Retro Heaven

Alan Alda as Hawkeye Pierce

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.

3 replies »

  1. Message to Mr Alan Alda/Hawkeye:

    Please contact their President and offer to negotiate with Kim..Korea. For 11 years we all were all entertained and I am certain you picked up some local mishegas that could be much more effective than anything any one in this white house could say. Think about it, Hawkeye Pierce to the rescue.


  2. I loved mash and seen every episode more then a dozen times but Hawkeye WAS made the moral centre of the show. Wayne rogers explains that’s the reason he quit the show as trapper And they tried to sue him for quitting but no contracts had been signed. Incidentally, Wayne Rogers was meant to play Hawkeye but refused because he didn’t like the character and thought Hawkeye was to cynical. So producers then offered the role to Alan Alda. The fellow who played Dr Sidney Freedman refused to be a full time character for the same reason. Alan Alda’s portrayal of Hawkeye was a pompous, self righteous, propagandist, thief, if it was real he would have been shot for treason in almost every episode, we were meant to see frank burns as the bad guy but in reality Hawkeye was, frank was just an unlikeable loser that Hawkeye liked to bully. and Hawkeye was a sexual predator who would not take no for an answer. The way Hawkeye treated woman made him look like the Harvey Weinstein of Korea. I watched many episodes where you just wanted to punch Hawkeye in the face. That’s why Richard hooker the real Hawkeye Peirce and original writer of the mash novel wanted nothing to do with the television series of MASH.


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