Sunday, January 25, 2015

'M*A*S*H' Laid Foundation for TV Series

"This isn't a hospital, it's an insane asylum!"

Major Margaret "Hot Lips" Houlihan (Sally Kellerman)

Forty–five years ago, it was fashionable to ridicule the armed services. Mostly in the movies. TV still had a certain reverence for the establishment in those days, but it was mostly in movies.

To be fair, the military was an easy target. The mismanaged Vietnam War had already forced a president to voluntarily withdraw from a campaign for re–election four years after winning the presidency by an historic margin. Things were going so badly for the United States in Southeast Asia that Walter Cronkite, the most trusted man in America, "Uncle Walter" to millions, made a rare editorial comment during one of his newscasts that the war effort was a lost cause. I knew many people who were skeptical of their government and the media, but they trusted Cronkite. I couldn't tell you how many times I heard, when I was a child, someone say, "If Cronkite says it, you can take it to the bank."

At times, it was true that the military leadership resembled the Keystone Kops.

But I guess the military has frequently been an easy target. Forty–five years ago today, the movie "M*A*S*H," which was adapted from a best–selling novel by Richard Hooker, directed by Robert Altman and later inspired a long–running TV series, made its debut. Its target was the Korean War.

If all you know of "M*A*S*H" is the episodes of the TV series that you've seen, you may want to adjust your thinking a bit before watching the movie. You'll recognize the characters — Hawkeye, Hot Lips, Radar — but the actors who played them (except for Radar) were nowhere to be seen on the TV screen.

In that sense, I suppose, it will be like a new experience. And, in truth, I guess it is a new experience. A different one, anyway. The TV series was great in part because it didn't try to do the work of a movie in 30 minutes. And the movie was great in part because it didn't try to be like a TV episode.

That seems so simple, but if you try to pack too much into a half–hour sitcom or too little into a 90–minute movie, you're setting yourself up for failure.

Even so, film critic Roger Ebert wrote that "M*A*S*H" the movie worked because "it's so desperate. ... The surgeons work rapidly and with a gory detachment, sawing off legs and tying up arteries, and making their work possible by pretending they don't care. And when they are at last out of the operating tent, they devote their lives to remaining sane."

I never really thought of it that way, but I guess there is a lot of truth in that. There was more of a sense of desperation in the movie than there was in the TV series. The surgeons still had a flippant attitude, Hot Lips and Frank still embodied the military establishment, but both seemed more extreme in the movie than the TV series. Perhaps that was because the movie, having received an R rating, was shown to an audience that was assumed to be mature enough to handle the material. On TV, anyone of any age could be watching.

So things were toned down on TV. I suppose that was kind of problematic for the Frank–and–Hot–Lips affair.

As far as Hot Lips and Frank were concerned, their movie characters were similar to yet different from their TV characters. They were gung–ho in the TV series, but that really was mild compared to the movie. And their sexual relationship really had to be muted for the small screen — implied far more than it was actually shown.

They really were fighting a different war in the movie. And their holier–than–thou attitudes came through loud and clear.

"I wonder how such a degenerated person ever reached a position of authority in the Army Medical Corps," Hot Lips (Sally Kellerman) remarked at one point about Hawkeye (Donald Sutherland).

"He was drafted," replied Father Mulcahy (René Auberjonois).

For his part, Frank's religious zealotry was only hinted at in the TV series compared to his extremely overt religious behavior in the movie. The first time he was seen, Frank was teaching one of the mess hall boys how to read — using his Bible.

The next time he was seen, he was kneeling in front of his cot, reciting the Lord's Prayer, which he amended to include requests for God's blessing on the fighting men, the commanders in the field and the commander–in–chief.

"Frank, were you on this religious kick at home," Hawkeye asked, "or did you you crack up over here?"

I guess the TV series proceeded as if the movie never existed — or as if it was intended to function independently of the big–screen story. Otherwise, someone would have noticed that Frank Burns (Robert Duvall in the movie, Larry Linville in the TV series) was taken away in a straitjacket after punching Hawkeye in the movie, never to be seen again — until he showed up in the TV series. No one, not even Hot Lips, ever asked him about his time in custody.

You know, I guess Ebert wasn't far off the mark when he wrote of the frantic pace of the movie. In 1970, the makers of the movie most likely had no idea their movie would inspire a long–running TV series so the movie tried to tell viewers everything about those characters in a couple of hours — or, at least, everything that the original book told readers about them.

The makers of the hugely successful TV series expected that the bulk of their audience would know the inside jokes about everyone, even though the TV cast was almost entirely made up of people who did not appear in the movie.

A few of the characters in the TV series — notably Corporal Klinger — were nowhere to be found in the movie. He was created for the TV audience.

Ring Lardner, Jr. won an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay.