With M*A*S*H, Robert Altman laid down the blueprint for many of his 1970s films with his overlapping dialogue, loose approach to dramatic structure (moments of clarity and catharsis come as unexpectedly as any force of nature), unorthodox tonal shifts, and his emphasis not on character and plot but instead on community (the word, in this instance, referring to both an ensemble and their place of dwelling). Being Altman’s sole uncontestable box office sensation, M*A*S*H is the odd man out in an odd career. The key word of that summation isn’t “odd,” but “man.” M*A*S*H may be the definitive pop-fiction movie about Vietnam made while the war was still ongoing (all references to Korea were, essentially, inserted at the demand of 20th Century Fox suits), but it’s also one of the most (perhaps unintentionally) telling exposés of the divergence between counterculture and feminism.
Donald Sutherland and Elliot Gould’s Hawkeye and Trapper John are first and foremost a double shot of youthful irreverence, a pair of anti-establishment swashbucklers who also, given their status as military surgeons, save lives and very conveniently serve through a war they don’t want to be a part of without ever once having to pick up a gun. But whatever socially vanguard credentials they and every other male soldier at the Mobile Army Surgical Hospital outside of the Bible-thumping Maj. Burns (Robert Duvall) earn, they lose on modern audiences by virtue of their decidedly Neanderthal attitudes toward women: their garter-wearing fellow soldiers on base and the women they are unfaithful to while fooling around with the former.
Considering how they treat the women they like, it’s no surprise that they set out to utterly crucify the one they don’t, Hot Lips Houlihan (Sally Kellerman). Altman scholar Helene Keyssar notes that the overall thrust of the film, its episodes “that constitute the humiliation of Hot Lips Houlihan—what I earlier called her defloration—are, transparently, about the ritualized degradation of women by men.” After watching the methodical devaluation of Houlihan’s social standing until the only authority she holds on base is as the captain of a cheerleading squad, you almost have to wonder if her Oscar nomination was an act of chivalry on behalf of AMPAS. Altman has countered criticisms of misogyny by stressing (with some accuracy) that his presentation of his cast’s loutish behavior is only meant to be descriptive, not prescriptive; that women indeed are systematically taken advantage of, if not outright ignored, by the fraternity of the Military-industrial complex.
But to be totally honest, his plea would wash a lot better if the rest of the movie weren’t so clearly tapped into the giddy code of the clubhouse, if Hawkeye and Trapper John weren’t so consistently rewarded for their behavior, and if it didn’t all boil down to, of all things, a football game. As already argued here by Jeremiah Kipp, M*A*S*H is a good dint lower than its reputation, more so if you look at it not as one of the seminal 1970s films but instead as the first chapter (if not quite the first film) from the finest filmmaking career spent examining the American mystique. But a first chapter it is, and thus mandatory viewing.
There’s no indication that this is a new transfer from the one that was released on DVD a few years back. Of course, that DVD presented a full-on restoration, but this is one of the rare Blu-ray discs that point up all the flaws in the source material rather than open up hidden subtleties. Altman shot M*A*S*H in a deliberately unpolished style. We’re not just talking about the herky-jerky zooms and such that characterize his later ’70s films, we’re talking about intentionally sabotaged color schemes and focus pulls. As such, the disc looks mostly ugly, but it looks ugly in high-definition. Even worse is the sound which, as reported by DVD Beaver, contains a few awkward moments of newly re-recorded dialogue patches to make up for lost audio. Again, it’s a clear, uncompressed presentation, but it almost makes the limitations seem more pronounced. Not that any other presentation would have been unacceptable. Just caveat emptor.
All extra features on this Blu-ray, save for one, have been imported from the previous special edition DVD. The only new feature is a pop-up style "Interactive Guide to M*A*S*H" that shows, via icons, the names of the characters on screen at any moment and keeps a running tally of how many drinks they’ve imbibed, how many indecent proposals have been uttered, how many times they crosstalk in Altman’s signature style, and how many people croak on screen. It’s a cute idea, but you’ll probably turn it off within three minutes thanks to the intense volume of the dings and buzzers that accompany each tally. Otherwise, there’s a full platoon of documentary featurettes (all of them at least a meaty half-hour, almost all of them quite illuminating, if often redundant), a pair of trailers, and, most importantly, a commentary track by Altman himself. While he evidently loses himself in the viewing experience more than once, his insights are always crucial. I can’t tell which is more priceless between his admission that Elliott Gould and Donald Sutherland tried to get him thrown off the picture (after Altman himself tried to get rid of Sutherland) or his brutal dismissal of the movie’s TV spin-off as a racist blasphemy against his movie "starring Alan Albert, or whoever."
M*A*S*H is no Nashville. Hell, it may not even be O.C. & Stiggs. But for better or worse, it stands testament to the fact that at least one segment of the counterculture had no place for women.