The Real MASH

Director's notes

Producer's Notes



director's notes


I grew up watching the TV show MASH without understanding it. I think I'm like most people. It's a show that's both more complicated than it appears and a lot simpler than all that. I think part of its enduring appeal is that the writers and creative talents behind the show were able to lock into universal stories about compassion, integrity and friendship and still make people laugh with sight gags and prankish humour. But what seals the deal are the characters. Hot Lips, Radar, Klinger and of course Hawkeye. These are some of the most unforgettable characters ever created in a fictional universe. MASH created characters that were as sharply defined and as recognizable as eccentric family members and just as compelling. What I didn't anticipate in making the documentary The Real MASH was how compelling the real doctors and nurses of the MASH units in Korea really are.


I had the unique opportunity and privilege to actually get paid to sit and talk to the surviving MASH medical staff and listen to their own stories of what it was really like to work in a mobile army surgical hospital in the frontlines of the Korean War. The people I met, septuagenarians, some into their 80's, carried a richness of life that amazed me. Theirs stories were of the stock of legends. Saving lives, killing boredom, flirting with first loves and bucking authority. No wonder the MASH entertainment franchise has proven so lucrative (the book, the film and the TV show collectively have spawned a cultural chapter of its own). Janie Hall, the stoic nurse who had the thousand yard stare and brought a philosopher's thoughtfulness to her memories; Alvin Blount, the laughing surgeon in North Carolina who broke racial barriers by being one of the first African American doctors in the field; the natural born storyteller Richard Kirkland who flew choppers during the war and continued to fly well into his late 60's (even made an emergency helicopter landing in downtown Chicago to rush his pregnant wife to the hospital!); and the eloquent Melvin Horwitz who wrote daily letters to his wife while stationed as a doctor in the MASH unit. In his own words: 'it was more like butchery than surgery'.


MASH can't help but be inspired and informed by these remarkable people. They lived and worked in close quarters in a war zone that they knew little of and used each other to survive. They formed a family or sorts and built the kind of temporary alliance forged in trauma that holds memories dear six decades later. I didn't realize how important it was for the creators and producers of the TV show MASH to stick close to reality until we interviewed them for the Real MASH. Gene Reynolds (Producer/Director/Writer), Jamie Farr (Klinger), Gary Burghoff (Radar) and Loretta Swit (Hot Lips) all spoke about how the series used stories plumbed from interviews with the veterans to build the fictional world of MASH for TV viewers. Especially in the early seasons, most of the episodes were based on the research provided by the real doctors and nurses. This made me realize how fictional TV stories connect with viewers in their living rooms – by steering closer to reality that fiction. When it comes to gripping drama, larger than life characters and truly funny moments – nothing scripts better than life. I believe part of MASH's success was because it was so damn real. It jolted viewers with a light of recognition.

MASH is known for its politics. The series premiered on American television during the Vietnam War and its creators were unequivocal about using their voice to make a statement about war. For a mainstream political show to be so pointedly political is unusual, especially when you think of television today. It's hard to imagine a searing anti-war sitcom on American television set in the Middle East broadcast during the height of the gulf wars. MASH had guts and many of the creators behind the show were left- wing progressives, some who had been persecuted during the McCarthy years. They wanted the show to mean something. Tracing the roots of the MASH fictional path led me to a great irony about the series. The doctor who wrote the book that started the whole thing rolling, Dr. Richard Hornberger was a deeply conservative man who hated the show and the politics it stood for. It took him eleven years to write the book MASH which he finished writing with the collaboration of a local sportswriter and finally published under the pen name Richard Hooker. It's a slim book, not that well written, based loosely on his experiences as a doctor stationed in a MASH unit during the Korean War. Sexist, racist and American to the core, the book is a jaunt through a few escapades of young doctors stationed in a MASH unit who go 'wild' in the middle of a war they know and care little of in a foreign country. The play pranks, drink to excess, visit prostitutes and carryout some humanitarian surgery on a young orphan. There's little in the book to indicate a mega million dollar cultural franchise would be borne from it.


I can't quite believe how many die-hard MASH fans are out there, not just swarming the Internet but even lurking in my life. Every few weeks another one is uncovered. I will mention I am doing this doc and someone I've known for years will swear 'I love that show!' MASH is President Obama's favourite television show ever. The show has an endearing appeal. Now for a confession. During the whole two years of making this doc I haven't been able to watch one single episode in it's entirety. Producer Ed Barreveld got us the DVD special edition which came with a fancy box and other collectibles. But other than zipping through a particular episode for a scene, I haven't sat down to watch the show. Not once. I can't. I grew up watching MASH. I loved the show, I had a deep school girl crush on Hawkeye (he seemed so sensitive and smart and did I mention sensitive?) and I remember countless afternoons I'd be on the living room floor watching the show. The theme runs like an alternate heartbeat through my blood. But I am deeply conflicted by the show. On an emotional and political level. My father hated the show and would scoff at it but I just dismissed his displeasure as part of his every day orneriness. When I was older and started reading about the Korean War I realized that MASH was set in the Korean War. But I had never known that. All those years watching the show, I never caught on that those helpless Asians that occasionally wandered onscreen were supposed to be Korean. Me! Something like shame set in when I understood that I was watching a warped re-visioning of me and my people on the small screen and yet I didn't even know enough to be angry about it. And then I understood my father's response. He'd lived through the Korean War which had killed three million Koreans and ripped apart the country which remains divided to this day. In the first month of their operation alone, the Strategic Air Command groups of the allied forces dropped 4,000 tons of bombs on Korean soil. Besides high explosives, the bombers used napalm. One bomber pilot described the devastation saying, "we eventually burned down every town in North Korea... and some in South Korea too. We even burned down [the South Korean city of] Pusan -- an accident, but we burned it down anyway." So for surviving Koreans, the war was not a comedy and the American portrayal of Korea's tragedy was an insult.


Most of the Koreans who appear in the series are usually stereotypes or caricatured in one way or another. They appear as prostitutes, helpless victims, or malevolent criminals. When I asked Gene Reynolds about this he admitted that Koreans were written that way because it was well, just funnier. He said: "One thing that we did and I admit that it was something that Korean audiences would not care for and I'm, I feel guilty about it myself and that is that we caricatured Koreans often." In making the doc I wanted to bring this perspective forward without hammering the point.


It seems like the TV gods get the last laugh when it comes to MASH. They played tricks on Hornberger, turning his politics upside down. They took a war most of America had forgotten and repurposed it for political exigency as another Asian war. And they have taken a chapter in history about the heroism of ordinary people that might have left forgotten in some memory chest somewhere and parlayed it into a television classic that continues to matter to this day.


Nurse Cathy Drake from MASH 8055 puts it best:


"And who would have ever thought that the word MASH which means Mobile Army Surgical Hospital would be such a big word. I mean we just got assigned to a MASH and that was it. And to think what that term has turned out to be besides mashing potatoes huh?"

Min Sook Lee
August 2010



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