September 17th will mark the 50th anniversary of the TV show MASH, first broadcast in 1972. The show was a hit and ran until 1983. It’s something before my time, but I’ve seen it through frequent reruns. I once read that an episode of MASH airs somewhere in the world once every hour.
MASH was a situational dark comedy following the lives and work of several surgeons, nurses and other personnel stationed at a Mobile Army Surgical Hospital three miles away from the front lines of the Korean War.
It was broadcast nineteen years after the conflict it portrayed and while the war in Vietnam still raged, which made its dramatic scenes of injured soldiers and life-saving doctors powerfully resonated with the American public.
To celebrate the 50th anniversary I’d like to explore what made the show and what made it hit so hard. I hope I do it justice.
But before I discuss the show, I’d like to briefly explore its origins.
In 1951, shortly after graduating medical school, a man named Hienster Richard Hornberger was drafted into the US army. Soon after, he was stationed at the 8055th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital (MASH) – one of seven improvised hospitals located only a few miles from the 38th parallel.
While there, he would go against strict army regulations regarding arterial repair. In doing so, he saved many men from undergoing unnecessary amputations and also became a pioneer in the field of arterial repair in the process. Interestingly, these methods would later become a plot point in the show.
Years latter he would write: “the surgeons in the MASH hospitals were exposed to extreme if handwork, leisure, tension, boredom heat, cold, satisfaction and frustration that most of them had never faced before. Their reaction, individually snd collectively, was to cope with the situation and get the job done. The various stresses, however, produced behaviour in many of them that, superficially at least, seemed inconsistent with their earlier, civilian behaviour patterns. A few flipped their lids, but mist of them just raised hell, in a variety of ways and degrees.”
After eighteen months’ service, he returned to his native Maine. He settled down into a civilian medical career and began working on a novel based on his own war time experiences with characters based those he served with.
After a productive collaboration with war correspondent W.C. Heinz the novel MASH was eventually published in 1968 under the pseudonym Richard Hooker.
Horberger then went on to sell the film rights for a few hundred dollars – something he would latter regret.
Ring Lardner Jr then adapted the story into a screen play. Robert Altman directed. Elliott Gould and Donald Sutherland were cast in the leading roles of Capt. “Trapper” John and Capt. “Hawkeye” Pierce – the latter character Horberger had loosely based on himself. The film – not an entirely faithful adaptation – was a critical and commercial success.
Plans were then made to adapt MASH into a TV series.
The producers of which would visit Korea and interviewed several US Army doctors, Soldiers and veterans to make the show as accurate as possible.
The show featured a new line up with only Gary Burghoff and G. Wood being the only actors who also featured in the film. Burghoff played company clerk “Radar” O’Riley, one of the main characters, while Wood returned as Brig. Gen. Charlie Hammond in only a few early episodes.
Episodes of MASH were highly character and/or plot driven. Many episodes would focus on a specific character. Some would take the form of a letter home narrated by its writer – this was just one of the many ways MASH would explore the feelings and experiences of its characters. Because of this, I think its best to explore MASH through its characters.
The show would mainly focus on Hawkeye (charismatically played by Alan Alda) – a highly skilled surgeon drafted into the US Army. He would work tirelessly in O.R doing whatever he could for the soldiers. After excruciatingly long shifts, he would retire to “The Swamp,” his tent containing an improvised still in which he would make home-made gin and drink to relive the stress.
Hawkeye has a strong moral stance. Having seen the consequences of war first hand, and was strongly opposed to violence. When ordered he refused to carry a gun: “I’ll carry your books, I’ll carry a torch, I’ll carry a tune, I’ll carry on, carry over, carry forward, Cary Grant, cash-and-carry, carry me back to Old Virginie, I’ll even ‘hari-kari’ if you show me how, but I will not carry a gun.”
He was also strongly antiauthoritarian and would rail against military red tape when it got in the way of his doing his job. Despite desperately wanting to leave Korea, Hawkeye was deeply dedicated to saving lives. Interestingly, Horberger disliked Alan Alda’s portrayal of Hawkeye, which he seen as too liberal. Horberger was a Republican and, although not pro-war, did not agree with the show’s anti-war attitude which was neither in the book or the film.
Hawkeye would drink with his good friend and fellow surgeon “Trapper” John (Wayne Rogers). They two would often form a sort of double act at times. He held a similar, although much looser, moral stance to Hawkeye. He was quite the womaniser, despite having a wife and kids at home. One scene I’ll always remember is in an episode called Radars Report. The doctors try to help an injured POW, who attempts to escape and in the process splashes foreign matter into the still open wounds of Trappers patient. The patient then suffers an infection which later kills him. Upon hearing the news, Trapper is furious and we see Trapper standing over the POW with anger in his eyes. Hawkeye enters and quietly says “Trap? Thats not what we’re about.” Without saying a word, he turns around and leaves.
Reluctantly inhabiting the Swamp with the two drunken doctors is Major Frank Burns – who in many ways was the villain of the show. Despite his superior rank and smug attitude, he’s an inferior surgeon. He frequently looses patients. In one episode, Frank decides to remove a soldier’s damaged kidney until Trapper points out he only has one to begin with. It’s latter revealed that Frank failed his medical exams twice and only succeeded after he cheated.
Burns wasn’t just incompetent but also mean, neurotic, greedy, smug and hypocritical.
Actor Larry Linville played the role perfectly and would occasionally receive a few hate mail expressing hatred for the character he played.
While in Korea, Frank is having an affair with head nurse Major Margret “Hotlips” Houlihan (Loretta Swit). The two both hold a stern military attitude and are frequently at odds with Trapper and Hawkeye.
After her affair with Burns ends, writers made Margret a more likeable, relatable character. She would often feel lonely in her position of command.
She broke up with Frank Burns unexpectedly after a seemingly spontaneous engagement to Lieutenant Colonel Donald Penobscott. Margret and Donald would get married and then divorced – the relationship being another casualty of war.
The camp was ran by Lt. Colonel Henry Blake (McLean Stevenson), a great doctor and reluctant leader. He had a laid back attitude and didn’t like to assert his authority and was lenient with the two maverick doctors and the target of criticism by Burns and Houlihan. Blake would serve as a father figure to Radar – the company clerk who kept the camp afloat.
Actor Garry Burghoff shaped the character of Radar – whom he made into an innocent and naive farm boy. Burghoff decided to leave the show to spend time with his family. His final episode was called “Goodbye Radar” and was part of the show’s eighth season. Radar is given a hardship discharge after his Uncle Ed dies, leaving his mother and family farm in need of care. He is reluctant to leave and eventually realises the camp will go on without him. Before his leaving the party, the doctors are suddenly rushed into surgery. In a touching scene, Radar walks around the mess tent where the party would have been and alone gazes up at the banners reading “We Love You Radar” and “Good Luck Radar.” When he left Korea he wasn’t a naive farm boy anymore.
Despite few members of the 4077th being religious, the company chaplain Farther John Mulcahy (William Christopher) played a large part in camp life, helping out the doctors whenever he could and acting as a friend to all stationed there. Despite his strong faith, he often felt powerless in comparison to the life-saving surgeons. He would do what he could to comfort the injured troops and his camp mates during their times of crisis. He’d also do what he could to support the local orphanage.
One of the shows most iconic characters was Corporal Maxwell Q. Klinger (Jamie Farr). He was a reluctant draftee who would do anything to get out of the army. He believed that by wearing a dress around camp he would receive a section 8 discharge. Desperate to get back to his native Toledo, he came up with a multitude of elaborate schemes and a multitude of elaborate outfits. I don’t think his desire to leave should be mistaken for cowardice. In one episode, Klinger re-captures an escaped Chinese POW who held the medical staff at knife point. Klinger was the shows first regular character who did not appear in the movie or the book.
Over time, several members of the cast would decide to move on, leading to their characters being written out and replaced. I’ve already covered the departure of Radar, however he was the last of the main cast to leave, departing in the shows eighth season.
The first and most significant departure was that of McLean Stevenson. His exit lead to perhaps the most notable episodes – a story in the third season titled “Abyssinia Henry.”
During surgery Radar enters the O.R and informs Henry that he has received all the Army Service Points needed for a discharge. He’s finally going home.
Hawkeye, Trapper and Radar are happy for Henry, while Frank secretly looks forward to taking his place.
In a touching scene, Henry says farewell to everyone at the 4077th and just before he boards his helicopter to leave, he spots an emotional Radar saluting, whom he embraces in a hug and goes.
Not long after he departs the doctors once again find them self on surgery. Radar enters visibly shaken and says: “I have a message. Lieutenant Colonel Henry Blake’s plane was shot down over the Sea of Japan. It spun in. There were no survivors.” The staff do their best to retain composure as they work.
The final page of the script had been withheld for the cast and their reaction was genuine.
It was a truly powerful scene that shook America. The studio received several letters in response – some understanding but mostly complaints.
Producer Gene Reynolds would go on to say the following:
“…if we turned on the [television] set we would see fifteen people [killed in Vietnam every night]. They don’t complain about that because it is unfelt violence, it is unfelt trauma. And that’s not good. I think that if there is such a thing as the loss of life there should be some connection. And we did make a connection. It was a surprise, it was somebody they loved. They didn’t expect it but it made the point. People like Henry Blake are lost in war.”
“Not everybody, not every kid gets to go back to Bloomington, Illinois. Fifty thousand – we left fifty thousand boys in Korea – and we realized it was right for the show, because the premise of our show was the wastefulness of the war.”
Thus ended the third season. Wayne Rodgers would have a contractual disagreement with the studio, leading to him departing the show. The fourth season began with an episode titled “Welcome to Korea.” Hawkeye would return to the camp to find it under Franks reign of terror and would soon be informed that Trapper John had received his discharge. Radar is picking up his replacement at the airport and Hawkeye decides to accompany him in the hope that he’ll be able to say goodbye to his friend. Unfortunately, Trapper plane took off ten minutes before they arrived. Radar and Hawkeye would then meet B.J.Hunnicutt (Mike Farrell).
Hunnicutt was another reluctant draftee doctor. During his time at the 4077th he would miss his wife Peg deeply and resent being unable to see his daughter Erin from growing up. B.J would quickly befriend Hawkeye and prove to be a masterful practical joker. For me, some of B.Js most memorable moments were in an episode called “Bombshells.” He and a chopper pilot plan a fishing trip. A few miles from the camp they spot a wounded solder. They land and load him onto a stretcher. As they turned back to the camp they spotted a man with a leg wound trying to flag down the chopper. They are unable to land, so B.J throws a rope to the soldier, but as soon as he takes hold of it they are fired upon by Communists. The pilot tries to take off but can’t with the extra weight and forces B.J to cut the rope. The pilot is impressed by the doctors heroism and recommends him for a Bronze Star. He soon becomes filled with guilt. He’s disgusted for prioritising his own welfare and leaving a man to die. Like his Swampmate, he was strongly opposed to the war and saw himself morally superior to those doing the fighting. “The minute I cut that line they made me a soldier.”
Frank’s time in command would be short-lived. In the closing scene of “Welcome to Korea”, Colonel Sherman T. Potter would arrive at the 4077 to replace the late Henry Blake. Potter was played by Hollywood legend Harry Morgan. Potter was a different kind of commander. He was a career officer not far from retirement. Unlike Blake, he could often dish out stern military discipline, but he was predominately laid back. He understood the need to keep up morale and would occasionally partake in camp hijinks, but he would often put his foot down when things got out of hand.
Larry Linville decided he had taken the character of Frank Burns as far as he could. After Margret married Penobscott, Frank had a break down, leading to him to accost a blonde woman and a general while on leave. He’s then arrested, sent for psychiatric evaluation and then sent stateside. Upon hearing this, B.J said “this reduces the enemy to just North Korea.”
The sudden absence of Burns leaves Potter desperate for a surgeon. Potter calls I Corps, where Lt. Colonel Horace Baldwin decides to send him Charles Emerson Winchester III (David Ogden Stiers) to avoid having to pay him a $600 gambling debt.
Winchester was an incredibly skilled surgeon with an incredible ego. He is from a very wealthy background and despises the low living standards of the 4077th. He annoyed the other doctors with his arrogance and snobbishness. However, unlike his unpleasant predecessor, he does occasionally get along with Hawkeye and B.J. Also, unlike Burns, he could always counter Hawkeyes witty roasts. Despite often playing an adversarial role, he was still a very likeable character. In “Morale Victory”, Winchester operates on an injured solder. When he wakes up, Winchester proudly informs him that he has saved the young man’s legs, of which he will regain total use. However, he will have only limited use of his right hand. Winchester is surprised to find that, upon hearing this, the young man becomes angry and upset. He says he doesn’t care about having use of his legs – before the war he was a concert pianist. Winchester – a lover of classical music – is wracked with guilt with guilt. He does everything he can to raise the young man’s spirit. Winchester sends away for the sheet music to Piano Concerto for the Left Hand and tells him the story of left handed pianist Paul Wittgenstein. Although reluctant at first, the soldier begins to play and Winchester persuades him not to give up on his musical talents. In another episode, “Run for the Money” he treats several army engineers who were injured after a bridge they were building collapsed on them. While in the hospital, they collectively mock a comrade with a stutter and his commanding officer unjustly blames him for what happened. He encourages the young soldier not to listen to their bullying, telling him he should not be treated like he’s stupid for his impediment. He encourages him to live up to his true intellectual potential and gifts him a leather bound copy of Moby Dick. He then returns to the Swamp, where he’s alone and listens to a tape recorded letter sent to him by his sister, who stutters throughout the recording.
The audience fell in love with these characters and really felt for them during their trials and tribulations.
MASH is perhaps my favourite TV show. I enjoyed almost every episode but, of course, some stand out from others, often for different reasons. Sometimes because they’re funny. I always get a good laugh out of 5 O’ Clock Charlie no matter how many times I see it. However, I want to talk about the episodes that stood out because they hit hard.
I’ve already discussed Abyssinia Henry so I’ll go straight onto The Interview – sometimes regarded as the best episode.
This episode is filmed as a newsreel, presented by a war correspondent (Clete Roberts) who interviews many of those stationed at the 4077th. Here the characters put forward their feelings about life in the hospital. There’s something about this episode that feels very genuine and haunting. It feels more real than any of the others.
The episode Point of View was filmed entirely from a first person perspective. It was an impressive technical feat in a time before GoPros or digital handheld cameras and with steady cams being still in their early stages. No one had successfully pulled anything like this before.
The episode is filmed from the perspective of a soldier called Private Rich. It begins with him and his squad on patrol when they suddenly encounter shelling, leaving Rich seriously injured after he is hit in the throat with a shell fragment while his buddy private Ferguson is hit in the leg. Medics franticly perform first aid and the two are airlifted to the nearest MASH unit. We see and hear everything he does while on his road to recovery. It’s interesting to see the 4077th from a different perspective and something very powerful about seeing things from the perspective of a mortally wounded solder.
Producer Gene Reynolds had the idea of shooting an episode in real time, knowing that such a premise would result in a tense episode. He knew that such a plot would require exactly the right situation, so he called MASH medical adviser Walter Dishell for ideas. This resulted in a script co-authored by Dishell and Alan Alda with assistance from W.C Heinz, Ring Lardner Jr and Hornberger.
The product was the season eight episode Life Time.
It starts with several of the main characters playing poker near the chopper pad. A helicopter lands in the compound carrying a critically wounded soldier called George. Hawkeye diagnoses him with a lacerated aorta and uses a pocket knife to crack open his chest further, reach in and press the aorta against his spinal column to stop the bleeding. However, after twenty minutes, lack of blood to the spinal column will likely result in paralysis. A clock is superimposed on the bottom right on the screen counting down the time they have to save George. But they don’t have enough cross-matched blood, they don’t have arterial grafts big enough for a transplant and an ambulance brings more injured soldiers to the compound. The surgeons of the 4077th desperately try to save George against all odds.
It really is a tense episode. I’m willing to say this is perhaps my favourite episode of MASH. I don’t think a brief summery can do it justice. It’s something you have to see for yourself.
I could discuss a dozen more episodes, but I’ll leave it at these three.
I think in my discussion of the characters, the events surrounding them and a select few episodes, you will understand just why MASH was a hard-hitting show. I’ve hardly touched upon the humour here. I think MASH was a perfect combination of comedy and tragedy.
I want to end this article with a quote from an interview with Gary Burghoff.
I’m in a parking lot going into a restaurant in Westconsin. I was doing a theater engagement there and I was going out to dinner and a man approached me in the parking lot. He said: Mr. Burghoff, may I speak with you for a moment? I said sure. He said I was in the trenches in Korea. And I knew enough about the trenches in Korea to know immediately that this was a man who had been through serious trauma because that was a living hell. He said when I came back home in 1952 I was changed and my wife knew that I needed to talk about it and I couldn’t bring myself to talk about it. And he said when your show came on the air many years later it was the first time I could reach over and touch her on the arm and say see honey, that’s the way it was.
That was the greatest compliment we could because we always tried to tie the entertainment value into the reality as much as we possibly could in our small way.