The “finest kind” of American satire, as cagey doc “Hawkeye” Pierce himself would say, Robert Altman’s landmark anti-war pic “MASH” receives a long-overdue multidisc treatment from Fox in a set that showcases both the strengths and weaknesses of such DVD issues. Younger auds only vaguely aware that the gratingly pat yet hugely successful tube skein of the same name was based on a movie would be well advised to add this to their collections immediately, while those in the know are already cueing it up for repeat viewings.
All the elements that constitute the revered helmer’s distinctive style, now on display in “Gosford Park,” were pioneered in “MASH”: the spot-on ensemble work; the slow zooms probing individual perfs within the whole; the shrewd yet balanced cultural barbs that punctuate a dramatic framework with often crude comedy; the complex sonic density of the sound mix, with its distinctive rhythms and overlapping conversations.
What’s perhaps most revelatory is how fresh “MASH” comes across in 2002: not too 1960s cute, not too politically strident and altogether surprisingly undated, a genially subversive critique of the futile absurdity of war. Even by freewheeling standards of the day, “MASH” was one odd property.
Adapted by formerly blacklisted writer Ring Lardner Jr. from the novel by Richard Hooker (pen name of medico H. Richard Hornberger), pic was produced by former agent Ingo Preminger for Richard Zanuck on Fox’s Malibu ranch property at the same time Zanuck’s dad Darryl was overseas supervising the studio’s more traditional big-budget war epics “Patton” and “Tora, Tora, Tora.” The saga of a team of reluctant draftee medical doctors and military staff at the 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital, some three miles from the front lines of the Korean War, was radically reworked on set by the determined Altman, who’d raided the San Francisco theater scene for untested acting talent to appear alongside then-fledgling stars Donald Sutherland (Hawkeye) and Elliott Gould (the Groucho-like Trapper John McIntyre); latter were so distressed at Altman’s attention to the bit players that they attempted to have him fired during the first week of filming.
Altman wanted “MASH” to get people thinking about the then-raging Vietnam conflict, and pic captured the zeitgeist of the moment upon its dead-of-winter release, initially grossing some $40 million on a $3 million investment (ironically, of pic’s five Oscar noms, the only winner was Lardner). To this day helmer, who was paid $75,000 for the job with no points, likes to say his 14-year-old son made more coin than he did; Mike Altman wrote the words to “Suicide Is Painless,” which was co-opted (sans downer lyrics) for the TV show. These stories and many more are recounted in no less than three lengthy docus on the two discs.
Problem is, the tales are repeated ad nauseum, making the complete experience a maddening slog. Best of the lot by far is J.M. Kenny’s 41-minute 2000 production “Enlisted: The Story of MASH” on disc two. A summer 2000 reunion of the surviving cast and crew is nice, although glaring absence of Robert Duvall (who played Bible-thumping foil Frank Burns) is never explained.
Tech credits for the 2.35:1 transfer itself are superb, with painstaking lab work by Michael Pogorzelski and his Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences archive crew bravely preserving the deliberately swampy palette created by Altman and d.p. Harold E. “Hal” Stine.
So, too, the groundbreaking sound mix has been liberated from the awful stereo tracks created for former tape and laserdisc editions, with an illuminating essay by Pogorzelski and three examples of the visual restoration process tucked away on disc two.
Cover art trumpets disc as the “restored, uncut original version!,” necessary since some four minutes of gore and racy situations had been trimmed over the years for various homevid reissues, with this pressing repping the fully intact, 116-minute cut delivered by Altman. “And that’s that movie,” he says at the very end of his underwhelming yak track, nicely summing up the deceptively offhand approach he’s brought to an eventful bigscreen career.