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M*A*S*H*

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There are films that you come across at exactly the right moment in your life so that they make an indelible mark in your personal development. The just happen to come along just when external circumstances and internal mindset meshed to redirect how you think about life and what is going on around you. For me and millions of other men who turned 17 in 1970 one such movie was ‘M*A*S*H*’I was only a few months away from opening an official looking envelop from the federal government that would contain my ‘Selective Service identification, my draft card. Half a world away a war was consistently escalating in a little jungle country called Vietnam and many of the guys a year or two head of me in school already were sent there; some would not return. Sitting in the dark theater watching this film for the first time so much about it struck a chord in me. It was a look at a war from the perspective of young professionals conscripted into a conflict that had only tenuous connections to our lives here at home. ‘M*A*S*H*’ was more than a movie, it was an experience that resonated with an entire generation. It was an irreverent look at an intrinsically insane occurrence; war. ‘M*A*S*H*’ echoed the prevalent sentiments of all of us facing government mandated service during an active war. Unlike the conflicts this country is engaged in today service was not voluntary; if your birthday came up you went. There was a certain line in ‘M*A*S*H*’ that summed things up very well; "I wonder how such a degenerated person ever reached a position of authority in the Army Medical Corps"; "He was drafted". When that line was spoken 41 years ago the audience erupted in laughter tempered by a nervous understanding that any one of us might be facing the same type of madness very soon. Now over four decades have pass since that initial exposure to this cinematic masterpiece and life has naturally changed our perspective. 20th Century Fox has released a bright new high definition edition of this movie and while it looks and sounds better than ever the important thing is it still speaks to us in the same darkly humorous tones still able to make us laugh.

The film remained fairly true to the novel by Richard Hooker. This book was one of the must read selections for the youth ‘counter culture’ back in the day. Some changes were necessary to transcribe the story to the screen but every bit of the biting, anti-war sentiment remained intact. The man responsible for this translation from novel to screenplay was Ring Lardner Jr. This man had to continue his career under the cloak of pseudonyms after he was blacklisted under the McCarthy era hunt for communists. This was one of the first scripts he provided that he could openly acknowledge. To a generation that faced jail or exile for their political beliefs Lardner was looked upon with great admiration by his fans. Although he set the story in Korea everybody understood that it was Vietnam that provided the basis for what happened in the film. While many would think this was a silly flick about offbeat doctors drafted into the Korean War the youthful fans of the film understood this black comedy was targeting the most unpopular conflict the United States ever engaged in. while many directors approach their films from the visual standpoint Altman is very much into the way a movie sounds. There is a story I heard that the studio disliked his use of overlapping dialogue. His revenge was in the persona of Corp. Walter ‘Radar’ O'Reilly (Gary Burghoff), a character who spoke almost entirely in overlap. This film has an incredible ensemble cast with numerous plot threads all pulling together towards a stratifying conclusion. This became another trademark of Altman’s most famous films; a cast of characters painting a broad canvas each providing specific details in their own unique way. The Blu-ray version of this film is remarkable but the lossless audio is where it truly shines. Just listen to the helicopters as they come in for a landing or how each of the distinct conversations in the operating rooms are audible; filling the sound field in a robust stage of ever shifting sound. Punctuating the entire film are tinny announcements from a cheap, government issued loudspeaker. The mayhem and confusion of the unit is depicted through the shifting sounds alternating with silence; the lack of noise that stretches into tedium for the personnel.

This is just an amazing cast of actors. Donald Sutherland (Hawkeye Pierce), Elliott Gould (Trapper John McIntyre) and Tom Skerritt (Duke Forrest) are like three out of control frat boys who were taken out of the relative sanity of State side medical practice and thrust into the subject madness of a war of questionable purpose. When the casualties arrive the entire unit bursts into an insane furor of life saving activity. The reason why the three main characters get away with so much high jinks is they are the best at what they do; fix men up to return to combat. In their off time the endless wait for the next wave of injured is met with drunken debauchery. The meaningless sex is just to allow the staff to keep in touch with something life affirming. Contrasting the drafted medical personnel are a pair of Army regulars; Margaret 'Hot Lips' O'Houlihan (Sally Kellerman) and second in command Frank Burns (Robert Duvall). This contrast echoed the rift between ‘hippies’ and ROTC that was playing out on campuses all over the nation. Even now so many years later this is an enduring classic that has not lost its edge.

Posted 04/27/11

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