This is arguably Alan Alda's most controversial M*A*S*H opinion

Does the movie or TV pilot best capture the spirit of the novel? For many, that depends on what happens in the operating room. Hawkeye has a hot take.

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When the M*A*S*H movie premiered in 1970, critics breathlessly forecasted it would snag every Oscar nomination.

And it did. That year, it was nominated for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actress, Best Film Editing, and Best Screenplay.

After the statuettes were doled out, the movie would only come home with that last one, which you could consider a nod to how the success of M*A*S*H was inextricably tied to how unique the writing was.

In 1970, The Hollywood Reporter said in its review, "The picture will make a fortune," despite some of its most off-putting scenes, including bloody operating room cringe-fests where surgeons are depicted acting rashly. Their critic explained:

"While the point of the comedy requires that much of it be played against some gory backgrounds of emergency field surgery, only a negligible portion of the potential audience is apt to be offended. Nor, in context, will the language of M*A*S*H greatly offend."

Roger Ebert said it was precisely how off-putting these surgical scenes were that made the movie M*A*S*H so funny.

"One of the reasons M*A*S*H is so funny is that it's so desperate," Ebert wrote. "It is set in a surgical hospital just behind the front lines in Korea, and it is drenched in blood. The surgeons work rapidly and with a gory detachment, sawing off legs and tying up arteries, and making their work possible by pretending they don't care. And when they are at last out of the operating tent, they devote their lives to remaining sane."

That’s why when it came time to do the TV show, some critics became alarmed to hear the TV version’s leading men like Wayne Rogers and Alan Alda downplaying the need for gruesome surgeries in interviews leading up to the premiere.

"Recent conversations with these gentlemen leads to suspicions this will be a very bloodless and respectable M*A*S*H, with a seal of approval on its safe approach to life, death and the mobile army surgical hospital," wrote one critic wearily for The Akron Beacon Journal in 1972.

However, just like the movie, the TV show succeeded on the strength of its writing, and early on, M*A*S*H TV writer Larry Gelbart defended the way the TV pilot strove to stay true to the spirit of the book within the confines of network TV’s more constricting standards when it came to all that gore.

"There’s one area in which we can’t make the movie or book: The painful surgery scenes," Gelbart told the Journal. "It’s that television cannot, or will not, show the sickening face of war – not in a program labeled 'entertainment.' Certainly not as black comedy."

Gelbart thought the TV pilot found the perfect middle ground.

He even went so far as to say that the TV pilot "more closely followed the spirit of the Hooker novel than did the movie."

But while Gelbart somewhat deflected from explaining how M*A*S*H was better, Alda unleashed what might be his most controversial M*A*S*H opinion in the same interview.

He argued critics like Ebert were dead wrong about how necessary those painful surgery scenes really were.

"I would like it (the series) to be as funny as the movie and poke holes in the same things," Alda said. "But I don’t think anything was gained by the film being totally abrasive. That’s what we would like to avoid."

For Alda, it wasn’t important that the audience be clenching their teeth in pain watching horrifying fast-paced decision-making lead to stunning life-saving recoveries.

For the critics who watched the pilot expecting to be grimly disappointed in the lack of gore, this seemed a hard pill to swallow when anticipating what the TV show would look like.

The Journal critic especially did not agree with Alda’s opinion, writing: "Well, M*A*S*H was-is a story of young men for whom war and the military are totally abrasive and they respond in kind. If Gelbart, Alda, et al, don’t understand that, they don’t understand why people stood in line to see the film."

Of course, Alda and Gelbart proved all these critics, even Ebert, wrong. After the TV show debuted, it was promptly nominated for eight Emmys, including Outstanding Comedy Series, Outstanding Directorial Achievement, and, for Gelbart, a nomination for Outstanding Writing Achievement, specifically for the M*A*S*H TV pilot.

Gelbart understood the TV show had captured that magic in the novel before any TV critic could know to predict how well the TV show M*A*S*H would work:

"We got an overwhelming feeling when the affiliates saw the pilot film that it reflects the movie and is a continuation," Gelbart said.

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TheresaPerry 33 months ago
MASH was and still is a great tv series. However, I don't think there has been 1 week when at least 3 episodes of the program have not be shown on SOME tv station. I frankly don't know of any other show that has been on television, even LUCY, as much. There are other classic shows that do not get nearly as much play-time. I would certainly like a change. Give it a rest.
Lucy is seen far more in reruns, and so is Gilligan's Island (more repetitions) as it only has 98 episodes. Lucy had 179, not counting the one-hour episodes after the 1951-57 half-hour episodes. MASH had a whopping 251, that includes the 2 and 1/2-hour finale.
srrainwater 33 months ago
I believe the film captured the novel better than the show. But there are moments in the film that reflect the 70s. Just my opinion, the film is a anti Vietnam taking place in Korea
Ron1951 33 months ago
'Forecasted" is not a word. It's "forecast." Nice article.
dangler1907 34 months ago
I have a lot of respect for Alda, but his analysis of MASH is weak. Yes, we DO need abrasive, ugly, bloodsoaked images of war, because they define war. Klinger wearing a dress doesn't. And yes, those who must participate in war DO sometimes act like humans instead of killing machines, so interspersed moments of laughter during chaos make perfect sense. The movie portrayed war as humans know it. The TV MASH was a sitcom, and nothing more. Sorry Alan.
Randall dangler1907 33 months ago
To me, MASH has always been about the human spirit overcoming adversity more than war being horrible . Do not get me wrong, war is HORRIBLE, and sometimes inevitable. There is pointless misery and suffering that happens. What I like seeing is the success stories of people surviving and coming home to build new lives, forever changed, hopefully a little wiser and creating a society less apt to consume itself in anger. I will always be grateful to MASH for shaping my views on this subject from a young age!
teethclenched dangler1907 33 months ago
I agree with your comment, but when MASH premiered in the early '70s--and yeah, I will say things have got better--but back then it was a miracle that this show was able to get on the air. And don't forget, that first year it was always on the verge of cancellation, ratings were dire. Props to CBS for staying with it!
Sooner 34 months ago
I don't believe Alda proved anybody wrong. The TV show was shallow pap, emotionalism posing as edgy intellectualism. The movie was was like an ICBM missile, and the TV show like a BB gun, as far as depicting the horror of war. Sorry to insult all you fans of the TV show. I know lots like it, but I never could watch more than a few episodes, and still can't.
Zip 34 months ago
Any movie that was remade for tv was almost always less graphic and gritty. I can't believe these entertainment critics couldn't realize that.
OldTVfanatic Zip 34 months ago
There’s a basic reason for that: money.
Pacificsun 34 months ago
Any article MeTV does on MASH is thought-provoking!

Here are the key quotes:

One of the reasons M*A*S*H is so funny is that it's so desperate.

[War is ] totally abrasive and [ men ] respond in kind. If [ the producers ] don’t understand that, they don’t understand why people stood in line to see the film.

Alda said. "But I don’t think anything was gained by the film being totally abrasive. That’s what we would like to avoid."

Except in his case, turned out to be the exactly the reverse. After all, who put through some of the most edgy episodes of the series??

I’d say, Gelbart and Alda bailed in the beginning. Not sure if they truly didn’t understand. Or if (like Roddenberry) they were saying anything (to the network and to the public) in order to get that show on the air!

Which proved (in the end) to be much more than they honestly expected, and are very grateful for it having turned out that way!

MASH certainly does have "gory" enough (and macabre thinking) in it, but always to the point of making an impact! Their goal, is to put the viewer into the place of those who served AND saved.

What could be a more diametric point of view??
AngelP 34 months ago
I love MASH and watch the reruns every night!
AngelP 34 months ago
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Andybandit 34 months ago
I liked Mash after Frank, Trapper, and Henry left the show.
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ELEANOR Andybandit 34 months ago
Speaking of Henry, McLean Stevenson was just playing himself. He's so sweet.
mrdoolin Andybandit 34 months ago
MadMadMadWorld AnnieM 31 months ago
What do you think Frank Burns was doing with Margaret Houlihan? Playing tiddlywinks in her tent? He was also cheating on his wife. At least Capt. Pierce (Alan Alda) was a single men, so if he found a nurse who wasn't married, (bet that some were, though!), at least he was not a cheater! Can't say the same for the married Trapper John.
AnnieM MadMadMadWorld 31 months ago
But Frank Burns was an a-hole, it was to be expected! Best thing they ever did was when they married off then divorced Margaret, and gave the character some real growth.
Andybandit 34 months ago
I love Mash, it needed to be funny because of the stuff going on during war. You need some humor.
ELEANOR Andybandit 34 months ago
You have to remember that MASH was originally on during the Vietnam War. Young men were being drafted, there were massive anti-war protests, Nixon had the White House surrounded by Metro buses to protect the White House from protesters. Some men were burning their draft cards. Nobody even knew why we were over there. And it was a television war, as there was the body count on the nightly news. And then there was MASH. The humor was spot on.
Ron1951 ELEANOR 33 months ago
We were there for LBJ's cronies to make billions.
calvinbscott Ron1951 33 months ago
Are you thinking about Vietnam? “M*A*S*H” was about the Korean War. In 1950, LBJ had just been elected as a U.S. Senator from Texas who later became the minority whip. He didn’t even run for the presidency until 1960, about seven years after the U.S. withdrawal from Korea. LBJ was no saint, but he had nothing to do with Korea.
MadMadMadWorld Ron1951 31 months ago
BINGO! You win the GRAND PRIZE on what I later found out was the REAL reason for the illegal (no Congressional Declaration of War against N. Vietnam by both House and Senate, as required by the Constitution), and obvious immoral war--not one for self-defense of the U.S. itself!
But he had EVERYTHING to do with starting the ground war (Mar. 8, 1965 ordering regular army and marine units to S. Vietnam) and the 58,000+ deaths, hundreds of thousands wounded or hooked on drugs, and the most divisive and illegal war in the 20th Century!
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bdettlingmetv 34 months ago
@Michael - yes, the book was a best seller prior to the film. OldTVfanatic (great handle BTW) makes a good point, but I don't quite agree. The pacing was wildly uneven, but that's the nature of an 'episodic' or 'anecdotal' story line. Some of the elements were fun like the whole Hot Lips thing, and the 'pros from Dover' (I still use that phrase) which defined The Swampers approach to their circumstances and their way of dealing with it. Some things were never going to make it to the film or show (the 'epileptic whore') comes to mind. Anyway, I thought it was pretty entertaining when I read it, but will admit that it was something like 35-40 years ago. Although it obviously made an impression on me all those years ago, it might not hold up as well with a second read.
AnnieM 34 months ago
I think as far as scarcity goes, I think that a lot of those books must have literally fell apart due to age. I go to a lot of rummage sales, estate sales, etc, and I can't tell you the last time I saw a James Bond paperback, for example. 20-some years ago, I always saw at least one or two at every sale I went to.
mrdoolin 34 months ago
Laugh tracks are annoying & insulting!
Coldnorth 30 months ago
I agree. Laugh tracks annoy me too
harlow1313 34 months ago
I have always felt that the football game in the movie version greatly weakens the impact.

I like the television show at times, but the camaraderie and laughs are such that the dreadful circumstances look rewarding, almost fun. I realize that a weekly show can't be overwhelmingly bleak (realism). For me, M*A*S*H could have ended after four seasons, and looked much stronger.

Note: I have not read the novel.
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JHP Wilbur88 34 months ago
in the words of Lou Grant "nice caboose" :)
JHP 34 months ago
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bdettlingmetv harlow1313 34 months ago
harlow1313- totally agree with your take on the football game. It was clearly a time-filler in the movie. It certainly did not drive the plot forward to justify the amount of screen time it got. It's been decades since I read the book but I seem to remember that it wasn't a huge element of the overall story in the first place.
OldTVfanatic harlow1313 34 months ago
I wouldn’t recommend reading the original MASH novel.
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