Somewhere in the USA's collective subconscious is the haunting melody to the song 'Suicide is Painless' by Johnny Mandel and Mike Altman. This melody calls to mind images of medical evacuation helicopters, khaki-coloured tents and camouflage gear, and a large 'M*A*S*H 4077' sign. It was the opening song to the series MASH1, a dry-humoured medical comedy programme set in the Korean War, popular in the 1980s.
MASH stands for Mobile Army Surgical Hospital. To anyone who has been to war, MASH designates a place one doesn't want to visit2. Some know the series came years after a movie with the same title (and theme song), and a few know the movie was based on a novel by Dr Richard Hooker, who based the book on his experiences in the Korean War.
The novel was a composite sketch by the author of various characters and events he either experienced or heard rumours about during his Korean War days. It focuses around two army surgeons, 'Hawkeye' Benjamin Franklin Pierce and the Duke, who lived in a tent that they called the Swamp. The Swampmen were soon joined by 'Trapper' John McIntyre, who completed a trio of outspoken, skilled and very unmilitary military surgeons. The book traces their various exploits between the arrival of Hawkeye and Duke until their voyage home after serving their tour of duty.
As a major motion picture, MASH was a definite success. It was here that we were introduced to the song 'Suicide is Painless3'. Donald Sutherland played Hawkeye, Elliot Gould played Trapper, and Robert Duvall played the back-stabbing, adulterous sky pilot surgeon Major Frank Burns. The movie followed several storylines from the book, namely Painless the Dentist's suicide, Hawkeye and Trapper's trip to Tokyo to operate on a congressman's son and the football game.
The TV Series
The TV Series was the most successful incarnation of MASH. It starred Alan Alda as Hawkeye, Loretta Swit as the passionate and very military Major Margaret 'Hotlips' Hoolihan, Larry Linville as the notorious Major Frank Burns, Wayne Rodgers as 'Trapper' John, and Gary Burghoff reprising his role as 'Radar' O'Reily from the film. Because the series ran for over a decade4, characters were better developed than either of the forms that came before. Some characters dropped out and often were replaced by new characters, such as the substitution of Captain BJ Hunnicutt (Mike Farrell) for Trapper, and Major Charles Emerson Winchester III (David Ogden Stiers) for Major Burns. By far the most colourful character added to the TV series was Corporal Max Klinger (Jamie Farr), a clerk who habitually dressed in women's clothing to get out of the army on a section 85.
Everyone has their own opinion on which is better, the book, the movie or the series. Regardless, the idea remains the same: humanity is priceless and war is awful. Despite the delightful comedy that flows through MASH we never forget the pain and suffering of the war around them. The fact that these horrendous casualties are what prompts these doctors to their often insane antics is as clear as the blood on Hawkeye's surgical scrubs.