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June 19, 2000
How the Korean 'War came to TV land 20 years late
By ROGER ANDERSON Scripps Howard News Service
When it comes to entertainment, the Korean War was nothing like World War II.
The Big One wasn't even over before Hollywood started inundating the public with war-related film "product."
Never mind "over" - a WWII movie like "Casablanca" was actually filmed before the United States had even entered the war.
WWII movies appeared on screens all during the time the conflict was raging, and following VE and VJ days they kept coming in a stream that hasn't abated yet, although it has ebbed and flowed.
Not so Korea and Vietnam - traumas that raised far more ambivalent, difficult feelings than the War against Hitler.
No movies or dramatic TV shows were made about Vietnam till the conflict was over, with the sole exception of "The Green Berets," starring John Wayne, and that says it all.
Officially, what transpired in Korea wasn't even a "war," so perhaps it's small wonder that Hollywood - so quick to batten on anything unequivocal, so perplexed by anything else, couldn't figure out what to do with the material, although a small handful of mostly unremarkable Korea-themed movies did find their way to theaters in the'5Os.
But it wasn't until 1969, 16 years after the cessation of hostilities, that a former combat surgeon writing under the pseudonym Richard D. Hooker published a wartime satirical novel titled "M*A*S*H," patently inspired by the wild goings-on in Joseph Heller's "Catch 22," a WWII novel that was really about the McCarthyite '5Os.
Entertainment history was made when Robert Altman got the assignment to turn the Korean War story of "M*A*S*H" - an acronym for "Mobile Army Surgical Hospital" - into a movie that, as it turned out, was really about Vietnam, complete with hirsute, hedonistic heroes.
The film - rambunctious and anarchic in the extreme - was an unlooked-for success, making the next step inevitable: a "M*A*S*H" TV series.
To anyone familiar with the series who hasn't seen the movie it was based on, Altman's film may come as a shock.
In the series, the protagonists are anti-authoritarian but decent guys who are fond of women and gin martinis but are chiefly motivated by a desire to do the right thing. As the series continued, becoming ever more successful and beloved, the characters became ever more humane and lovable.
In the movie, the same characters are outright destructive drunks who leave mayhem and confusion in their wake, just barely managing to help out the less fortunate almost as an afterthought and meting out truly sadistic treatment to the Frank Burns and Margaret Houlihan characters.
Altman's angry outburst against the reality of Vietnam was thus transformed by TV producers into a liberal reflection on war's inhumanity tricked out with adorable characters, all suitable for living-room companionship and top ratings.
A major irony is that the series ran for 11 years, while the war it supposedly was based on was over in three.
An even bigger irony is that the series wasn't, after all, really about Korea. It was about Vietnam, a war that ended in 1975, while "M*A*S*H" was topping the Nielsens, and wouldn't get its own TV series until "China Beach" went on the air - in 1987.
Roger Anderson is arts and entertainment editor at Scripps Howard News
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