No: 3

Autumn 2002

TV review:

M*A*S*H is back. Of course, you can be forgiven if you were unaware that it had ever been gone.

Since 1972 it seems that M*A*S*H has seldom been off our television screens. Even during the brief hiatus between its demise on Channel 10 (after seemingly becoming a permanent fixture) and its resurrection on Channel 7, we had Time-Life flogging the videos on television.

A few days ago Channel 7 ran the 30th Anniversary Reunion Special, which was certainly more fun and less maudlin than these things usually are. It was also, somewhat surprisingly, interesting.

It was followed by a screening of Robert Altman's 1970 feature film on which the series was based. The TV series has rather usurped the film in the public's awareness; certainly the TV actors are identified with the M*A*S*H characters in a way that the film actors are not.

But it was the film that set the parameters for the series. Altman's film was a strong anti-war statement, a condemnation of the carnage, hypocrisy, waste and sheer horror war entails, made at a time of much patriotic jingoism the height of the Vietnam War.

The film was written by Ring Lardner Jr, Oscar-winning writer of such films as A Star Is Born, Woman of The Year and Laura. Lardner's left-wing politics, however, brought him before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in 1947.

He was one of the famous "Hollywood Ten" who went to jail for refusing to tell the HUAC witch-hunters whether they had ever been communists or to name any other communists in Hollywood.

Jailed in 1948, then blacklisted, Lardner's career was savagely curtailed. Between 1950 and M*A*S*H 20 years later, he wrote only three films (and for only one of them did he receive a screen credit).

His basically plotless script for M*A*S*H was intensely radical in 1970, although director Robert Altman would reuse the form more than once in the ensuing years.

The key to the success of both the film and the TV series lies in the careful balance between zany hi-jinks and the reality of "meatball surgery" on badly wounded young soldiers.

The verbal sparring and practical jokes of Hawkeye and his cronies are a way of dealing with the horror and insanity of their position.

The series took a while to reach its audience, languishing in the ratings until people woke up that it was not in fact "another Army comedy" but something unusual, at least on US TV.

That realisation finally sank home when wounded characters died - - hardly a common occurrence in the average US sitcom.

The series was hardly revolutionary, nor did it get stuck into imperialism. But it savaged the popular Hollywood concept of war as macho heroics, it put the boot into the CIA (the wildly psychotic Captain Flagg) and to a lesser extent the South Korean dictatorship, and dared to mention such things as US attacks on North Korean ambulances.

If something as progressive as M*A*S*H can be produced, even if only occasionally, within the bourgeois US film and television industry, just think what could be achieved if the deadening hand of big business could be pried off the production centres of Hollywood once and for all.

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