Reflects Antiwar Sentiments Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The television series M*A*S*Hcombined biting satire and wit with universal human insights in the context of a medical unit stationed in Korea during the 1950’s conflict there. The series’ commentary on war, hypocrisy, and American society barely veiled the antiwar and antiestablishment sentiments among many in the United States in the late 1960’s and the 1970’s.

Summary of Event

One of the most popular television situation comedies in history premiered on the Columbia Broadcasting System Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) on September 17, 1972. This event occurred in the midst of the withdrawal of American combat troops from the controversial war in Vietnam and approximately six weeks before the 1972 presidential election, when voters would choose between Richard M. Nixon and George McGovern. The television series M*A*S*H was based on the 1970 film M*A*S*H, directed by Robert Altman, Altman, Robert and on the 1968 book of the same title by Richard Hooker. Television;comedies Television;relevance programs Television;comedies Television;relevance programs Reynolds, Gene Gelbart, Larry Alda, Alan Rogers, Wayne Stevenson, McLean Swit, Loretta Burghoff, Gary

The book was actually the work of Dr. H. Richard Hornberger, Hornberger, Richard who served as a surgeon in a Mobile Army Surgical Hospital (MASH) unit during the Korean War. Published under the pseudonym Richard Hooker, the book’s film rights were sold to Ingo Preminger, brother of Otto Preminger, the famous director. Ring Lardner, Jr., Lardner, Ring, Jr. wrote the prizewinning screenplay that Robert Altman quickly produced as a low-budget film that was released in the fall of 1970 to great box-office success and a nomination for the Academy Award for Best Picture. A subplot of the book became the basis of the first television episode. The progression of M*A*S*H from book to film to television series was one of the fastest in the history of American entertainment.

Wayne Rogers (left) played Trapper John and Alan Alda was Hawkeye Pierce in the celebrated series M*A*S*H.

(CBS/Landov)

The pilot episode of M*A*S*H was directed by Gene Reynolds, who recently had been dismissed by the American Broadcasting Company American Broadcasting Company (ABC). It was written by Larry Gelbart, a prominent and prolific film and television comedy writer. Gelbart would go on to write thirty-nine of the ninety-seven episodes produced in the first four years of the series. Casting was done by Burt Metcalfe, Metcalfe, Burt a friend of Reynolds. A number of experienced actors were placed in key roles. McLean Stevenson took the role of Colonel Henry Blake, the easygoing commander of the 4077th MASH unit. Alan Alda played “Hawkeye” Pierce and soon emerged as the leading character in the series. In his years as part of the program’s cast, Alda became the first person ever to win Emmy Awards Emmy Awards for directing, acting, and writing on the same series. Wayne Rogers, a prominent actor since the early 1950’s, was Hawkeye’s wisecracking partner, “Trapper John” McIntyre. Loretta Swit was the sexy head nurse, Margaret “Hot Lips” Houlihan, and Gary Burghoff, who began his career as a singer and dancer, was Corporal Walter “Radar” O’Reilly, a shy and innocent Iowa farm boy who ran the entire unit. Burghoff was the only member of the M*A*S*H film cast who moved into the television series.

The pilot episode opens with Hawkeye and Trapper playing golf behind the 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital, a few miles from enemy lines and immediately adjacent to a mine field. Their golf game is interrupted by the sound of incoming helicopters bearing wounded from the Korean War front. (The dash to the hospital tents and to the helicopter pad formed the image by which the series was introduced for the next eleven years.) Following surgery, Hawkeye learns that the young Korean who works for him as a houseboy in the MASH camp has been admitted to medical school back in the United States. The thrill of this accomplishment is dampened when Hawkeye learns that the young man needs two thousand dollars to cover tuition costs. To raise funds for this purpose, Hawkeye organizes a raffle with alcohol and sex as the inducement to ticket sales. Nurse Houlihan intervenes, however, and urges the commanding general in Tokyo to come in and break up the planned party. When the general arrives, he orders the arrest and court-martial of Hawkeye and his accomplice Trapper John, an action interrupted by another group of helicopters bearing wounded. This medical emergency is so great that everyone on the staff has to join in, including the general, who is so impressed by the performance of Hawkeye and Trapper John that he drops all charges.

The public response to the pilot was so poor that the series came close to being canceled. Although the overall ratings were low, CBS executives found that the show established a strong response in a segment of young Americans. Because of this clearly identified and reliable audience, even though small, CBS permitted the series to continue. By January of 1973, M*A*S*H was in the top thirty shows on network television and received renewal for one additional season. For the fall season in 1973, the series was moved to Saturday night and placed on the CBS schedule between All in the Family All in the Family (television program) and The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Mary Tyler Moore Show, The (television program) This was a crucial turning point. Within weeks, M*A*S*H was in the top ten in the ratings.

By 1974, Watergate, the failure of the South Vietnamese government, and the inability of the U.S. government to deal with a growing list of domestic problems made the American public more receptive to the biting commentary of M*A*S*H. Changes in the cast resulted in more focused roles for the actors, and a wide array of writers produced increasingly brilliant scripts. In 1975, the series moved to Monday night, taking a large audience with it and drawing in new fans. By 1983, 255 episodes of M*A*S*H had been produced. The two-and-a-half-hour farewell show, which aired on February 28, 1983, garnered the largest audience for a regularly scheduled television show in history. In the decade following the halt of production, M*A*S*H became the most successful of all syndicated television programs, attracting millions of viewers to late-night reruns.

Although M*A*S*H was set in Korea, it was very much about the Vietnam War. The growing antiwar sentiment of the early 1970’s contributed much to the popularity of the series. The isolation of the campsite, the closeness to the enemy, and the antagonism among the characters reflected a relevant and powerful frustration about war in general and the American government in particular. The unit often found itself unable to communicate with headquarters and had little choice but to carry on as best it could in a senseless war.

From the beginning, M*A*S*H was a different type of sitcom. It was unique in its combination of comedy and tragedy, it was recorded on film rather than on tape, it included indoor as well as outdoor scenes, its stories were often based on events that came from the news of the day, and it was dedicated to an unusual degree of technical accuracy in both medicine and the military. As the series became more popular, it experimented with new ideas and new techniques. More than two decades after the series concluded, it was widely regarded as one of the best programs in all of television history.

Significance

M*A*S*H had a tremendous influence on the nature of adult sitcoms. The combination of war and medicine provided a format for exploring enduring human themes. The endless stream of torn and broken bodies and vulnerable individuals permitted an often penetrating examination of civilization and social conventions. The episodes placed people in incredible circumstances, with only their humanity to turn to for the resolution of issues of war, violence, racism, bigotry, sexual freedom, patriotism, and materialism. The phoniness and artificiality of civilization were exposed amid the casualties of war in the hospital tent, and viewers frequently were left with issues unresolved. In a revealing discussion of the Korean enemy, Hawkeye stated: “I don’t know why they are shooting at us. All we want to bring them is democracy and white bread, to transplant the American Dream: freedom, achievement, hyperacidity, affluence, flatulence, technology, tension, the inalienable right to an early coronary sitting at your desk while plotting to stab your boss in the back.”

Many television programs, both sitcoms and dramatic series, would follow that included biting commentary on American social conventions, Hill Street Blues, Designing Women, Murphy Brown, and China Beach among them. It is worth noting that Linda Bloodworth-Thomason, the creator of Designing Women, wrote a number of M*A*S*H scripts.

A second effect of the series came through its combination of comedy and drama. Perhaps the most enduring legacy of M*A*S*H is that it made comedy the principal instrument by which television sitcoms would present social criticism. In so doing, it replaced the family comedy and silly sitcom that offered laughter for the sake of laughter. The Beverly Hillbillies, Beverly Hillbillies, The (television program) Petticoat Junction, Petticoat Junction (television program) and Bewitched Bewitched (television program) fall into this category. Examples of the new trend, which some critics have labeled “dramedy,” included Maude, Rhoda, and Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman.

Virtually all the episodes of M*A*S*H had two themes intertwined, one human and enduring, the other humorous and brief. Every segment of M*A*S*H had at least one scene in the operating room, where wisecracking surgeons made desperate efforts to save lives. The irony of officers in uniform serving as vehicles for criticism of the system they were a part of was new and different for American television. The show’s popularity could only have come in a period of transition and difficulty. The writers often used the device of a letter sent or received to permit the characters to narrate their interpretations of powerful themes.

M*A*S*H effectively incorporated modern themes into its scripts. The characters explored contemporary themes in the framework of the Korean War. What Gunsmoke and Bonanza did rather lightly in the 1960’s, M*A*S*H did with enthusiasm in the 1970’s and 1980’s. This proved effective because of the great strength of the characters. No previous sitcom had developed so many sharply focused characters. On a weekly basis, viewers never knew quite what to expect from any specific episode of M*A*S*H, but during the farewell program in 1983, almost all of the 100 million-plus Americans who watched the show expected and received a tribute to the strength of the characters developed over the years. Following the success of M*A*S*H, many sitcoms offered strong characters that writers, producers, and directors sought to use as commentators on contemporary American society and enduring human themes. Television;comedies Television;relevance programs

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Castleman, Harry, and Walter J. Podrazik. Watching TV: Four Decades of American Television. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1982. History of television from its earliest days through the 1980 network season provides a year-by-year summary of television programming, including the major networks’ schedules of evening shows. Includes an excellent summary of the introduction and development of M*A*S*H in the 1970’s.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fass, Paula S. “Television as Cultural Document: Promises and Problems.” In Television as a Cultural Force, edited by Richard Adler and Douglass Cater. New York: Praeger, 1976. Intelligent analysis of M*A*S*H based on its first three years of production. Compares M*A*S*H with The Mary Tyler Moore Show regarding the expression of American culture and society. Emphasizes how M*A*S*H developed human values while linking the characters to specific problems of the day.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gitlin, Todd. Inside Prime Time. Rev. ed. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000. Examines the network television business and explains the emphasis on ratings and advertising. Offers biting commentary about the networks and network executives, frequently using examples from M*A*S*H to comment on the greed and materialism of those who produce America’s evening fare.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kalter, Suzy. The Complete Book of M*A*S*H. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1984. Presents a synopsis of each episode of the series as well as interviews with the leading actors, writers, and directors. Based on research in Twentieth Century-Fox archives and materials in the Smithsonian Institution. Recommended for readers interested in the evolution of the characters in the series. Includes illustrations and photographs.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lichter, S. Robert, Linda S. Lichter, and Stanley Rothman. Watching America. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1991. A study of the social meaning of television from the 1950’s to 1990. Contains separate chapters on the way in which the American television networks present work, crime, law enforcement, women, and public issues. Uses M*A*S*H to illustrate the antiwar sentiments of the 1970’s.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Newcomb, Horace. TV: The Most Popular Art. New York: Anchor Books, 1974. Widely read survey of television sitcoms to 1974 makes the point that programs such as M*A*S*H dealt with greater complexities than were found in the programs of the 1950’s and 1960’s.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Reed, Robert M., and Maxine K. Reed. The Encyclopedia of Television, Cable, and Video. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1992. Contains a short summary of the series as well as brief biographies of the leading actors, writers, and producers.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Williams, Martin. TV: The Casual Art. New York: Oxford University Press, 1982. A study of television sitcoms by a television critic and reviewer. Asserts that M*A*S*H was one of the “best shows on TV” and that the evolution of the characters was the key to the program’s success.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wittebols, James H. Watching M*A*S*H, Watching America: A Social History of the 1972-1983 Television Series. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 2003. Reflects on how sitcoms, in particular the series M*A*S*H, responded to changes in popular culture during the period discussed.

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