From the M*A*S*H Library 18: “The Real M*A*S*H” (Documentary)

What is it?

Lee, Min Sook, dir. The Real M*A*S*H. Toronto, Ontario: Storyline Entertainment, 2012.

Why should M*A*S*H fans care?

This documentary places the series in the context of the Korean War and real MASH units in Korea. The interviews with veterans and their MASH stories make this documentary worthwhile.

As a M*A*S*H fan, what part(s) should I watch?

All of it, but there isn’t anything new revealed about M*A*S*H. I highly recommend watching the documentary to learn more about the Korean War and the role MASH units played.

TL;DR Review

While it does not reveal any new information about the series, The Real M*A*S*H introduces the audience to veterans of MASH units and the Korean War. The Korean War is called “the forgotten war” and this documentary sheds some light on the medical personnel who saved thousands of lives at the front. This is accomplished by tying the real stories into the series and demonstrating how accurate the show could be.

Full Review

This week’s library post is not a book, but a DVD. In 2012, a documentary titled The Real M*A*S*H was released and used the series M*A*S*H to frame the stories of real MASH units in the Korean War. The documentary features several actors from the series, but it features far more real doctors, nurses, helicopter pilots, and soldiers who were wounded to illustrate how real MASH units functioned. While the doctors and nurses in the documentary don’t always agree with what M*A*S*H portrayed, they do talk about the show’s accuracy and appreciate its attention to detail. That is largely due to producers Gene Reynolds and Larry Gelbart’s interviews with real MASH personnel. This documentary highlights an important aspect of a forgotten war.

M*A*S*H was groundbreaking in that it was set during a live war and featured wounded soldiers on an operating table. Some of the storylines were silly, but others were serious and often true. The documentary opens discussing the M*A*S*H series and how it tied in to the Korean War. There is a brief overview of the novel, Richard Hornberger’s son is featured, and the Robert Altman film. The television series is the primary focus, however. Jamie Farr, Gary Burghoff, Loretta Swit, and Reynolds make appearances and discuss the show throughout the documentary. It is great for context and making the connection between the show and real MASH units, but there are not any new M*A*S*H stories here. The focus of the documentary are the true stories of the MASH personnel featured in the film.

The true stories of MASH units is where The Real M*A*S*H really hits its stride. The filmmakers interviewed MASH doctors, nurses, helicopter pilots, corpsmen, and a few soldiers who were wounded and spent time at a MASH. The primary focus is the 8055 MASH, the inspiration for the fictional 4077th and the MASH unit in which Hornberger served, and several veterans of that unit are interviewed. A few of the veterans also consulted for the series, which helped contribute to the realism. The MASH unit constructed in the series is fairly accurate except that none of the buildings would have been permanent. Everything was in tents, including the O.R. This was necessary since the “M” in MASH stood for Mobile, and in the early part of the war, the units moved frequently. The MASH personnel were key to ensuring the accuracy the show runners hoped to convey each week.

The ties between the real 8055 and fictional 4077 take center stage. Who was the real Hawkeye? Was the head nurse anything like Margaret? Were there romances between doctors and nurses? Was there a lot of drinking? Was there a real Klinger? What happened to the character Spearchucker? All of these topics and more are covered, and there are some surprising answers! I was struck by how similar the real MASH units were to the way they were portrayed in the show, especially in the later seasons. There are several true stories that were used in the show such as a POW who was brought into the O.R. armed with a gun (though in the show he had a grenade). The series also portrayed the realities of war by not shying away from death, and death was a part of life in a MASH. Whether it was Hawkeye’s friend in season one or Col. Henry Blake’s death in season three, death played a major role in the series. While M*A*S*H had funny moments, death was part of war and M*A*S*H never shied away from showing both sides of that very human experience.

The Korean War has been dubbed “the forgotten war” because it fell between World War II and the Vietnam War. But the Korean War was the first war in which the military was racially integrated, the first war in which women held high ranks along side men, and the first time MASH units were used for combat surgery. The MASH units were successful due to their location near the front and the dedication of the doctors and nurses who staffed them. The Real M*A*S*H highlights the stories of those who were at MASH units while tying the history to the M*A*S*H television series. The story of MASH units is important in military and American history, and I highly recommend this documentary to all M*A*S*H fans. Sadly, DVDs are no longer available for purchase nor is it currently streaming, but you can pick up used DVDs online.

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