (Elliott Gould) and "Hawkeye" Pierce (Donald Sutherland), with an occasional assist from Duke Forrest (Tom Skerritt). When they encounter a pillar of cultural conservatism — such as pious hypocrite Major Frank Burns (Robert Duvall) or starchy "regular Army" Major "Hot Lips" Houlihan (Sally Kellerman, Oscar-nominated for Best Supporting Actress) — Hawkeye and Trapper merely push back and the representatives of the old world's conformity come toppling down. And because they're not soldiers but drafted working surgeons, we wince at Hawkeye's nonchalance over the sound of his bonesaw cutting through a combat casualty's arm, or at the spurting blood and dropping viscera that color the crude operating room.

Veteran TV director Altman had to fight to keep those surgery scenes in. The studio wanted them removed, which would have reduced MASH to a toothless, irrelevant chucklefest. Making matters worse, time and again the troubled production came close to being aborted — by studio interference, by a screenwriter (Hollywood Ten blacklist vet Ring Lardner Jr.) furious and hurt by Altman's techniques and changes, and even by Altman's two lead actors who, considering him unfit and possibly downright nuts, tried to get their director fired.

In the end, Altman's bold mix of impudence and risqué humor with blood-smeared naturalism appealed to enthusiastic audiences, war protesters and servicemen alike. The critical and commercial success of this low-budget, low-profile project with no major stars surprised everyone. It ended up as 1970's third highest box-office money-maker, beating out, in the year of Kent State and U.S. forces' invasion of neutral Cambodia, the more conventional war dramas Tora! Tora! Tora! and Patton. Long after helping drop-kick a new wave in American cinema, it remains beloved and recognized as the first full-bore "Altman film." (Not to mention the dozen or more new actors it introduced, many of whom are still on our screens today. And doesn't Kiefer take after his old man?) MASH announced its director as an auteur to watch and immediately placed him among the '70s New Hollywood set, despite being, at 45, a good ten or twenty years older than those wonder boys named Scorsese, Coppola, Spielberg, and Lucas. It's still the biggest hit of his career, and such distinctive Altman films as Brewster McCloud, McCabe & Mrs. Miller, The Long Goodbye, and Nashville followed soon after.

In 1996 the Library of Congress deemed it culturally significant and selected it for preservation in the United States National Film Registry. In 1998 the American Film Institute recognized MASH as one of the 100 greatest American films, and two years later as one of the 10 funniest American films. Give it more decades, and likely more wars, and MASH will continue to age gracefully as a then-bold but still-funny offramp on the road of American comedy cinema.

*          *          *

Fox's two-disc MASH: Five Star Collection presents the film in a new high-definition anamorphic transfer (2.35:1) supervised by Altman. After 32 years original source prints of adequate quality were impossible to find, so a new composite negative was created and the film has been color-corrected to Altman's specifications. Because Altman and his cinematographer deliberately chose muted colors and soft camerawork for almost every scene, large portions of this release may appear softer and darker to fans who have seen previous home editions. Likewise, the dense, rich audio — its overlapping and overheard dialogue being one of Altman's hallmark innovations — was recrafted from multiple prints and original source elements, and now it's available in DD 2.0 stereo or monaural options. A Film Restoration featurette spotlights the work that yielded this edition.

Additionally, four documentaries tell the story of the film's genesis, development, and influence. The first is Disc One's episode of cable television's American Movie Classics Backstory (25 mins.). It's slickly produced and provides a thorough background of the production supported by recent interviews with Altman, Sutherland, Gould, and others. Disc Two holds Enlisted: The Story of MASH (40 mins., another making-of retrospective) and MASH: Comedy Under Fire (44 mins.), narrated by Burt Reynolds and highlighting the Korean War's real MASH units and the personnel whose lives were similar to and very different from what appeared on the big screen. Finally, a 30th Anniversary Cast Reunion (30 mins.) produced for the Fox Movie Channel is a taped stage "talk show" format with Altman and key cast members fielding questions before an appreciative college audience. While this abundance of featurettes is a welcome addition, they suffer from chronic redundancy. Facts are repeated from one to another, and they often share footage from the same talking-head interviews.

Redundancy is underlined further in Altman's feature commentary audio track, one of the more disappointing in recent memory. A bored and disengaged curmudgeon, the director repeats information covered in the documentaries, and his comments are islands isolated between long spaces of dead air. He does, though, confirm that this was the first major studio film to deploy "fuck" in its dialogue, and notes that if he had known that Gould and Sutherland were trying to get him fired he would have quit.

Other supplements include the original theatrical trailer and a stills gallery. Dual-DVD keep-case.

—Mark Bourne

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