Somewhere around 1983, when I was 13, I discovered that my favorite TV show, M*A*S*H, was actually based on a movie that was loosely based on a book. My parents had recently bought our first VCR, a front loading VHS console that didn’t even come with a remote.
I was in love and obsessed with television’s M*A*S*H. It was the catalyst of my early adolescent discovery of humanistic, authority-questioning ideas in American popular culture. As I transitioned into my freshman year of high school in suburban St. Louis – about as Reagan-enthused a place as you could find in America at the time – I also discovered “the 60’s,” or at least a young, often lonely and depressed suburban middle class white teen’s romantic idea of “the 60’s.”
Knowing the cinematic parent of my beloved television show was a critically acclaimed late 60’s anti-war movie, I placed my hope of renting the movie in our neighborhood video rental shop, Mr. Movies. Mr. Movies had a lot of titles from the 60’s and early 70’s, and I devoured them amidst my parents’ general obliviousness about my growing fascination with and yearning for an era I imagined I would have felt at home in and regretted having missed. The Graduate, Cool Hand Luke, To Kill a Mockingbird, Planet of the Apes, In the Heat of the Night, Dr. Strangelove, and Hair were repeat rentals. So were 70’s movies about the major social conflicts of the 60’s: Apocalypse Now, The Deer Hunter, Harold and Maude.
But I couldn’t rent the original movie M*A*S*H because Mr. Movies only had it in Betamax. Other video rental shops didn’t have it at all. It was agonizing that I could hold in my hands the Beta cassette of the mysterious full-length movie version of my favorite fictional world, but all I could ask the owner every few weeks was “do you think you’ll get a copy in VHS soon?” I did what I could to find out more about the film – I asked my parents, my friends’ parents, and some of my teachers if they’d seen it and what they remembered about it. I gleaned very little.
Then, I found a paperback edition of the Richard Hooker novel/memoir, M*A*S*H, that had inspired Robert Altman’s 1970 film, bought it, and read it. I don’t remember much about it anymore, except that at the time I read it I was puzzled because it didn’t really seem like it had an Alan Alda-esque antiwar-movement soul. I think that in fact it did not – if memory serves, Richard Hooker was a pseudonym for an actual surgeon-veteran who served in Korea and who mainly wanted to write a memoir about the zany absurdist adventures that he and other medical personnel experienced during the war. I think the book did do a lot to portray some of the “futility-of-war” themes that also made it into the movie and the TV show, and it did so by presenting its readers with the insanely contradictory situation of doctors – people trained to heal wounds and prevent death – being put into service doing emergency repair work on healthy young men who, if healed, would often then be sent back out to get blown to bits again or else blow other human beings to bits. But I’m pretty sure it was not taking a political stand against the US decision to fight in Korea, or Vietnam. If I’m wrong, apologies to the author.Continue reading “M*A*S*H (the movie – 1970) and me”