Of all the movies that transmuted into TV shows, 1970's M*A*S*H
undoubtedly was the most prominent and successful. It made a boatload of
money and stands as the sole movie-to-TV-program to make the AFI 100, though American
Graffiti had a loose connection as well. While Graffiti
didn't directly inspire TV's Happy Days, its success brought the
latter to the small screen. Obviously, the link between M*A*S*H the
movie and M*A*S*H the TV show seems much stronger.
At this point, I believe many more people think of M*A*S*H as a television program. I did a little straw poll at work and asked which format people thought of first; all of them responded that they consider M*A*S*H as a TV show foremost. Personally, I grew up on the program and can barely remember life without it; the program hit the air in 1972 when I was five.
I also can’t recall a world without M*A*S*H, which came out when I was three. However, I definitely didn’t grow up on it. In fact, although I know that I saw parts of it on TV, I’m pretty sure I never took in the whole flick until I watched this new DVD release.
As such, it became extremely difficult to consider the film on its own. The TV show is so deeply ingrained in my consciousness that I can’t view the movie without its spin-off entering the equation. For better or for worse, the TV show offered my main impressions of the characters and the scenario.
Through my DVD experiences, I’ve checked out many films of which I was aware but had never seen. However, none fell into this category, where I knew so much about the personalities and settings but hadn’t actually watched the movie. That made this an unusual and interesting incident.
I won’t try to determine if one is distinctly better than the other, for they’re really two different beasts. TV has different requirements, and had the show stayed tremendously similar to the movie, it probably wouldn’t have succeeded. While the two have many aspects in common, the film seems a lot more distant and without the broadness of the TV show.
Whether that’s good or bad depends on your point of view, I suppose, but I liked the more “matter of fact” tone of the film. M*A*S*H follows the shenanigans of the personnel of the 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital (M*A*S*H) during an unspecified portion of the Korean War. At the start of the film, two new surgeons - Captains “Hawkeye” Pierce (Donald Sutherland) and “Duke” Forrest (Tom Skerritt) - join the staff. Before long, chest-cutting specialist “Trapper” John McIntyre (Elliott Gould) comes on board, as well as head nurse Margaret “Hot Lips” Houlihan. They work alongside distracted commanding officer Lt. Col. Henry Blake (Roger Bowen), pious and self-righteous Major Frank Burns (Robert Duvall), and a mix of others.
Essentially, M*A*S*H offers an experiential piece that provides no distinct plot. Instead, we simply watch a series of fairly unexceptional events. The emphasis is on the staff’s attempts to stave off boredom, as they drink and carouse much of the time. Pierce stands as the most prominent character, and we see him battle Burns, take a trip to Japan with Trapper, and stage a mock suicide. The film climaxes with a football game between the 4077th and another Army unit.
M*A*S*H is an absolutely bizarre war movie in that it has almost nothing to do with war. We see some fairly graphic surgery scenes that weight the piece in reality, but - unlike the TV show - we hear little discussion of the prior battles and we get no sense of urgency; the 4077th is only three miles from the front, but as presented in the movie, it might as well be 3000 miles.
I don’t regard this as a negative. If anything, it makes M*A*S*H a more irreverent and subversive exercise. It’s clearly an anti-war movie, mainly because it treats the subject in such a light manner. Of course, the TV show did this to a degree, but it emphasized the negatives and the tragedy to a much greater degree. Virtually nothing about M*A*S*H the movie spotlights the horror of war; even some deaths are shown in a cool and non-emotional manner for the most part.
I’m not particularly wild about a lot of director Robert Altman’s work, as I felt flicks like Nashville possessed good ideas and were ground-breaking but they didn’t offer particularly compelling experiences. M*A*S*H is a different matter. Even after more than 30 years, the film can be somewhat disconcerting in its cool and detached tone, but this makes the experience all the more impressive, really. At times Altman goes too far to highlight situational absurdities. For example, the suicide scene offers a clear mockery of the “Last Supper” painting, an excessively cutesy reference.
However, most of the time, Altman’s arrow hit the target. M*A*S*H uses music in an interesting way. For the most part, the movie features no score. Through much of the film, all we hear is incidental music, and surreal tunes at that; the piece sticks largely with Asian-translated versions of big band numbers like “My Blue Heaven”. These are clearly intended to be part of the naturalistic scene; the characters hear the songs as well.
During the film’s second half, some more traditional score appears, but Altman continues to treat the music in an insubordinate manner. His use of fairly traditional-sounding Japanese music when Trapper and Hawkeye visit that land and also the “rah-rah” numbers that accompany the football game serve to mock the subjects and remind the audience of the absurdity of the situations.
Without question, M*A*S*H is a piece from its time. Although the setting may have been Korea, the film really relates to Vietnam, and it acts as a slam against then-current policies featured by the US. While M*A*S*H occasionally seems a little dated, it usually comes across as pretty sly and provocative; unlike lame hippie junk such as Harold and Maude , M*A*S*H has aged quite well.
A lot of that positivity comes from the cast, who provide consistently solid performances. Sutherland seems especially good, as he gives Hawkeye greater subtlety without the overtly indignant and self-righteous tones of Alan Alda. Sutherland’s Hawkeye comes across as a more real personality, as does Duvall’s Burns. Larry Linville’s take was a wonderful comic creation, but he wasn’t a real person. Duvall creates a believable character and offers more of a real threat to the others.
Overall, M*A*S*H the movie was a significantly less broad and obvious piece. Again, I don’t mean to slam the TV show, as I thought it was a funny and interesting experience, and it had the obstacle of creating something new and fresh every week for more than a decade. Still, the film probably is the stronger experience. It treats its material in a way that remains provocative and insightful, and it generally lacks the self-righteous bombast that often mars films of the era. I’m not totally sure M*A*S*H merits a spot in the AFI 100, but it’s a good piece of work nonetheless.
Movie to TV notes: although the film fed into the series pretty well, some changes definitely occurred. For one, Hawkeye went home at the end of the flick, and Frank Burns also split the 4077th during the movie; the show had to ignore these developments. In addition, some characters didn’t make the transition, with the major omission being Captain Forrest, who had no part on TV.
Many know that Gary Burghoff was the only actor to reprise his role on the TV show. However, that’s not totally true. He was the only regular to appear in both, but General Hammond also cropped up on a few episodes, and G. Wood continued to play him. So there!
Curiously, the “Original 1970 Production Notes” that came with my press packet for M*A*S*H related some scenes that definitely weren’t in the movie. In the synopsis, it states that Korean houseboy Ho-Jon - who we see drafted earlier in the flick - gets killed, and there’s a postscript that takes place back in the States. Hot Lips also loosens up considerably. I have no idea if this material was shot and cut from the final flick, but it’s definitely not there.
Spooky trivia note: McLean Stevenson played Henry Blake on TV, and he died of a heart attack on February 15, 1996. Roger Bowen played Henry Blake in the movie, and he died of a heart attack on February 16, 1996. Eerie!
M*A*S*H appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 2.35:1 on this single-sided, double-layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. I found the movie to show some concerns but it presented a surprisingly solid picture as a whole.
Sharpness seemed generally positive. Occasionally, some wide shots came across as a little soft and fuzzy, and the moderately drab tone accorded the whole film meant that definition never seemed tremendously defined. However, the movie appeared adequately crisp and detailed for the most part. I discerned no signs of jagged edges or moiré effects, and the image seemed to lack any edge enhancement. Print flaws appeared quite modest for an older movie. I saw light grain during some low-light interior shots, and occasional speckles also cropped up at times, but as a whole, the movie seemed rather clean.
M*A*S*H featured an exceptionally green palette. During a few shots - such as the Japanese escapade - brighter tones appeared, and one showed some very tight and clear red lighting. However, drab greens dominated the movie. They looked pretty bland and lifeless, but it seemed clear that Altman did this intentionally to accentuate the boring aspects of military life. As such, I thought the colors looked fine, as they appeared to accurately replicate the original material. Black levels came across as reasonably solid and deep, while shadow detail seemed slightly heavy and opaque at times. However, the low-light sequences usually appeared acceptably clear and visible. The image was somewhat gauzy and flat at times, but it remained quite good for its age.
M*A*S*H featured a stereo soundtrack, though it may as well have been monaural. The imaging showed very slight breadth at times, but it remained heavily anchored to the center. Still, it appeared reasonably solid for an older movie. Dialogue sounded somewhat thin and tinny, but lines were always acceptably distinct and accurate, and they showed no problems related to intelligibility or edginess. Effects were also rather trebly but clean, and they lacked notable distortion or other concerns. I can’t say those elements seemed realistic, but they were decent for their age.
Music varied a bit due to the kinds of sources, but for the most part, the tunes seemed similar to the rest of the track. Some of the score showed respectable low-end, especially during the football game. Otherwise, the mix remained pretty restricted and flat, though it demonstrated reasonable accuracy. Ultimately, the soundtrack was just fine considering the source material, but it did nothing to stand out from the crowd.
M*A*S*H stands as the sixth entry in Fox’s line of “Five Star” DVD releases. It comes on the heels of Independence Day, The Sound of Music, Cleopatra, Die Hard and The French Connection. All of those offered some solid extras, and M*A*S*H matches up pretty nicely with the prior Five Stars.
Most of the supplements appear on DVD Two, but the first disc tosses in a nice array of materials. We start with an audio commentary from director Robert Altman. He works alone here for this running, screen-specific piece. The only prior Altman solo track I’ve heard came along with Nashville, and it was a weak one. Unfortunately, Altman’s commentary for M*A*S*H doesn’t improve upon that effort, as it suffers from many concerns.
Part of the problem stems from redundancy. Although I’m discussing it first, I actually screened the commentary last; I’d already watched all of the DVD’s documentaries. Altman seems to have only a handful of stories related to M*A*S*H, and we hear these over and over throughout these programs. As such, much of the commentary was old news to me by the time I got to it, and the information came across in a more interesting format elsewhere.
That’s because Altman tends to leave lots of empty spaces during his track. He goes for long stretches without statement, and he often provides rudimentary remarks such as the names of actors. Again, much of what he says can be heard elsewhere, and he seems like he’s on cruise control at times. For instance, during his overused discussion of other Fox films in production concurrent with M*A*S*H, he refers to Tara! Tara! Tara!, which I believe was a comic farce about spoiled Southern belle triplets during the Civil War.
Altman does provide a little information unique to the DVD. While he touches on his feelings toward the TV show in one of the documentaries, he expands on it here. Altman clearly dislikes “that series”, though his reasons for this seem odd; he believes it was terribly racist, which makes very little sense. On its own, Altman provides some reasonably interesting material in this commentary, and if you plan to check out none of the other extras, it merits a listen. However, if you will examine everything else on the DVD, the commentary becomes much less useful.
DVD One tosses in a few additional supplements. Most significant of these is Backstory, an American Movie Classics cable channel documentary about the film. This program runs for 24 minutes and 15 seconds and offers a pretty standard synopsis of the production. It includes the usual mix of movie clips, some stills and a little footage from the set, and interviews. We hear recent comments from Altman, film critic Richard Schickel, producer Richard Zanuck, and actors Donald Sutherland, Elliott Gould, Tom Skerritt, and Sally Kellerman. The show’s too short to offer a complete look at the flick, but it seems quite good nonetheless. We get a solid overview of the project and see some interesting material like part of an Elliott Gould screentest.
As with Altman’s commentary, one of the main problems with “Backstory” relates to the content of the other extras. On its own, the program is interesting, but it seems redundant when combined with the others. It’s not the best of the four documentaries, but even so, it’s still fairly good.
Rounding out DVD One are a decent Still Gallery with 44 images from the set as well as the film’s theatrical trailer. The latter appears in anamorphically enhanced 1.85:1, but it hasn’t worn well over the years. It looks quite bad constantly presents an annoying whine - hey, that sounds like my last girlfriend!
Lastly, DVD One includes the THX Optimode program. As also found on other DVDs like Supergirl and X-Men, this is supposed to be used to set up your home theater to best present the movie on the disc in question. Apparently the Optimode is unique for each DVD on which it’s included; unlike programs such as Video Essentials, the Optimode should tweak your set-up differently every time. Frankly, I’ve been very happy with my already-established calibration and I’m afraid to muck with it, so I’ve never tried the Optimode. If you lack calibration from Video Essentials or a similar program, or if you’re just more adventurous than I, the Optimode could be a helpful addition.
As we move to DVD Two, we discover the bulk of the video extras. It includes three full documentaries, and we start with Enlisted: The Story of M*A*S*H. This program runs 40 minutes and 50 seconds and strongly echoes the structure of the “Backstory” show. Actually, it even includes some of the same interview snippets. “Enlisted” features the same participants minus Schickel and it adds producer Ingo Preminger, screenwriter Ring Lardner Jr., actors John Schuck, Rene Auberjonois, Gary Burghoff - who appears to have become possessed by the ghost of Truman Capote - and Michael Murphy, editor Danford Greene, and associate producer Leon Erickson. Much of the material from “Backstory” appears here as well, but a reasonable amount of unique information makes the cut. Essentially “Enlisted” is an expanded version of the “Backstory”, and it seems to be the best of the four documentaries, at least in regard to the history of the production.
I make that last disclaimer because the next program - entitled M*A*S*H: Comedy Under Fire - is the strongest of the package. This 44-minute and five-second piece replicates a moderate amount of information from the prior programs, as we see the usual behind the scenes materials, film clips and interviews. From its predecessors, we hear from Zanuck, Altman, Skerritt, and Sutherland, and much of their material seems repetitive.
However, two elements make “Fire” unique. For one, it briefly discusses the TV series, and we get some comments from writer/producer Larry Gelbart and actress Loretta Swit, who appears intent on living out her character’s nickname; I don’t know what she’s doing to her lips, but they indeed appear ready to catch fire! These elements are brief but useful.
The most significant addition we find here comes from its fine historical perspective. “Fire” includes USC Professor of Korean History Kyung Moon Hwang as well as Korean War surgeons Otto Apel, Eugene Hesse, and John Howard, nurse Mary Quinn, and veterans Colonel Young Oak Kim and Paul Edwards. This side of the story dominates the program and allows it to become something more than just another rehash of the same production stories. Yes, we have to wade through those as well, but the realism prevalent makes this a fine program that seems to be the best of the bunch.
On the other hand, the final full documentary seems to be the worst of the four. The 30th Anniversary M*A*S*H Cast Reunion follows a fete at which Altman received the first Fox Movie Channel “Legacy” award. After a short ceremony, he and a number of M*A*S*H participants gather for a panel discussion of the film; we find Gould, Preminger, Auberjonois, Kellerman, Schuck, Fred Williamson and Bud Cort. A few new comments emerge due to the additional perspectives, but as a whole, we hear the same old tales over and over again. If I have to listen to Altman say that the film wasn’t released - it escaped - one more time, I may take my own life. Add to the redundancy a rather fawning tone provided by host Andy Klein and the whole piece seems less than compelling.
Finally, we get a Film Restoration Featurette. Similar to programs that appeared on Fox’s recent Marilyn Monroe DVD releases, this three-minute and five-second piece starts with some text that details the problems with the original material and follows with demonstrations of the improvements. I find this kind of program to be rather self-congratulatory, but the text description was fairly interesting.
For those who don’t care to wade through all of the redundant information on this DVD, I’d recommend you check out “Enlisted” and “Comedy Under Fire”. Those two programs will provide 95% of the information found elsewhere; you’ll miss a few details, but you’ll also skip a lot of aggravation and boredom. Serious M*A*S*H fans will probably want to struggle through the whole package, but others should be satisfied with the two shows I mentioned.
By the way, notable in his absence was Robert Duvall. Of all the major participants in the film, only he fails to appear without a known explanation. Actually, the only other main actor not to show up is Roger Bowen, who has an acceptable excuse since he’s dead. I’d be very curious to know why Duvall remained away from all of these proceedings.
Since I grew up on the TV version of M*A*S*H, I expected the movie would seem wrong to me. Instead, I thought it came across as more appropriate than the show, especially due to the performances; most of the actors seemed to better inhabit the characters than did their TV counterparts. The film edition of M*A*S*H appeared less coherent but more compelling and inventive. The DVD provided surprisingly pleasing picture as well as acceptable audio and a redundant but still solid roster of extras. Overall, M*A*S*H remains one of Robert Altman’s best films, and this DVD treats its subject well.