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review added: 4/17/02



M*A*S*H on DVD

reviews by Adam Jahnke of The Digital Bits

M*A*S*H: Five Star Collection

Enhanced for 16x9 TVs
M*A*S*H
Five Star Collection - 1970 (2001) - 20th Century Fox

Film Rating: B+

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): A-/A/B+

Specs and Features

Disc One: The Film
116 mins, R, letterboxed widescreen (2.35:1), 16x9 enhanced, THX-certified, single-sided, RSDL dual-layered (layer switch at ???), Amaray dual disc keep case packaging, audio commentary by Robert Altman, AMC Backstory: M*A*S*H documentary, original theatrical trailer, stills gallery, THX Optimode set-up, Easter eggs, animated film-themed menu screens with sound, scene access (40 chapters), languages: English (DD 2.0 and mono) and French (DD 2.0), subtitles: English and Spanish, Closed Captioned

Disc Two: Supplemental Material
Enlisted: The Story of M*A*S*H documentary (15 chapters), M*A*S*H: Comedy Under Fire documentary (18 chapters), 30th Anniversary M*A*S*H Cast & Crew Reunion, Film Restoration featurette, animated film-themed menu screens with sound


M*A*S*H: TV Season One M*A*S*H: TV Season One
Collector's Edition - 1972-73 (2001) - 20th Century Fox

Program Rating: B-

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): B-/B/D

Specs and Features

Disc One
8 episodes (M*A*S*H - The Pilot, To Market, To Market, Requiem for a Lightweight, Chief Surgeon Who?, The Moose, Yankee Doodle Doctor, Bananas, Crackers and Nuts and Cowboy - approx. 25 mins each), NR, full-frame (1.33:1), single-sided, dual-layered (no layer switch), Amaray triple disc keep case packaging, film-themed menu screens, scene access (10 chapters per episode), languages: English (DD mono with optional laugh track) and French (DD 2.0), subtitles: English and Spanish, Closed Captioned

Disc Two
8 episodes (Henry, Please Come Home, I Hate a Mystery, Germ Warfare, Dear Dad, Edwina, Love Story, Tuttle and The Ringbanger - approx. 25 mins each), NR, full-frame (1.33:1), single-sided, dual-layered (no layer switch), Amaray triple disc keep case packaging, film-themed menu screens, scene access (10 chapters per episode), languages: English (DD mono with optional laugh track) and French (DD mono), subtitles: English and Spanish, Closed Captioned

Disc Three
8 episodes (Sometimes You Hear the Bullet, Dear Dad… Again, The Longjohn Flap, The Army-Navy Game, Sticky Wicket, Major Fred C. Dobbs, Cease Fire and Showtime - approx. 25 mins each), NR, full-frame (1.33:1), single-sided, dual-layered (no layer switch), Amaray triple disc keep case packaging, film-themed menu screens, scene access (10 chapters per episode), languages: English (DD mono with optional laugh track) and French (DD mono), subtitles: English and Spanish, Closed Captioned

If the history of pop culture has taught us anything, it's that movies seldom make good sources for television series (or vice versa for that matter, but one problem at a time). For every hit show like Alice (based, believe it or not, on Martin Scorsese's 1974 movie Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore), there's a Working Girl or Dirty Dancing. But towering above all films-turned-television-series success stories M*A*S*H. Robert Altman's 1970 trailblazer begat a popularly and critically successful TV series which itself begat its own spin-offs. Some popular (Trapper John, M.D.), some considerably less so (it seems unlikely that Fox will be releasing Radar or After M*A*S*H on DVD anytime soon). So successful was M*A*S*H the TV show, that a surprisingly large number of people have absolutely no idea it was based on a movie.

Released in 1970, MASH was unlike anything else movie audiences had seen before (by the way, when I'm referring to the movie in this review, it'll be MASH, the actual on-screen title… if it's the TV series, it's M*A*S*H). MASH follows three army surgeons through their tour of duty in Korea: Captain "Hawkeye" Pierce (Donald Sutherland), Captain Trapper John McIntyre (Elliott Gould) and Captain Duke Forrest (Tom Skerritt). Mixing realistically bloody scenes in the operating room with pitch black comedy, MASH represented not just a new kind of war movie, but a new kind of comedy. Altman encouraged his actors to improvise off of Ring Lardner Jr.'s script (which, ironically, won an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay), giving MASH a more organic, theatrical feel than most movies. The anti-establishment, anti-war sentiment of MASH was just what America needed as we entered what would turn out to be the final years of the Vietnam War. Altman had deliberately eliminated all references to Korea from the movie (apart from a studio-imposed caption after the opening credits) to make it clear that this film was not really about Korea but Vietnam. MASH became a surprise hit. Altman had brought the movie in under its already low budget, so it became hugely profitable for Fox and went on to garner five Academy Award nominations.

Perhaps the best compliment you can pay a DVD is that it causes you to reappraise your opinion of a movie. Fox's presentation of MASH certainly did that. I'd seen the movie years before and remained unimpressed. Fox's restoration (performed under Altman's supervision) finally allows contemporary audiences to see how truly innovative MASH is. Prior to this DVD, I had only seen MASH on pan & scan VHS, where it simply looked like a muddy, incompetent mess. The cast and crew reunion featurette on Disc Two features a handful of pan & scan clips that reminded me just how big a headache that transfer was. To be fair, this restoration doesn't exactly make the movie glimmer. It was never shot that way in the first place. But at least the colors are accurate and the careful composition of Altman and cinematographer Harold E. Stine's images are presented as they were meant to be seen.

The real revelation on this DVD is, of course, the restored soundtrack. Robert Altman's soundtracks are carefully detailed and layered with overlapping dialogue, music and sound effects. A bad sound mix, like the one on the tape version I originally watched, renders his films totally worthless. You sit there thinking, "Yeah yeah, everybody's talking at once and I can't understand a word. How very innovative." In point of fact, you are actually supposed to understand some of what's being said. Altman's mix directs your attention to what's important. MASH on DVD restores that vital aspect of the work. Sure, in Dolby Digital 2.0, it's not an aggressive 6.1 DTS mix or anything like that. But it is an outstanding presentation of an extraordinarily complex sound design, even without whooshing helicopter effects, enveloping wind storms or thunderous music.

The bonus features here are a masterpiece of corporate synergy in action. Why just produce a DVD when you can produce content for a handful of cable channels at the same time? To that end, we get an episode of the American Movie Classics series Backstory, an episode of the History Channel series History Through the Lens, and a cast and crew reunion featurette produced for Fox Movie Classics in which Robert Altman is presented with the Legacy Award, a prize that seems to be about as coveted as the Outstanding Achievement in the Field of Excellence award won by Homer Simpson. In addition to these documentaries, there's an original documentary called Enlisted: The Story of MASH. Between these four documentaries, we get to hear from just about everybody who had anything to do with the movie, which is great. However, we also get to hear the same information over and over again. It's interesting the first time we hear Robert Altman say that the only reason he got away with making MASH was because Fox's attention was on their two other big war pictures at the time, Patton and Tora! Tora! Tora!. It's considerably less interesting the fifth time he says it. Still, there's a lot of information here, particularly in the History Through the Lens documentary. The most disappointing feature is the audio commentary by Altman himself. Altman is famously cantankerous and I had hoped his commentary would capture some of that spirit. Unfortunately, he basically just repeats a lot of what we've already heard and allows long stretches of silence to punctuate his comments. Fox has also included the original trailer (which includes a lot of language and sexual content I'm sure the MPAA would never approve in a trailer today), a stills gallery, a brief featurette on the film restoration and a few Easter eggs, including different sound clips accessible through the main menu of each disc.

So if MASH on DVD forced me to reappraise the movie, how come I'm only giving the movie a B+? Well, for a movie that has been praised by everybody from the American Film Institute to Leonard Maltin's Movie & Video Guide as one of the best comedies ever made, I just don't think it's all that funny. It has its moments but in the final analysis, I find MASH easier to appreciate than to truly enjoy.

In 1972, MASH became M*A*S*H on CBS, famously running several years longer than the Korean War itself and culminating in a final episode called Goodbye, Farewell and Amen, that remains one of the highest rated television programs of all time. The TV series decided to ignore the character of Duke Forrest entirely, to forgot about the fact that Hawkeye had been sent home at the end of the movie and that Frank Burns had been driven insane and shipped off in a straight-jacket. Apart from these changes, though, viewers familiar with the movie would have easily recognized a lot of elements that remained intact, particularly in the first several episodes. The Japanese versions of songs like My Blue Heaven carried over, as did much of the footage from Altman's title sequence. And contrary to popular belief, Gary Burghoff (better known as Radar O'Reilly) was not the only actor to reprise his role on the TV show. Character actor G. Wood also reappeared in a few episodes as General Hammond. In fact, the big difference between the movie and the TV show is that the series was cleaner. Pretty much everything was cleaned up. The soundtrack was cleaned so that dialogue was spoken in a more traditional you-speak-then-I-speak delivery. The language was cleaned up to conform to broadcast standards. Father Mulcahy was no longer referred to as Dago Red (although CBS didn't seem to have a problem with Spearchucker Jones in the first half of the season). Altman's careful elimination of anything that would specify Korea was taken care of so there would be absolutely no mistake that this was Korea and NOT Vietnam. In fact, the first episode bears the caption "Korea - A Hundred Years Ago". Quite a difference from Altman's here-and-now approach. Even the operating room was scrubbed clean, with gloves and surgical gowns bearing hardly a trace of the blood that had soaked everyone in the movie.

Very few TV shows hit their stride in the first season and M*A*S*H is no exception. Season One is marked by a number of episodes with very conventional sitcom structure and no real reason for being set in a hospital or a war zone. For instance, Edwina (on Disc Two) could be an episode of Three's Company, with Hawkeye (Alan Alda) forced to romance a klutzy nurse. But a surprisingly large number of the episodes find the balance between comedy and drama that the best episodes of the series would be remembered for. Highlights of season one include:

The Moose - The 4077th is disgusted by the arrival of a sergeant and his Korean slave girl, better known as a moose.

Cowboy - Colonel Blake (McLean Stevenson) finds himself the target of a number of attempts on his life.

Dear Dad - A Christmas episode that approximates the plot-free structure of the movie. This was the first of several episodes built around Hawkeye writing a letter home to his father, a gimmick they liked so much they used it again in Season One in the cleverly titled Dear Dad… Again.

Tuttle - Maybe the funniest episode of Season One. Hawkeye invents the fictitious Captain Tuttle to cover his funneling of supplies to a Korean orphanage. The lie soon escalates to the point where Tuttle is the most popular officer on the base.

Sometimes You Hear the Bullet - Hawkeye confronts the reality of the war when he's unable to save an old friend. A young, pre-Oscar winning Ron Howard guest stars as an underage corporal.

The Army-Navy Game - The 4077th comes under fire and tensions mount when an unexploded bomb lands in the middle of the camp.

Cease Fire - The 4077th celebrates when they receive word of a cease-fire and it appears the war is over.

Showtime - The first season finale. A number of stories are juxtaposed with the performance of a USO troop.

Fox should be commended for releasing an entire season of M*A*S*H, as they've done with more recent shows like The X-Files and The Simpsons. The picture quality is variable, often in the same episode, with some episodes showing a substantial degree of degradation and graininess. Of course, preserving thirty-year old television episodes hasn't exactly been a top priority of any studio, regardless of how popular the show might be, but the video quality is perfectly acceptable. It's certainly better than watching static and ghost-filled repeats on broadcast television. The sound quality is fine and I'm very pleased with the decision to present an audio track without the hateful and obtrusive laugh track that plagued everything from M*A*S*H to Scooby-Doo in the 70's. This is a very nice feature and, quite frankly, the only thing that prevents me from giving the extras on this set an F. I hope subsequent seasons will include some participation from folks like guiding force and producer Larry Gelbart, Alan Alda, Loretta Swit, Wayne Rogers, Gary Burghoff and others. After all, more people think of Alan Alda than Donald Sutherland when they hear the name Hawkeye Pierce. It's only fitting that we get to hear his thoughts on the show that made him famous.

Generally speaking, Fox has done an admirable job bringing the various incarnations of M*A*S*H to DVD. The Five Star Collection edition of the Robert Altman film is technically superior, even if the bonus features are a little repetitive. The Season One Collector's Edition of the series demonstrates Fox's commitment to preserving their television output on DVD. If the bonus features are a little lacking (OK, a lot lacking), they've got plenty of time with M*A*S*H to remedy the situation. In fact, it would be nice to see a two-disc Five Star Collection edition of the finale, Goodbye, Farewell and Amen, itself when the time comes.

Adam Jahnke
ajahnke@thedigitalbits.com


M*A*S*H: Five Star Collection


M*A*S*H: TV Season One


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