Korea, 1950: A Hundred years Ago.
Having obtained a set of the DVDs , I once more watched the first episode of a show that I was a fan of from childhood through high school, until it vanished, as 70s and 80s TV shows did, prior to the modern age of streaming video, that is, MASH.
Not having seen the pilot in–30 years? Probably–it was not entirely what I remembered. The casual 70s sexism, the intrusive, studio-mandated laugh track, the crassness the scripts sometimes showed (some left over from the original film)–I’d forgotten those defects.
But even almost 50 years later, there’s a lot to admire and enjoy. First, the mere fact that the series had the sheer guts to be squarely anti-war in the middle of the Vietnam War.
Second, Alan Alda’s Hawkeye orients us with a wounded, cynical voice over, a letter to his father, and the seeds are already being sown of the man who will break in the last days of the war. Wayne Rogers and Alda have a casual comfort in their roles, and in riffing off each other.
Nobody sulks like Larry Linville (who gives his first little whimper when jabbed with a hypodermic) or glowers like Loretta Swit. The casting seems inevitable now, but that’s an illusion–this is, after all, only two years after the original film, and it’s inspired that Larry Gelbart and Gene Reynolds didn’t try to get the cast to echo the performances of Donald Sutherland, Elliott Gould, Robert Duvall and Sally Kellerman. If Linville lacks Duvall’s underlying menace, he’s a lot funnier. (Swit was pretty menacing though; don’t mess with her!) Alda doesn’t have Sutherland’s faintly amused air of detachment–he’s fully present in every moment.
One thing I’d never liked was the too cheery, slightly brassy theme music of the series; I’d always preferred the film version. But in the pilot, we get a little of the original theme’s controlled wistfulness, with the orchestra rising as the choppers descend on the second verse. The way the chopper rocks a little as the titles begin is a nice touch, too.
The story was slight–Hawkeye and Trapper throw a raffle to send a young Korean man to college in the United States (Hawkeye’s alma mater)–but the jokes (mostly) worked, and the performances were strong. This bit is derived from the novel, and in another lift from the film we glimpse Major Houlihan (no longer O’Houlihan–that’s only Sally Kellerman in the film), er, consorting, with General Hammond (G. Wood, from the film). In a last sight gag, we get Houlihan leading in the heavily bandaged Burns (he’s been wrapped to hide him) (Hawkeye, as Peter Lorre: The-e Mumm-ee”).
Not unlike his portrayal in the film, Wood’s Hammond is a bit of a rogue, but his heart is in the right place; he springs the boys. At the conclusion, The announcer then lists the personnel of the unit, over the theme music.
The patient has a heartbeat…
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