What “M*A*S*H” Taught Us | The New Yorker

Rationality has lost its currency. The people in charge are dolts—masters of manipulation making testosterone-fuelled, incendiary moves on the world stage. Patriotism has soured into ugly, gun-loving nationalism, with brown people and foreigners the targets of a nonsensical, hateful rage. Normalcy has vanished. Everyone is freaked out—overworked, irritable, unable to sleep, nerves completely shot. Each morning seems to bring some fresh hell, a reminder that the nightmare is real, and that there is no end in sight. Salvation is found in small, personal connections, in wry humor, and in the forlorn hope that intelligence and decency will ultimately prevail.

That’s one way to describe the basic plot of “M*A*S*H,” with the added details that the protagonists are doctors and nurses in a war zone, and the setting is the Korean War. Lost among this year’s observances of the paradigm-shifting cultural events of 1968 is the fiftieth anniversary of the book “MASH: A Novel About Three Army Doctors,” a little-remembered shaggy-dog volume by Richard Hooker that engendered fourteen more novels; a feature-film adaptation (directed by the then up-and-coming Robert Altman); and one of the highest-rated television series of all time. Of these iterations, it is the latter that arguably left the greatest cultural imprint, running for eleven seasons and considered by many to be the gold standard for quality programming in its day. The show was embraced by audiences and critics alike (it also spawned three of its own spinoffs), and when its finale aired, on February 28,1983, it set a record for the most-watched television episode in broadcast history—a mark that still stands. “MASH” was mainly about decent people trying to survive an intolerable situation, making the occasion of its golden anniversary, this year, fortuitously relevant.

Richard Hooker was actually the nom de plume of Dr. H. Richard Hornberger—a Trenton, New Jersey-born surgeon who had served at a Mobile Army Surgical Hospital during the Korean War—who wrote the book with the help of the sportswriter W. C. Heinz. The book’s sometimes technical descriptions of the kinds of “meatball surgery” his characters perform in the field give it an air of authenticity. The novel’s focus, however, and its loose narrative, centers on a somewhat disjointed series of sketches involving a loose assemblage of colorful personalities. Together, they engage in high jinks and exhibit what today might be called bro behavior. Hornberger had been a dedicated fraternity member in college, and the novel’s triumvirate of young doctors (named Hawkeye, Trapper, and Duke) at times comport themselves like badly behaved undergraduates. They rib one another, perpetrate elaborate practical jokes, call each other by pet names, objectify and harrass women, play golf, gamble, drink a surfeit of alcohol, and make a man cave of their shared living quarters (a tent that they famously christen “the Swamp”). Though each is happily married to a wife who awaits him back home, their service in Korea seems to offer them an opportunity to experience a kind of second adolescence.

MASH” is mostly a light, pithy read. The horrors and injustices of war are not explored as thematic elements in the way they are in the film and television adaptations. Hornberger seems to have approached the writing of the novel as something of a lark—a way to recount for posterity some of the more outlandish stories he either experienced or heard about while serving. Altman’s film adaptation is much better than the book and, pound for pound, probably the artistic highlight of the franchise.

For anyone who’s only spent time with the television “M*A*S*H,” the title sequence of the film feels immediately familiar: an acoustic guitar is heard arpeggiating a minor sixth chord as Army helicopters appear in midflight, carrying wounded soldiers. Then the similarities end. Unlike the television show’s opening, the lyrics to Johnny Mandel’s theme song in the title-credit sequence are sung:

Through early morning fog I see, visions of the things to be
The pains that are withheld from me, I realize and I can see
That suicide is painless, it brings on many changes,
And I can take or leave it if I please

Altman’s camera draws closer to reveal a mutilated human body, its bloody arm dangling in the air. When the choppers land, there is another familiar tableaux, as doctors, nurses, and porters rush forward to collect the wounded. But in Altman’s hands these comings and goings have not been sanitized: the maimed, bedraggled wounded are whisked off with such urgency that a stretcher momentarily capsizes, nearly dumping its human cargo. A chorus of men keeps singing about suicide, about hopelessness and despair, the music building with each succeeding verse, as harmonies and lush string orchestration are added to the arrangement. The juxtaposition of the melancholy melody, nihilistic lyrics (enthusiastically delivered), emotionally charged orchestration, and Altman’s scenes of bodily carnage is destabilizing, setting the tone for everything that follows.

If the television version of the fictional 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital feels at times (especially in its later seasons) as though its residents are pleasantly glamping in the hills of Korea, the film’s MASH compound is unclean and sordid. The cinematographer Harold E. Stine used a fog filter to dirty up the look of the film. Altman’s surgery scenes are harrowing—blood spurts from a critically wounded soldier’s neck as doctors try to stanch it; the dull, low-fi hum of what sounds like a power tool is heard (or is it an electric razor?); and, in at least one instance, a patient’s torso is hacked at with what looks like a butcher saw.

Some plot devices from the novel are adopted by the screenwriter, Ring Lardner, Jr., but others, which were created from whole cloth, up the ante on the source material. The unit’s resident Lothario, Captain Walt (Painless Pole) Waldowski—played by John Schuck—reveals to Donald Sutherland’s Hawkeye that he has decided to kill himself because of sexual dysfunction, before admitting that there is a larger issue at hand. “I’m a fairy,” he says, dolefully. (Sutherland’s deadpan response is genius.) The company arranges to hold a mock-goodbye dinner for their departing friend, and they prescribe a placebo that they assure him will do the job. Lardner also concocted two of the film’s other more memorable set pieces: a camp-wide broadcast of the nocturnal activities of an unsuspecting Major Frank Burns (Robert Duvall) and Sally Kellerman’s Major Margaret (Hot Lips) O’Houlihan, and a prank in which the doctors collapse the walls of the ladies’ showers while O’Houlihan is bathing, leaving her exposed and humiliated for all the assembled camp to see and cheer at. (Alan Alda remembers the latter scene, especially, as an example of the film’s misogyny, calling it “brutal.” When I asked his co-star Loretta Swit, who played the character on television—with the character’s surname truncated to Houlihan—for her thoughts, she admitted that she’s never watched the film. “Why would I?” she asked.)

Many of the cast members were up-and-comers making their Hollywood débuts (including a young Bud Cort, of “Harold and Maude” fame), and onscreen they each possess an appropriate feeling of unease, as though they really are a bunch of reluctant strangers who were randomly thrown together in a precarious context. The ebullient personalities from the television series are nowhere to be found. Altman’s ensemble completely disappears into their respective roles, and no one ever steals the show (though Kellerman comes gloriously close).

Stories emerged about Altman’s idiosyncratic, freewheeling methods. His approach on the set was like that of a jazz bandleader seeking to harness and ride raw inspiration, to capture lightning in a bottle—a framework that dared his cast toward spontaneity and serendipity. Altman encouraged improvisation from his actors at all times, leading to the film’s revolutionary style, with its herky-jerky manner and overlapping dialogue. “We were a long, long way from an ‘original’ screenplay when actors started speaking,” Sutherland told me. The pace is often slow, dry, and muddled, giving the film an almost Chekhovian feel. Characters mumble and drift in and out of scenes that seem to have no narrative forward movement, making it delightfully hard to tell, at times, what is even going on. All of this so infuriated Lardner that he ultimately told the director, “You’ve ruined my film,” and announced at the movie’s first screening that there was not one word of his that remained in it. (Lardner went on to win an Academy Award for best screenplay.)

An old show-biz maxim holds that one surefire way for a performer to hold an audience’s attention is to appear as though they are in possession of a secret. Altman’s entire film has this feeling. As the “Three Army Doctors,” Sutherland, Elliott Gould (as Trapper John McIntyre), and Tom Skerritt (as Duke Forrest), are sly and subtle. In their hands, Hornberger’s frat boys become hipsters. Their attitudes are droll, their responses to situations are all arched eyebrows and sideways glances. We can’t always hear what any given one says under his breath, but we sure want to. They project a caustic intelligence, their rapport is contagious without ever being cloying, giving the proceedings a slow-burn, subversive edge. Even at their misbehaving worst, we’d just kind of like to hang out with them. As Pauline Kael writes in her review of the film, for this magazine, “ . . . I don’t know when I’ve had such a good time at a movie. Many of the best recent American movies leave you feeling that there’s nothing to do but get stoned and die, that that’s your proper fate as an American. This movie heals a breach . . . ”

Mike Farrell, who played Captain B. J. Honeycutt in the television series (a character that appears in neither the book nor the film), keenly recalls seeing the movie “M*A*S*H” during its 1970 release. Farrell was a young actor living in L.A. at the time, actively involved in the anti-war movement, and he remembers the film’s galvanizing impact, calling it “necessary” in the context of what was then happening in Vietnam. The movie struck a nerve. Amid its absurdity and black humor, it was a sharp commentary on the senselessness of war, and on the obliviousness of those charged with prosecuting it.

The “M*A*S*H” television series, inspired by Altman’s film, débuted in the fall of 1972, on CBS. Although not immediately a hit, the network believed in the show, and by Season 2 it had garnered a significant following. The show was by turns funny, serious, and innovative. It explored new narrative techniques, introduced verboten topics to prime time, and probed the psychology of its characters in ways that had not been seen on a television series before—all within the confines of a half-hour sitcom format. Altman despised it. In his director’s commentary for the film, recorded for the 2000 DVD release, Altman calls the show “the antithesis of what we were trying to do,” and claims not to know or like any of the people involved with it. (“Alan Albert, or whatever his name is.”) Gary Burghoff, the only featured actor to appear in both the film and the series, treasures both experiences, and told me that Altman’s resentment probably stems from the fact that the show’s popularity came to almost entirely eclipse the influence of his film. (Altman had no fondness for Hornberger’s novel, either, calling it “just terrible.”)

Unlike the book or the film, the television “M*A*S*H” rallies around the character of Hawkeye. As depicted in the book, Captain Benjamin Franklin (Hawkeye) Pierce is a bumpkin from Bumpkintown, Maine. One of Hornberger’s characters describes him as “an uncouth yokel.” The character is introduced as being in his late twenties, a former college athlete, married with two young sons, and an avid reader of Maine Coast Fisherman magazine. While Donald Sutherland had not exactly hit the casting bull’s-eye (Sutherland told me that he and Altman never discussed the Mainer accent called for in the screenplay—“heah” for “here,” etc.), he was arguably within range of the character, having been brought up in Nova Scotia and naturally quiet, unassuming, and laconic. When the producers of the television series recruited Alan Alda to play Hawkeye, they not only intentionally missed Hornberger’s target entirely but wound up in the woods somewhere.

“We needed an attractive, funny guy,” the show’s original producer and co-creator, Gene Reynolds, told me, “a leading man, a hero, someone who could carry the show.” Reynolds had seen Alda onstage in New York and was convinced that this was the guy. Alda’s Hawkeye is flamboyant, intellectual, and manic—almost always the center of attention. New York-y, even. Where Sutherland’s charisma is sneaky, Alda’s is all out front. It stretched the limits of plausibility to imagine him back home in Maine, building lobster traps with his dad, but, as Alda told me, “We weren’t doing the book, and we weren’t doing the movie. I don’t think that the somewhat depressed character portrayed in the film would have worked for very long in the show.”

The question is academic; Alda’s Hawkeye became (and remains) one of the most famous characters in television history. Like Alda himself, his Hawkeye is kind, articulate, and caring. In the show, Alda reacts as much as he acts. One of his greatest gifts as a performer is how well he seems to listen, a skill he says he learned early on in his career, in improvisation class. “The secret to good listening is simple,” he told me. “Unless I’m willing to be changed by you, I’m not really listening.”

The television “M*A*S*H” includes two hundred and fifty-six episodes. To be fair, shows produced in the pre-cable, pre-streaming, dead-ball era of television were not designed to reward binge-watching. As Burt Metcalfe, a producer who was with the show from beginning to end, told me, “When you do that many episodes, some are going to be really great, and some are going to be really bad.” Writers were not then expected to build careful continuity, overarching narrative, and granular detail into every episode, practices that have become de rigueur today. Once a show aired, it was gone, to be seen again only in syndication, by happenstance, and almost always out of order.

In its early going, many of “M*A*S*H” ’s dramatic plotlines were balanced with generous helpings of slapstick, usually involving one or more of the cast’s pure comic geniuses, notably McLean Stevenson (Lieutenant Colonel Henry Blake), Larry Linville (Major Frank Burns), and Burghoff (Corporal Radar O’Reilly), all masters of physical comedy and verbal timing. There are also episodes that plumb the depths of the show’s personalities in ways that neither the book nor the film ever did, many of them among the series’s best known: Hawkeye loses a childhood friend on the operating table (“Sometimes You Hear The Bullet”), and is made to confront his love-avoidant tendencies (“The More I See You,” featuring a memorable guest turn by Blythe Danner); the cold-as-ice Hot Lips allows herself to be vulnerable (“The Nurses”); and Trapper John takes a young Korean child under his wing (“Kim”). Most affecting is the finale of Season 3, in which one of the show’s most beloved personalities is killed off (“Abyssinia, Henry”).

Although the television “M*A*S*H” was ensemble-based, Alda is clearly the star. Wayne Rogers’s Trapper John is charming and likable, but ultimately underdeveloped; Duke Forrest—the most amiable of the original trio of doctors—has been jettisoned entirely. Hawkeye becomes the nonconformist-in-chief, gaining the admiration of his fictional colleagues (as well as television audiences) for his expert medical skills, his compassion, and his intolerance for hypocrisy. What is mostly skirted over is his obvious alcohol problem, and his habit of coming on to women in lecherous, creepy ways.

Loretta Swit, who shares with Alda the distinction of appearing in every episode of every season of the series (and was the show’s only regular female character), blanched at the suggestion that the early years could be seen differently today in the context of the #MeToo movement. “There was no predation,” she told me, in no uncertain terms. “The nurses were using the doctors, too—they had needs of their own,” she said. Alda, for his part, has some awareness that the show might be made differently in today’s cultural environment. “Every show reflects its time,” he said.

The show seems to hit its stride somewhere in the middle of its run. When Radar and Hawkeye have a nasty falling out (“Fallen Idol”), it’s genuinely upsetting to see, like watching loved ones come to blows. When B.J. falls “off the fidelity wagon” (“Hanky Panky”), we are made to feel his shameful self-recrimination. The groundbreaking “The Interview” (filmed in black and white) featured the actors improvising their characters’ responses to a fictional war correspondent’s questions; “Point of View” was shot entirely from the perspective of a wounded soldier who cannot speak; and the surrealistic, disturbing “Dreams” delved into the anxieties and fears of the characters as they slept between operating-room shifts. And, in “The Price,” Colonel Sherman T. Potter (Harry Morgan) makes an extraordinary gesture to protect the honor of an elderly Korean national in an episode that contains the sort of subtly effective moral lesson that the series became known for.

“Movie Tonight,” a Season 5 episode that includes the cast’s rendition of the Second World War-era “Gee Ma, I Wanna Go Home,” verges on unabashed musical theatre, a striking example of how much music, in general, was incorporated into the show. This is perhaps the most effective and subtle use of the pianistic talents of the actor William Christopher (portraying Father Francis Mulcahy) who, on separate occasions, is found unassumingly playing two of Scott Joplin’s most meditative, stately compositions—“Solace” and “Bethena.”

David Ogden Stiers’s Major Charles Winchester, another character created for the TV series, arrives in Season 6, a far more nuanced foil for Hawkeye and B.J. But there was no replacing Burghoff when he left the show, a year later, at his own initiative. (Metcalfe was clear about the fact that “no one was ever fired from “M*A*S*H.”) While Alda had long since become the marquee face of the series, Burghoff’s Radar was, in a sense, its gentle heart.

Corporal Walter (Radar) O’Reilly, an Army clerk “fresh out of high school,” is the first character introduced in the novel, in Hornberger’s very first sentence. Twenty-six years old when he was cast in Altman’s film, Burghoff projected a wholesome, wide-eyed innocence that allowed him to play a much younger character. His Radar gradually becomes the show’s everyman. He is resourceful and funny, earnest and clever, an obedient enlisted man who nevertheless circumvents regulations if it means serving the greater good. As his character develops, Radar is also revealed to be an animal-lover, a skilled musician, and a master of impressions. He sleeps with a Teddy bear and reads comic books. It is Radar who knows what’s going on at the 4077th at all times; Radar who is the camp’s eyes and ears.

By Season 7, Burghoff was nearing middle age, and the bloom was off the rose. The actor had already scaled back his appearances on the show, and by the time of his final episode (the strangely moving two-part “Good-Bye Radar”) Radar had become someone we no longer knew—sullen, confused, and miserable. Always something of a loner, he’s finally given his first shot at real romance—a bright spot in the episode—but that plotline is, sadly, never tied up.

If the show had always been brighter than either the book or the film, it had also been warmer, but that brightness becomes a bit garish in its last years as the series seems to drift completely out of the orbit of Hornberger’s original vision. The tension of being stationed three miles from the front lines has mostly dissipated. The characters appear comfortable, even coiffed and manicured. All traces of the war’s filth and residue have been scrubbed clean. By Season 10, Hawkeye has become a bit of a nebbish, and has long since stopped womanizing, telling a nurse at one point, “I can’t take advantage of your feelings for me.” Hot Lips has become Margaret, and her blatant defiance of her superiors (in “Give ‘Em Hell, Hawkeye”), and her berating of a nurse for being a “scheming little social climber” (in “Identity Crisis”) are hard to reconcile with the once proud, career Army woman with an eye for high-ranking generals. Jamie Farr’s Corporal Maxwell Q. Klinger, the formerly cross-dressing soldier, once so desperate to go home he’d attempted to swallow a jeep, bolt by bolt, now seems somehow overjoyed to serve; in Episode 9, he even turns down a discharge. Still, as Emily Nussbaum told me, “It’s possible to love the show and still see the flaws.”

To their credit, the show’s cast and creative team saw the writing on the wall. Though there were initially some qualms about ending the series with Season 11, everyone I spoke with felt at peace with the decision. “We didn’t want to ride the horse downhill,” Farrell told me, “and we certainly didn’t want the network making the decision for us. We wanted to go out on our own terms.” Alda agreed. “We just felt that we’d taken it as far as we could,” he said, “and we never looked back.”

When the network was informed of plans to conclude the series with an episode that depicted the end of the war, an agitated TV executive presented himself on the “M*A*S*H” set. “It’s important that you don’t resolve the series,” Farrell recalls him saying, “it will kill the series in syndication. Look at what happened with ‘The Fugitive,’ ” (a show in which the plotline was wrapped up in the final episode, thus eliminating any suspense from the reruns). Farrell still chuckles at the memory of some of the cast and crew politely suggesting to the executive that it might be fair to say that most people were aware that the Korean War eventually ended; the man looked at them blankly, turned, and walked away—a real-life display of the kind of forehead-smacking disconnect between authority and intelligence that had been a hallmark of “M*A*S*H” since the publication of Hornberger’s novel.

The show’s final season, which began in the fall of 1982, saw some valedictory returns to form, but the coup de grace is the show’s final episode, “Goodbye, Farewell and Amen,” the two-hour “movie” that is, for all intents and purposes, the end of “M*A*S*H.” Roughly three out of four people watching television the night of the finale tuned in. When the characters said their heartfelt goodbyes to each other, they became the audience’s proxies, expressing the great store of tenderness and affection that viewers had built up for them over seasons and years. Unlike Hornberger’s novel, or Altman’s film, in the television “M*A*S*H,” the characters show a deep love and respect for each other, and a large part of the show’s tremendous appeal has to do with the ways in which it could model healthy, open communication, and the vital importance of community.

At its core, though, “M*A*S*H” is about surviving amid chaos. About being trapped in an impossible situation, in which the struggle is taken up every day—not out of any Pollyanna belief that things will change anytime soon but simply because it’s the right thing to do. In 1968, the notion that our true enemy could be the callousness, hypocrisy, and small-minded ignorance of our own leaders was fashionable. Fifty years later, it’s become evergreen.

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