M*A*S*H on DVD

Donald Sutherland, Elliott Gould, Tom Skerritt, Sally Kellerman, Robert Duvall, Roger Bowen, Rene Auberjonois, Jo Ann Pflug, Gary Burghoff, Fred Williamson, Bud Cort. Directed by Robert Altman. Aspect ratio: 2.35:1 (anamorphic). Dolby Digital 2.0. Two discs. 116 minutes. 1970. 20th Century Fox 2002709. R. $24.99.

M*A*S*H is something of an oddity. Lots of folks are much more familiar with the TV series it inspired than they are with director Robert Altman's irreverent black comedy. If you're one of the many who know and love the series but have never seen the film, you might well be disappointed by it. Not only are all of your favorite characters played by different actors (with the exception of Gary Burghoff's Radar), but it's likely you've been so anesthetized by all of the surgery scenes in the series and the gore in other TV shows and movies that you won't be shocked, as audiences in 1970 were, by the bloodscapes in the film.

You'll be very familiar with the film's premise, however. Like the TV series, it's about a couple of young doctors in a mobile army surgery hospital (MASH) trying to escape the lunacy of war by drinking, chasing nurses, and raising hell with authority. With their escapades, "Hawkeye" Pierce (Donald Sutherland) and "Trapper" John McIntyre (Elliott Gould) are trying to flee the reality of the Korean war, but Altman wanted audiences to understand that his film was a statement about the madness of the Vietnam war—he kept all references to Korea out of the movie. The only way we know the film is set in Korea and not Vietnam is because 20th Century Fox forced Altman to tack a preamble onto the film that literally spells out its setting. The conservative studio heads didn't want anyone to think that the company was making a statement about Vietnam. Naturally, when the film became a hit (it trailed only Love Story and Airport at the box office in 1970), those same execs were more than happy to be called anti-war visionaries.

But the man with vision was Altman. He deliberately made the film grainy, with army-green tones, and shot it with zoom lenses to compress the images and enable him to get close-ups without moving his cameras. He not only allowed his actors to improvise, he demanded it; he layered sounds so that we hear jeeps starting up, planes flying overhead, and characters talking over one another, all at once. The results spoke to millions in a code they could understand; chaos was the order of the day.

Sutherland and Gould flourished under Altman's leadership (though both fought him on the set), radiating anarchistic humor. The banter in the blood-soaked operating room is bawdy and smart, and because of the improvisation, it comes across as loose and real, unlike most movies' pristine, tightly scripted dialogue.

Fox's DVD presentation of this modern classic is somewhat mixed. They spent the money to restore the film, making it look great (the murkiness is intentional), and lavished extras on this two-disc set, including a fascinating commentary track by Altman, a text-based feature about the restoration of the film, and four documentaries about the movie and its cast (the documentaries overlap quite a bit by sharing clips of Altman, Sutherland, Gould, and others). But they didn't remix Altman's groundbreaking use of sound into 5.1 channels; instead, what's offered is a two-channel track in Dolby Digital 2.0—another missed opportunity for a studio that seems to relish them.

Don't let that one slip-up prevent you from adding this DVD to your collection. M*A*S*H endures not only because the TV series is in eternal reruns, but because it's a voice that artfully articulates a timeless sentiment: War is insanity.