"Something I get asked a lot is 'Was M*A*S*H about the Vietnam war?' ...I always say "It's about all Wars" Alan Alda at the 2002 M*A*S*H 30th Anniversary Reunion
War is a commonly used and often easy fodder for stage and screen, both big and small. Nobody in their right mind relishes war, yet it fascinates, compels and draws people in, creating box office revenue wherever it is utilised as a vehicle for entertainment or, perhaps hopefully and, education. Whether it be because a person wishes to experience as closely as possible what his Grandfather saw at Normandy in graphic detail (Saving Private Ryan), perhaps witness the vastness of an operation such as Dunkirk through the eyes of an ordinary soldier (Atonement), or conversely wants to enjoy an escapist fantasy of heroism and stoicism in the face of adversity (The Great Escape) or even just have a laugh at a bittersweet satire (Stalag Luft), there are seemingly endless options for viewers to sink their teeth into. For me though, and this is just the humble opinion of someone with the media available to publish their view, there is only one answer that ticks all the boxes and answers everything a person could ask of a war themed production; M*A*S*H has it all, and over this series of articles I hope to give you an insight into the history behind the timeless classic show, an over view of it’s characters and plots and a look at just why M*A*S*H is one of a kind.
It’s difficult to sum up in a few words, or even several words, the phenomenon that the television, and I use this term only for the lack of a better one, ‘sitcom’ M*A*S*H was in it’s initial run from 1972-1983 and still remains today. Immediately in attempting to do so I have to apologise for my clumsy pigeonholing of the show as a ‘Situation Comedy’, when in fact it spread, defined and redefined so many different television genres that it is, as Wayne Rogers put it, “Just M*A*S*H”. To categorise as just being part of one genre is to do a disservice to the broad span of the books, the movie and the subsequent television spin off.
M*A*S*H was initially conceived in the 1968 novel by Richard Hooker, MASH: A Novel About Three Army Doctors. Hooker was himself a former US Army surgeon who had served in Korea at the 8055th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital and used his own experiences as the basis for the book, which focused primarily on the fictional characters Captains Augustus Bedford “Duke” Forrest, Benjamin Franklin “Hawkeye” Pierce and “Trapper” John Francis Xavier McIntyre, who as draftee Doctors thrust into unthinkably dangerous, tragic and unfamiliar surroundings, form a close bond of friendship, united in their support of their reasonable camp comrades and their stance against those who seem to relish the surroundings and make an already difficult job even more unbearable. The novel features several characters fans of the television series will be familiar with, Corporal Walter “Radar” O’Reilly, Lieutenant Colonel Henry Blake, Majors Frank Burns and Margaret “Hotlips” Houlihan, and Chaplain Father Mulcahy as well as lesser known characters who disappeared as the TV series progessed such as “Ugly” John Black, “Spearchucker” Jones and Ho-Jon, and characters that didn’t make it off the printed page onto the small screen, like Walter Waldowski, Major Hobson and “Shaking” Sammy, the Protestant Chaplain from a neighbouring unit.
Front Cover of John Hooker's novel
Hooker’s novel is a good read (although the quality and realism of the numerous ghostwritten sequels varies massively), and features many of the core themes that made it onto the small screen. Frank Burns and ‘Hotlips’ poorly concealed romance, Radar’s ESP and of course the wisecracking central characters as they cope with the rigors of ‘meatball’ surgery close to the front line are all present and correct, but there are also some glaring differences. A greater deal of backstory is given to the characters (Hawkeye and Trapper know each other prior to their being assigned to the 4077 after meeting playing football in college for example). The character of Hawkeye for instance, is written as a much different man. Married with children and a far cry from the Liberal figure portrayed by Alan Alda, this incarnation may not sit so well with many fans. Of course without the censoring veil of primetime television, the book can also afford to be more graphic in detail, both surgical and sexual, and although, as the title says so clearly, the ‘Three Doctors’ Duke, Hawkeye and Trapper are the central figures, the number of medical personnel is larger with greater emphasis placed on the different roles of the surgeons, and a far deeper friction between the flawed but likeable heroes and the antagonists than was ever portrayed on the small screen.
A large proportion of these differences can be credited to the next stage of M*A*S*H’s meteoric rise, the 1970 movie, directed by Robert Altman after Ring Lardner Jr had adapted Hooker’s story into a screenplay. Altman himself is pretty damning of the novel, and claims it only as base material and a springboard which Lardner streamlined. The biggest change made by Lardner was dropping one of the antagonists of the book, religious fanatic and terrible doctor Major Hobson, who’s characteristics were blended in with those of Frank Burns, who until that point had simply been a comic foil for Duke, Hawkeye and Trapper due to his devotion to military duty in contrast to their casual, anti-authority stance. That of course gave us the Frank Burns that fans of the television series will be more familiar with (although the religious side was toned down) as now Burns was not only a hypocritic stickler for regulation, but a poor doctor in denial about his surgical skill. Lardner’s script itself was not strictly adhered to, due to Altman’s episodic style of film-making, meaning large areas were cut. The stars in the cast were not without their problems either. Donald Sutherland (who although portraying a Hawkeye closer to that of the novel, gives the character elements that are clearly embryonic of Alda’s version) has claimed in interviews that he was the only member of the principal cast and crew not using drugs during filming, and he, along with Elliot Gould (again as a Trapper John closer to the book than Wayne Rogers TV portrayal, but developing the more volcanic character further which no doubt helped give way to Rogers’ take on the role) repeatedly tried to get Altman fired during the production, unhappy with his style of Direction. Apparently Gould subsequently apologised to Altman and the pair have worked together since, but a rift remained between Altman and Sutherland.
Despite the troubled process of putting the film together, it premiered to both critical and financial success. The characters were vivid and unique, the dialogue punchy and natural, and Altman’s unconventional style received acclaim. It’s difficult to summarise the plot of the film because of that style, but it’s best described as an extended run of episodes of the TV series, only with a much darker tone. As with the book, being free of television constraints meant the film could be more graphic (Sally Kellerman’s Hotlips Houlihan being shown totally nude in the shower as a result of a bet between Duke and Hawkeye is a clear example of this), but the key and standout plot devices which carried over to the television series are those which sound out the loudest. Frank and Margaret’s relationship, Radar’s naivete, Henry’s bumbling, Mulcahy’s attempts to be a moral guide in impossible circumstances, and of course, most importantly, the comradeship between Hawkeye and Trapper and the crackling, sharp, witty and seemless banter shared by all going through the same untenable circumstances. Perhaps most iconic of all things given to us by the film is the bittersweet theme Suicide is Painless, the music written by Johnny Mandel and the lyrics by Robert Altman’s 14 year old son Mike. In a bizarre twist, Mike has actually made more money from writing those lyrics than his Father made for Directing the movie. The song and tune, oozes a bittersweet quality that encapsulates the spirit of the movie and the TV series.
Suicide is painless, It brings on many changes, And I can take or leave it if I please
Those words seem fitting to leave this chapter of this series of articles on M*A*S*H. That was very much a whistlestop tour of the pre television roots of M*A*S*H, much more of which will be revealed and developed as I continue. Next time out we’ll look at the conception of the TV series in 1972, and how the juggernaut very nearly failed to get started.