Battle Circus: Template for M*A*S*H?

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Stumbled on this one on TCM recently, and my jaw dropped. Battle Circus (1952) is not just one of the few Korean War films ever made by Hollywood, but it is one of the even fewer contemporaneous Hollywood films about the subject AND it is all about life in a Mobile Army Surgical Hospital. I find it impossible to conceive that Robert Altman, both a scholar of  war films and a veteran director of the tv show Combat, didn’t just know but studied this film in preparation for M*A*S*H (1970).

Apart from being in black and white, the film looks exactly the same. Granted, both films were carefully researched and share a common source material. And Richard Hooker (Richard Hornberger) wrote the novel M*A*S*H (1968) based on real experiences. But still, it’s uncanny to experience nonetheless. The settings: the mess tent, the operating tent, the bubble copters, the jeeps, the jokey hand-painted signage are all extremely familiar at this point.

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What also resonates are the characters. Major Jed Webb (Humphrey Bogart), a surgeon with the 8666th MASH is a maverick, an undisciplined but heroic guy who plays by his own rules. He’s vastly more macho than any recognizable M*A*S*H character and he sees a great deal more action, but fans will recognize his ethic of placing the Hippocratic oath and common-sense practicality above army bureaucracy. Webb falls for a nurse, Lt. Ruth McGara (June Allyson), a sort of idealistic, straight arrow, not unlike “Hot Lips”.  Keenan Wynn plays the token enlisted man, not too much like Radar, but superhumanly indispensable nonetheless. An interesting revelation: I used to think of Mike Farrell’s mustache on the tv show as extremely ahistorical; Wynn’s ‘stache in this film is not terribly different from Farrell’s.

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Stuff we associate with the tv series pops up…a “bug out”, caring for Korean orphan children, dodging snipers. Above all, drinking, hooking up, and operating on people…before drinking and hooking up again!

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