“Long before M*A*S*H, there was Battle Circus. Made during the Korean War, this tribute to the indomitable human spirit takes an authentic, almost documentary-like look at the nurses and doctors who operated in the battlefront Mobile Army Surgical Hospitals. Major Jed Webbe (Humphrey Bogart) is a brilliant, hard-bitten Army surgeon with a weakness for women and strong liquor. Fresh from the states arrives Lt. Ruth McCara (June Allyson), a naive young nurse ready to the save the world. The story of their love and heroism, told against the grimly realistic background of funding artillery and deadly ambushes, forms the core of the film. The title Battle Circus comes from the way the mobile field units can strike their tents, move to a new battle area, then set them up again like circus roustabouts in nothing flat. And, like circus daredevils, these heroes risk life and death on a daily basis.”
This description graces the back of my DVD copy of Battle Circus. When I heard that there was a movie set during the Korean War at a MASH unit that predated Robert Altman’s MASH, I had to check it out. This film was released in 1953 which, as the description states, was during the war itself. In the past, I have looked at a book released during the war, Back Down the Ridge, and it was really well done. So how does a film set at a MASH unit made during the Korean War hold up?
Before discussing the movie, I’d like to highlight an item from my collection. This Battle Circus press kit was sent to publications to promote the film before its release on March 6, 1953. The kit contains information for editors including descriptions of the film, biographies of the cast, and pre-made advertisements that could be printed. What is interesting is that there is additional information about MASH units and the work that doctors and nurses were performing in those units during the war. Unlike a traditional war film where the front-line soldiers are featured, Battle Circus focused on the medical staff charged with treating their wounds.
This was a very interesting take on a “war movie” especially since the war was raging on. A newspaper editor could get multiple stories out of the material in this press kit, including a story about MASH units. After watching the movie, I noticed that the opening credits list two “technical advisors” to the movie: Lt. Col. K. E. Van Buskirk and Lt. Mary Couch. Based on some quick research, I discovered that Lt. Col. Van Buskirk was the commander of the 8076th MASH in Korea (I couldn’t find anything on Lt. Couch, but I would assume she was a MASH nurse). This explains the accuracy I noticed in the movie…but I am getting ahead of myself. This press kit highlighted MASH units as much as it did the film, and I found that to be very telling about the message that the filmmakers were hoping Battle Circus would convey.
The central story in the film is a love story between Army surgeon Major Jed Webbe (Humphrey Bogart) and a new nurse, Lieutenant Ruth McCara (June Allyson). It is the typical “guy gets the girl” story, but it is set against a MASH unit. Major Webbe is flawed with a complicated back story and struggles with alcohol while Lt. McCara is looking for true love instead of a fling. The story is fine, but the portrayal of a MASH unit is a “co-star” in the movie and is really well done.
The film opens showing the sign for MASH 8666 (which is nearly identical to the sign for the real 8076th MASH in Korea) and then has a great opening quote, “This is a story about the indomitable human spirit — It takes place in Korea.” The opening scene of the film itself will be familiar to all M*A*S*H fans as it is a Bell 47 flying into the MASH unit. We see the unit from overhead, and again, it is very accurate to how a MASH unit was laid out. It is even more accurate than the unit portrayed in the series. A MASH unit would not have permeant buildings. Everything was done in tents so it would be easy to move. In fact, that is how the movie gets its name, from the constant moving of the unit and tents, like a circus.
Shortly after meeting our two main characters, the MASH unit moves, or bugs out. The nurses say that they had only been in that spot for four days and are upset to be moving yet again. This is accurate, especially early on in the war (1950-51), when the front moved fairly often. The dedication of Major Webbe to the wounded is constant throughout the film, as is the importance of the nurses. Nothing is taken for granted in a MASH unit, and everyone works together to care for whoever needs assistance. The severe weather (rain, wind, cold, and heat) is also highlighted. It is clear that a real MASH surgeon and commanding officer advised the movie, and I would argue that it makes it better. I would classify this movie as historical fiction and can even draw parallels to James Cameron’s Titanic in that it is a love story that takes place during a historical event.
There are several comparisons to M*A*S*H to highlight. In fact, there are a few plot points from the film that show up in the series. For example, the heroic Major Webbe drinks and is seemingly a womanizer (before Lt. McCara arrives), but he is also extremely dedicated and a talented chest surgeon, so he could be compared to Hawkeye in several ways. There is also a scene where an enemy POW is brought in for surgery and still has a grenade on him and threatens to blow up the operating room. He is talked down by Lt. McCara. We see a very similar storyline in “Radar’s Report” (02×03). Other similarities include scenes where they treat locals for various ailments, the struggle with the death of patients, and there is a moment when Major Webbe is too drunk to work. But these were all real issues that doctors and nurses faced in a MASH unit, so it is great to see that a movie made in 1953 explored these themes.
I wasn’t sure how I would feel about this movie when I first learned about its existence. Since it was created so close to the war, I was afraid it would be propaganda, but I was pleasantly surprised. Is there some propaganda element to it, of course. The Army did advise its making, and I am sure they hoped it would inspire some doctors to sign up. While it does not show the horrors of the operating room like the movie or even the series, Battle Circus does do a great job at highlighting the heroism and dedication of the doctors and nurses who served in MASH units in Korea.