The inspiration behind the main man of M*A*S*H..
In the early eighties Sunday night on BBC2 meant M*A*S*H night. As the show ended in 1983 I probably caught the last series and ensuing re runs though memory fails me. What I do remember is the unforgettable intro and the canned laughter which helped my young, naïve mind laugh in the right places. It would be years later when I would appreciate the dry humour and the references to not only Korea but Vietnam as well.
M*A*S*H ran for far longer than the actual Korean War in which it was set. Beginning in 1972 and ending with the highest viewed television show in history in 1983 it featured a host of actors who became household names across the globe. Based on the novels of Richard Hooker the series followed a one-off movie starring Donald Sutherland and Elliot Gould and directed by Robert Altman.
The character of chief army surgeon, Benjamin Franklin ‘Hawkeye’ Pierce is central to the storyline and the casting of Alan Alda was so perfect one would believe they created the character based on him. Hawkeye is a renegade, a brilliant ‘chest cutter’ who wears his heart on his sleeve. At a time when the Vietnam War was still sending its soldiers home in body bags and American bombs rained down on Laos and Cambodia the screen writers took every opportunity to highlight the true horror of war.
Once a week, American families watched as helicopter and lorry loads of casualties appeared on their sets whilst a frenzied Hawkeye darted from body to body deciding which was worth operating on and which was beyond hope. That had to hit home. For those of us untouched by war it is hard to imagine finding humour in any situation but the reality of war is quite different. Most Vietnam veterans would agree that their experience consisted of long periods of boredom in pouring rain interspersed with moments of abject terror and that, I believe is what Hawkeye’s character is based on.
Hawkeye is constantly trying to find an inner peace, a mechanism which allows him to deal with the conveyor belt of bodies, of being away from his beloved Crabapple Cove in Maine. He is unmarried and chases nurses throughout the series as a means of masking his wish to have a family like his best friend and fellow surgeon BJ Hunnicutt (played by Mike Farrell). He despises the government and more especially the war machine itself, he mocks the senior brass at every opportunity and never shows the insignia which proves his rank and superiority over fellow doctors and medical staff.
Alda’s version of Pierce was, for the most part brilliant, at times his clear admiration for Groucho Marx proved detrimental to the character. You never felt it was Hawkeye ‘doing’ Groucho but rather Alda playing slapstick. For a series which ran for so long there were bound to be the occasional ‘stinker’ and those storylines which shelved the laughs for the sake of beating a political drum were the worst. By trying too hard they missed the point. An American audience, by and large wants a sugar coated version of an unsavoury event, M*A*S*H was always most effective when it didn’t spell it out. We saw Pierce desperately trying to save a soldier’s life whilst humiliating Major Frank Burns, if you didn’t understand the black humour you got the stress and tragedy and that is what made it so good.
There is a dvd box set of the film as well as every episode and extras with the wonderful option of switching the canned laughter off. M*A*S*H was unique, we shall never see its like again.
Categories: Retro Heaven