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M*A*S*H: Goodbye, Farewell and Amen

M*A*S*H: Goodbye, Farewell and Amen
20th Century Fox
Review by: Larry Thomas

Sometimes, popular entertainment can transcend time and place, and connect with just about everyone. Such is the case with M*A*S*H. The dark comedy began life as a book. Then it was transformed into an immensely popular movie. And was followed by an even bigger hit on television running eleven seasons from 1972 to 1983. Today, February 28th, is the anniversary of the final episode of M*A*S*H on CBS. The two and a half hour finale managed to draw the largest television audience up to that time. Granted, cable was in its infancy, home video was barely getting warmed up, we didn’t have nine hundred channels of infomercials, and weekly series television was still one of the most popular things on the planet. The A.C. Nielsen Company, which measures television ratings, estimated the audience for the final episode as 77% of all viewers in the US. That’s almost inconceivable in our current era of multi-fractured media, with more choices available than anyone ever dreamed. Also amazing is that this series, which veered from comedy to drama to dark humor, was set in the historical period of the Korean War, yet still managed to have such wide appeal. Part of this likely stems from the perception that despite being set more than a decade earlier, M*A*S*H was an allegory about the Vietnam War.

Former MASH surgeon Richard Hooker, who based most of his tales on the experiences of colleagues during the war, wrote the book. It was published in 1968, and was popular enough to encourage a sequel M*A*S*H Goes to Maine. In no short order, 20th Century Fox optioned the screen rights and turned out one of the most memorable films of the 1970s that gave life to the careers of the many unknowns involved. Robert Altman was the director; the cast included Elliot Gould, Donald Sutherland, Tom Skerrit and Robert Duvall. The dialogue was frank and funny, although the film had moments of drama and poignancy. Even funnier, M*A*S*H became a huge hit in drive-in theatres, playing on a double bill with Patton, two war films that couldn’t be more polar opposites. Fox tried to follow up their unexpected hit with a sequel based on the second book, but it went nowhere fast. Instead they decided to see how these stories might fare as a television series. For once, someone made a correct decision.

Despite being an over-the-air broadcast series, M*A*S*H was still rather frank, quite funny, and had a long list of endearing characters. It was an instant sensation. The only member of the movie cast to make the transition was Gary Burghoff as Radar O’Reilly. Alan Alda and Wayne Rogers replaced Gould and Sutherland, and the rest of the TV company included Loretta Swit, Jamie Farr, McLean Stevenson, Harry Morgan and Mike Farrell. As with any series with that kind of longevity, there were cast and character changes along the way, but the popularity never wavered. When it came time to pull the plug on this military hospital, Americans everywhere rallied around their televisions to create broadcast history.

And there was one other component to segue from the movie to TV series: CBS used an instrumental version of the original theme, which, with lyrics, was titled “Suicide Is Painless.” The song was just as melancholy yet funny as the rest of the film. Too bad it was shorn of its impact for television purposes.

Since everything under the sun is being remade these days, it seems as if M*A*S*H might be ripe for resurrection… either as a feature film, or a cable series. Who knows?


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