Wednesday, September 12, 2018

M*A*S*H: Novel into Film into Sitcom, and Notes on the Long Run

The cast of Robert Altman's M*A*S*H (1970), based on the 1968 novel by Richard Hooker. (Photo: IMDB)

“Richard Hooker,” whose real name was Richard Hornberger, had been a surgeon in a Mobile Army Surgical Hospital, or MASH unit, during the Korean War. Failing to interest a dozen or so publishers in his sheaf of random anecdotes about cutting soldiers and cutting up in America’s least-understood modern conflict, he partnered with sportswriter W.C. Heinz, who took a hired gun’s silent pay to whip the sheaf into shape. It was published, in 1968, as MASH: A Novel of Three Army Doctors, and a few days ago – for no reason other than that an episode of the associated sitcom was on television, and that I was eager to avoid doing some actual work – I retrieved the paperback of the novel that I’d had since high school. I remembered some things about the book and had forgotten others. Remembered: the characters, while similar to those who populate Robert Altman’s 1970 film adaptation, bear almost no resemblance to those of the long-running (1972-83) TV version. Forgotten: the style and matter of the novel are cool and mordant in a mostly appealing way – albeit with much of the sexism that makes the Altman film offensive, but without a hint of the sanctimony that so defined the series in its last several seasons.

Is M*A*S*H in its various iterations a unique phenomenon? Minds more encyclopedic than mine may produce a dozen counterexamples in the next breath, but my uncomprehensive check suggests that only a few other novels have inspired both films and TV series – and that no other novelistic offspring have had a comparable popular or critical impact. (Robert Bloch’s Psycho, Pierre Boulle’s Planet of the Apes, and William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist led to legendary films, but as serial television the stories found relatively modest favor, or none at all.) The respective successes of M*A*S*H as novel, film, and series may be accounted for: each stage of the property’s evolution overlaps with the last while being self-sufficient, something familiar which in its own space and time becomes unique. The book drafted on the gusts of the comic novel of military hijinks, still reasonably marketable in the late 1960s. The film came at the apex of Vietnam controversy and the dawn of the Hollywood Renaissance. The series, at first merely an aspiring extension of the movie’s box-office success, morphed under the virtual auteurship of Alan Alda into something quite its own.

The three doctors of the novel’s subtitle are Hawkeye Pierce, Trapper John McIntyre, and Duke Forrest – this last dropped for the TV show, either because three heroes would have jammed the small screen or because Duke is a Deep Southerner with a tendency to ironize his own racism. Some secondary characters would be carried over to film and TV (telepathic clerk Radar O’Reilly, head nurse Margaret “Hot Lips” Houlihan), while others would be rendered as composites (conservative blowhard Frank Burns), but most would be left behind in the book’s pages. Probably thanks to Heinz, whose journalist’s talent for pinning a scene with detail is evident throughout, the novel is dark, sarcastic, dry-eyed, and precise, even when Hooker is selling a fish story – an anecdote that simply can't have happened, not in the way he claims. The biggest whopper concerns Hawkeye, Duke, and Trapper raising money for the stateside travel and college tuition of their Korean houseboy. Trapper John, long-haired and bearded after weeks of heavy surgery, is photographed in the image of Jesus Christ; the surgeons drive to nearby combat units and sell the (autographed) photos for a dollar each, aided by the spectacle of Trapper strapped to a crucifix and hung from a chopper, illuminated in the night sky, per celestial visions, by shots from a flare gun. (A vignette perhaps inspired by the Angel of Mons, a battlefield legend of World War I.) If you can accept the incongruity of such fancies within an essentially realistic frame of incident and depiction, you can enjoy this and the novel’s other flamboyant conceits – and even wonder what a MASH film directed by Luis Buñuel might have looked, felt, and sounded like.

Catch-22, published in 1961, had become an off-list bestseller and counterculture mainstay, but Hooker’s novel shows little of the influence of Joseph Heller’s monument to military madness. (The giveaway that someone, probably Heinz, had read Heller is in the repeated and unvarying identification of one character, Vollmer, as “the sergeant from Supply and center from Nebraska.”) Where Catch-22 is in a Dickensian or even Rabelaisian tradition of satirical enormity, MASH falls into the slim, trim line of service comedy occupied by such honorable precursors as Marion Hargrove's See Here, Private Hargrove (1942, lightweight but funny), Thomas Heggen’s Mister Roberts (1946, a masterwork of melancholy) and Mac Hyman’s No Time for Sergeants (1954, a classic of dialect and regional psychology). Hooker’s novel, like those, foregrounds such crowd-pleasing elements as booze, craps games, anti-authoritarian antics, and sex (or its aching absence), but weights the silliness with a novelist’s intent, a dramatist’s seriousness. There’s an impressive degree of detail on the exigencies of emergency military surgery, c. 1952 (far beyond the eternal bowel resections and “Kelly, more suction” of the TV series), and passages show psychological burnout as an ever-present threat, not merely the hook for yet another Hawkeye’s-gone-bonkers episode. Overall there is meant to be, and is, a residue of sadness in the romping of these men who pretend to be boys – an accumulation of fatigues and stresses, a sorrow for lost lives and lost time.

Robert Altman’s film version has been a thorn in my side for years. As a child, I loved the movie for its rule-breaking heroes; today, with some sense of film form and screen aesthetics behind my eyes, I love it for other reasons. But I also came long ago to hate it – for its outrageous sexism, and its admiration of an empty-headed, empty-hearted cool. Upon arrival, Hawkeye (Donald Sutherland) and Duke (Tom Skerritt), joined quickly by Trapper John (Elliott Gould) and a gang of henchmen, establish a reign of terror as the camp’s blackshirts of hip. Cruel to the incompetent, they are also contemptuous of the disciplined and chauvinistic to the female; and while this specific combination of irreverencies was no doubt highly attractive in the counterculture terms of 1970, it has aged horribly. Hot Lips Houlihan, the starched and strapped military martinet, is quite literally exposed before the entire camp in a boys’ prank that has, at least for those who aren’t forcing themselves to laugh, all the ugliness of a gang rape (uglier because we are clearly expected to get off on it too) – after which, properly fucked in spirit and in fact, she is permitted to sit silently by in a skin-tight T-shirt and be ignored as the boys conduct their poker game. If the actors were not so good, their interplay so jazz-band slick and easy; if Altman’s cutting and framing and gliding were not so seductive; if the off-kilter, off-center thingness of the thing were not of such eerie, narcotic beauty – if not for all that, I’d toss Altman’s M*A*S*H in a junk drawer of memory, recouping it only now and then as an illustration of piggish masculinity in full toxic spread.

But the actors are that good, the glide is that seductive. So, for the sake of reexperiencing that, I filter and focus to a degree that almost no other movie calls for. I do my best to blunt what is despicable – the machoism and homophobia of the surgeons’ byplay, the dentist’s fear that his erectile dysfunction means he has gone “fairy” and so must commit suicide – and instead simply watch the faces, drift in the music of the cross-talk. The image becomes part blur, part smoke. Interactions flow past, and fly in from the side. The cold mud and canvas tents are made as soft as meadows and barns by distance and light. All here is transience, with faces looking back from behind mist or flames, and I’m a stranger in a strange land. As a text with political, social, and sexual implications, Altman’s M*A*S*H is an abomination. As a thing to feel through the eyes and ears, it remains amazing and mysterious, a formal and sensual masterpiece.

Alan Alda, Wayne Rogers, and Loretta Swit in the sitcom version of M*A*S*H. (Photo: IMDB)

Say whatever else you will about it, but the film, like the novel, is utterly free of sanctimony. Whereas I’m tempted to say that sanctimony, as well as defining the TV version of M*A*S*H, also deformed it – except that sanctimony might have been the show’s true form all along, the shape it was destined to achieve. Both Larry Gelbert and Alan Alda, head writers in the show’s early and late years, had whip-smart comic instincts, were walking-talking joke books, had minds that seethed and hummed with all the impacted lore of innumerable Catskills summers. But beneath the sting and the needle, the desire to wound that is intrinsic to satire, they were always good TV liberals – good social-humanist crusaders whose muckraking was in shallow puddles, whose polemical model was the social-problem-redeemed-by-democratic-values TV and movie play exemplified by Reginald Rose’s 12 Angry Men, and inherited in no small degree from the simplistic proletarian theater of the 1930s. In late years, after Alda became America’s best-known male feminist, many episodes were devoted to Margaret Houlihan’s self-actualization and other woman-centered themes; and while this helped get a fair amount of feminist consciousness into prime time, and so into homes that otherwise would have shunned it, the objective politicizing did little to stoke the show’s guttering comedic flame.

From first episodes to last, M*A*S*H could be enjoyed as fleet, funny, absurdist television, but always in spite of its sermonizing, its sledgehammer ironies, its at times insufferable pomposity and bottomless appetite for baloney. Every long-lived show runs on fumes through tired seasons, which is to say that it survives on a viewer’s memories of what it did at its best. M*A*S*H was at its best, not when it forgot that “there’s a war on,” but when it forgot to worry about war as a condition and focused on the military as a situation. The show’s cascades of comic absurdity – Hawkeye’s inventive putdowns of Burns (“You hermaphroditic weasel”); McLean Stevenson’s expert blend, as commanding officer Henry Blake, of impotent anger and hapless surrender; Harry Morgan’s early cameo as a pixilated general; farcical constructs about the procurement of germ incubators, long underwear, Chicago spareribs, and Army boots; and on and on – had everything to do with the specifics of a predicament, and nothing to do with the tragedy-mongering for which a weekly sitcom is, no surprise, terrifically ill-equipped. It was always the laughs, almost never the tears, that kept M*A*S*H alive in our minds, even as it died on the tube. (Significant exception: Henry Blake’s death.)

By now, decades of reruns have placed the trajectory of the show – its periodic rises and falls, the little rockets of comedy amid heart-tugging or baloney-gobbling plots – in something like complete relief, an aerial view. The TV M*A*S*H now occupies that place in one’s heart, memory, and critical crankcase shared only by works which, absorbed via repetition and rerun since childhood, have so pervaded the lower levels of consciousness as to have gone beyond familiarity to conditioned reflex. That means I can recite whole passages of dialogue in perfect sync with the actors. It also means that I’ve gone from a youthful and uncritical acceptance of the show’s media-squawked brilliance to post-adolescent rejection of its great and gaping faults (sexism and racism, particularly in the early days; convenient deployment of death all the way through) to, finally, acceptance of the many cheats and inanities of a show forced by its long run to reverse field on established characters, rewrite its own backstory, and in general make and remake itself up as it went along.

All of which says nothing more or less important than that the unique-until-I’m-told-otherwise phenomenon of M*A*S*H becomes a richer vineyard the longer one stomps its grapes. The novel, film, and sitcom each has its separate virtues, each its vices, and each is both entertaining and troubling in some lingering way that begs to be criticized, evaluated, periodically reappraised in the terms of one’s own evolving outlook. Richard Hornberger and W.C. Heinz wrote a good minor novel. That spawned a poetic, exhilarating, repugnant film. That in turn spawned a sitcom which I, along with millions of others, watched every week for all the years it appeared, a sitcom I’ve loved, hated, and loved again. A sitcom I watched last night, in fact, and that I may very well watch again tonight, if it’s on.

– Devin McKinney is the author of Magic Circles: The Beatles in Dream and History (2003), The Man Who Saw a Ghost: The Life and Work of Henry Fonda (2012), and Jesusmania! The Bootleg Superstar of Gettysburg College(2016). Formerly a music columnist (The American Prospect), blogger (Hey Dullblog), and TV writer (The Food Network), he has appeared in numerous publications and contributes regularly to Critics at Large and the pop culture site HiLobrow. He is employed as an archivist at Gettysburg College in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, where he lives with his wife and their three cats. His website is

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