Tuesday, 4 November 2014

The Importance of M*A*S*H

Helicopters are spotted across the hilltops, their propellers whirr as a bittersweet tune begins, while Khaki-clad onlookers rush towards their landing spot. Within the anxious crowd is a prematurely greying man, striking a separate figure in his blue Hawaiian shirt. The choppers land and occupied stretchers are dragged from their sides. This is M*A*S*H: the most revolutionary television comedy of its day. As a visionary milestone, it is debatably the most important entertainment series of the twentieth century.

The tale of an American field army hospital, set during the height of the Korean War, began life as a Richard Hooker novel, later translated into a smash-hit film starring Elliott Gould and Donald Sutherland. As the Vietman conflict raged on with little hope of a meaningful conclusion, audiences went in their droves to laugh through a comedy about another modern military fiasco. The reflection was there for all to see, and the script never shirked from pointing out the enduring pity of war.

It was daring and bold, offering up crude protagonists who failed to meet patriotic American ideals. In 1970, doctors were still hailed as infallible heroes of virtue, and yet, here they were making sexist jokes whilst sticking two fingers up to authority. It was truly shocking stuff for the time. Its uncompromising opening song, moreover, still has the power to offend certain sensibilities to this day. Ah yes, 'Suicide is painless'; a deeply cynical tune to say the least.

By this point the peace truce (still not totally settled) between the war's participants had only been in effect for 17 years. Imagine creating the same dark tone about the Iraq War today. It wouldn't take long for the tabloids to spew their outrage in every direction. Chris Morris knows all about that kind of misguided reaction.

Back in the 1970s critics loved the extreme gallows humour, the recalcitrant political message, and the sardonic wise-cracking. But, to be honest, 44 years after its release, I think this film has aged terribly. Audiences would struggle to identify with the misogyny that drives the main characters to consistently undermine and abuse their female officer. But, a revisionist viewing says that is the whole point - to highlight how the brutality of war barbarises us all.

Despite these ongoing debates, however, M*A*S*H  remains a cultural landmark through its incredible run as a television series, continuing for over 250 episodes across eleven years. This is where the story held a real emotional potency. Its secret weapon was the overpowering likability of its star, Alan Alda. Playing Ben 'Hawkeye' Pierce (Sutherland's character in the movie), Alda possessed an unbelievably tender pathos. Unlike his depiction in the film, Hawkeye proved to be a much more sympathetic medic. He treated all his colleagues fairly and honestly, only disagreeing with his military and political masters when their arrogant incompetency was endangering lives.

It is no exaggeration to say that Alda held the show together, particularly when the inevitable dud script wriggled its way into such a long broadcasting run. Other popular characters include Loretta Swit as Major Margaret Houlihan and Gary Burghoff as Corporal 'Radar' O'Reilly. Together they made for a heck of a team.

Although it exuded a friendlier tone, the television series still had enough bite to inspire peaceful stirrings in all its viewers. To watch M*A*S*H, to laugh at its jokes and to share in its themes is to be almost certainly anti-war.

Remember that guy in the flamboyant shirt, crouching to the turf as the helicopter swooped in? It is Alda in all his glory. Every episode we see him peer over the camera, concern swamping his face, as he inspects his new patient. For all his one-liners and witty dialogue, this is his essence. A good man, an excellent surgeon; these are the things that will always resonate.


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