In the wonderful job I have with Crikey I’ve met, spoken to, interviewed, dined and drunk with some of the most famous and influential people in recent Australian history. But there’s only one encounter I ever boast about: I got to ask Alan Alda a question once at the National Press Club.

OK, I overcomplicated the question and confused him, but damn it, I asked a question of Hawkeye himself. And that’s one to tell the grandkids, assuming they know what the hell I’m talking about. Because I’m a M*A*S*H addict.

Is there a sadder, more white male confession to make than that M*A*S*H is one of the lodestars of my being? That this show has always exerted, and will always exert, an extraordinary pull on me? That I continue to religiously watch a ’70s TV program in 2016, a program that must be, in all seriousness, past its 30th rerun — one in which, as happened just a few months ago, the series pilot plays again the night after the finale? One night Hawk, BJ, Colonel Potter, Klinger, Father Mulcahy and Margaret Houlihan are tearfully farewelling each other, the next it’s Hawk, Trapper, Henry Blake, Radar, Hotlips and Frank, Spearchucker(!) and the original Mulcahy (George Morgan, one episode only) struggling in the rather tone-deaf pilot — though the second episode, about Henry’s desk, is an instant classic.

To even know the cast differences is to out myself as a M*A*S*H nerd, and I’m all that and more: I can relate, exhaustively and exhaustingly, not just who came and went but how the characters changed — how Radar went from being the omniscient, sexually experienced, martini-quaffing real power behind the throne (pretty much his movie character) to a virginal teen unable to touch alcohol, how Hotlips, a venomously sexist creation of both the original author, Richard Hooker (apt nom de plume alert), and the movie, evolved into an actual person, mainly at the hands of Loretta Swit, with some help from Alan Alda, the iconic male feminist of the ‘70s. How Ugly John, and Spearchucker, and Boon, General Hammond and Nurse Dish (played by the mind-bogglingly beautiful Karen Philipp), and other characters from the movie appeared and vanished.

Yep, I’m an addict, and I don’t care who knows it.

It’s partly the dialogue — storylines were repeated several times over the course of 11 seasons (Hawkeye goes nuts, Hawkeye stuffs the payroll up, a celebrity is visiting or might be visiting, everyone pranks each other, Flagg or Sidney show up), but the dialogue was always crisp and fresh, and delivered brilliantly by an ensemble of outstanding comic actors. Alda had the best lines because he had the best timing: he was born and raised in vaudeville — his father (guest star in two episodes) was a stage performer before securing a studio contract, and Alda literally grew up hearing how to deliver jokes perfectly from professional comics. But Swit and Larry Linville (incidentally, apparently an engineer of genius) had remarkable comic chemistry, Maclean Stevenson (the focus of perhaps the greatest gut-punch moment in TV history) essentially played himself , and you can see, even in the first season, why Jamie Farr’s Klinger would eventually be promoted to a regular — a rare case of a character most effective in small doses being allowed to broaden successfully.

In one late episode, “No Sweat”, it’s a stinking hot night and the only one sleeping is Colonel Potter, who has taken a sedative, but he must be roused successively by the others to carry out various pointless tasks. Harry Morgan delivers a comedy masterclass that’s still hilarious 35 years on and Farr — by then promoted to company clerk after Gary Burghoff left — deftly acts as sidekick and straight man throughout. The writing, and the performances, were never anything other than superb — an astonishing achievement over 11 seasons of 20-odd episodes each.

Honestly, I prefer the first three seasons with Trap and (especially) Henry; the tone is more anarchic and closer in spirit to the movie, albeit grossly sanitised; there was more filming on location rather than in the 20th Century Fox studio, and the sense of real life intruding that Altman had captured in the movie occasionally reappeared — characters tripped over in the mud, not for laughs, but because the actors stumbled, the camp actually feels like an army base with scores of people milling about, not the rather limited set it became in later seasons. And Radar is better as the smart operator behind the scenes rather than the teddy bear-clutching dweeb he became (at Burghoff’s request).

I watched M*A*S*H throughout my childhood — 7pm every weeknight on Ten, for as long as I can remember. It was only many years later that I realised I was absorbing much more than masterclasses in comic timing and character-based dramedy. At the core of M*A*S*H was a powerful idea about white male privilege: that talent justifies misbehaviour. Right from the pilot, when Hawk and Trap are threatened with arrest only to be saved by an incoming batch of wounded on whom they demonstrate their remarkable surgical talent, the abiding theme of the show was that, if you were brilliant, you could get away with virtually anything — insubordination, sexual harassment (toned down dramatically as the series went on), disrespect, assault, as long as you were gifted at your job.

This was a privilege only of white males, however. In a way it was appropriate that Spearchucker — an important character in the books and movie — was written out in the first season (ostensibly because the writers learnt no African-American doctor had served in Korea) because an African-American engaging in such persistent anti-social behaviour, overt sexuality and insubordination as we saw from Hawkeye and co would have seemed more a threat than a hero.

And if, like me, you lived in a capital city, you could have this message reinforced if you watched another iconic show, Doctor Who, which for much of the same period screened at 6.30, so you could watch back-to-back stories of brilliant white males — Tom Baker, Alan Alda — who were allowed to behave eccentrically and even offensively because they were geniuses and could save lives. This was put to good use, of course — Hawkeye/the Doctor didn’t just save lives, they supported good, progressive causes. Hawk and Trap/Beej battled racism, homophobia, militarism, authoritarianism — even, as Alda’s influence on M*A*S*H became dominant, sexism. But you knew when the wounded (or the Daleks) rolled in and the pressure was on, they had the skills to save the day and all would pay homage to them afterwards, no matter how bad their behaviour.

Believe me, it was heady stuff for a kid who, to use the parlance of those years, had been labelled “gifted” and thus felt entitled to act eccentrically, doubtless to the eternal annoyance of his classmates.

But while the TV series diluted and channelled the “talent justifies misbehaviour” trope in nice, liberal directions, the movie by Robert Altman was an altogether different creature. I was allowed to watch it on TV in the 1970s (Bill Collins’ Golden Years of Hollywood!) after years of watching the series, and it was a complete mindfuck, the nearest thing to a literal experience of Freud’s Uncanny I would ever undergo. This movie was called M*A*S*H (actually, MASH), it sounded and looked like M*A*S*H, it had the same characters as M*A*S*H, and even some of the same actors, but it was very definitely not M*A*S*H. We weren’t in South Korea anymore, Dorothy. In fact, we weren’t even in the same fucking universe.

Right from the opening titles (which were remade shot-for-shot for the TV show) the tone was very different, far bleaker, because of the depressed teenager/war poet lyrics of Suicide is Painless that played over the credits, whereas the TV show steadfastly refused to ever use the lyrics, sticking with Johnny Mandel’s famous tune. And while the movie ends with a jolly football game and Hawkeye and Duke heading home, the bleakness never disappears: Ho Jon the houseboy — another character written out in the first season of the TV show — is not merely drafted by the South Korean Army despite Hawkeye’s resistance, in scenes that were scripted, shot and appear in the film but which are never explained, he suffers a terrible fate. He returns to the 4077 as a wounded patient, Trapper and Hawkeye operate on him (“we gotta shoot craps, Hawkeye”) but are unable to save him. That’s why, right near the end in an otherwise mysterious scene, Altman’s camera is lured away from a card game to a corpse being put into a jeep and driven off. In the script, it is Ho-Jon, and none of the characters want to look at it because they feel responsible for his death.

But white male privilege comes through far more powerfully in Altman’s film, which at times resembles an extended documentary on institutional abuse by powerful males. Hawkeye and Trapper invade a Tokyo hospital, terrify an African-American female officer and make sexist remarks about the nurses while declaring themselves — iconically — “the pros from Dover”, and get away with it because Trapper is the best chest cutter in the Asian theatre; when that doesn’t work, they simply blackmail the offending senior officer.

And take the fates of Frank and Margaret in the movie. Frank, whom we are shown as being incompetent and an active danger to his patients, is goaded by Hawkeye, attacks him and is taken away in a straitjacket, presumably to be discharged and sent home (“if I bang Hotlips and deck Hawkeye can I go home too, Henry?” Duke asks Blake). But the Regular Army disciplinarian Margaret, whom the surgeons acknowledge to be an excellent nurse, must be punished for her pretensions to authority, which is plainly at odds with the gang’s understanding of gender roles. She is stripped and sexually humiliated before the entire camp, has her complaints dismissed by Henry and his commanding officer, the football-obsessed General Hammond, and then is turned by the script into a bimbo who becomes Duke’s lover and “one of the boys”, delightedly sitting on Duke’s knee at the final card game. Hotlips — tamed and subordinated at last.

The only progressivism in the movie comes with the treatment of Spearchucker, shown as a smart footballer and smarter neurosurgeon who just happens to be African-American; when Duke complains about the presence of an African-American in the Swamp, Hawk and Trap push him over. In contrast, the entire Painless Pole story is a study in homophobia: Painless — who is called “Pole” for reasons more to do with his anatomy than his ethnicity — is convinced he has become “a fairy” and decides he must take his own life; Hawkeye encourages him (brilliantly staged by Altman as Leonardo’s Last Supper) and then tricks him; Painless is, in effect, restored to life by the love of a good woman — and one, presumably, undeterred by his Brobdingnagian member.

But when the series ended 13 years later, it was a different era — it was no longer Nixon’s but Reagan’s America — and a different story with a much older cast. In the final episode, written and directed by Alda, it is the men who are, one by one, broken and humiliated. Only Colonel Potter, the wise, tolerant patriarch, is allowed a dignified exit, riding off into the sunset on his beloved horse. That pillar of the Boston establishment, Charles Emerson Winchester III, gets the position he wants but has his love of music destroyed forever. Klinger, having sought to escape Korea for so long, has to remain with his new bride to search for her parents. Father Mulcahy is deafened by an artillery shell. BJ finds himself unable to say goodbye. And Hawkeye has another breakdown, this time a major one, and he is clearly unwell at the end despite the ministrations of series-long shrink Sidney.

Maybe that’s the sort of lesson that white males — like me — understand only as we get older, our bodies start faltering and our minds start malfunctioning: privilege can help you hold out against what the world throws at you, but it provides no help at all from what’s lurking inside your head.

Decades later, watching the show is primarily an exercise in nostalgia: the writing is brilliant, the performances wonderful, the whole show remains drum-tight and perfectly paced decades on. But now it’s reminder of being a kid, of 7pm on a weeknight in the 1970s and early ’80s, of knowing there was school tomorrow and homework due, but for half an hour you could immerse yourself in, as Ten’s ads always rendered it, “those madcap medicos of M*A*S*H”. And nostalgia, however unproductive, can be helpful for dealing with what lurks inside your head.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
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