"The Real M*A*S*H is an honest look at the forgotten war. It attempts to put the Korean War into perspective in the same way we on the M*A*S*H television series tried (while also entertaining), to remind the viewers of the true tragedy that the war surely was, especially for those directly caught in the conflict. I applaud their effort and wish them every success in telling the story of the Korean Conflict." - Gary Burghoff
"It was an honor and pleasure to have appeared on the television series "M*A*S*H" and an equal honor and pleasure to have appeared in the documentary "The Real MASH". Two very special moments in my life."
- Jamie Farr
The Real MASH traces the original stories and people that inspired the fictional TV series and feature film about the Korean War. Both pushed buttons on cultural and social frontiers but real life MASH (Mobile Army Surgical Hospital) units were actually more like renegade units onto themselves and early indicators of the social turmoil and tensions that were to unfold later in the USA.
Interviews with MASH actors, including Jamie Farr, Loretta Swit and Gary Burghoff, co-creator Gene Reynolds, surgeons, doctors, nurses, pilots and enlisted men who served in the war blend with dramatic recreations, archival film and rare photographs to tell the true stories behind the MASH entertainment franchise.
M*A*S*H the TV series ran for eleven seasons (1972-1983) and has become one of the most celebrated television series in the history of the medium. The motion picture M*A*S*H (1970), directed by Robert Altman, was one of the most successful films of the decade.
Both the TV series and the film trace their origins to the semi-autobiographical book, 'M*A*S*H' written by Richard Hornberger (who died in 1997) under the penname Richard Hooker. As Willy Hornberger, Richard's son, explains in The Real MASH, it is ironic that the show and the film were interpreted as anti-authoritarian left-wing creeds but the book that started it all off was written by a man with starkly conservative views. Richard Hornberger would later go on to publicly decry the TV series as 'communist dribble' and distance himself from the show's pointed social critiques.
War is infamous for throwing unlikely bedfellows under the same roof. But MASH units pushed those boundaries even further. Female nurses worked on the front-lines for the first time. African-American nurses, surgeons and medics staffed the MASH unit. The make-up of MASH units anticipated wide spread social changes that would shake the status quo back home decades later.
Threaded throughout the book, the film and the TV series were the sexual hijinks between men and women at the MASH units. Our real veterans speak candidly to the reality of the MASH social scene.
The Real MASH brings forward the voices of the surgeons and nurses who staffed the groundbreaking MASH units during the Korean War. MASH units used helicopters as ambulances to taxi the wounded from the frontlines to the MASH operating rooms. The immediacy of the transport and subsequent medical attention insured unprecedented high survival rates. One unit, the 8055th enjoyed a 98% success rate with the cases that flowed through their tents.
The M*A*S*H TV series lasted three times longer than the actual war it portrayed. The Korean War is often referred to as the 'Forgotten War' and even a hit TV series set in that war did little to lift the war from history's shadow. Many fans mistakenly assume the show was set during the Vietnam War. One day, all that may remain in popular memory is the TV show M*A*S*H. Possibly a mistaken rewrite of history for some veterans and for others, a plausible side-account of what truly happened by the 38th Parallel.
When asked how authentic the show was in portraying the reality of life on the frontlines in a medic station, the oft heard response is that, though well researched, the show was entertainment, whereas war was a horror-show.
I grew up watching the TV show MASH without understanding it. I think I'm like most people. It's a show that's both more complicated than it appears and a lot simpler than all that. I think part of its enduring appeal is that the writers and creative talents behind the show were able to lock into universal stories about compassion, integrity and friendship and still make people laugh with sight gags and prankish humour. But what seals the deal are the characters. Hot Lips, Radar, Klinger and of course Hawkeye. These are some of the most unforgettable characters ever created in a fictional universe. MASH created characters that were as sharply defined and as recognizable as eccentric family members and just as compelling. What I didn't anticipate in making the documentary The Real MASH was how compelling the real doctors and nurses of the MASH units in Korea really are.
I had the unique opportunity and privilege to actually get paid to sit and talk to the surviving MASH medical staff and listen to their own stories of what it was really like to work in a mobile army surgical hospital in the frontlines of the Korean War. The people I met, septuagenarians, some into their 80's, carried a richness of life that amazed me. Theirs stories were of the stock of legends. Saving lives, killing boredom, flirting with first loves and bucking authority. No wonder the MASH entertainment franchise has proven so lucrative (the book, the film and the TV show collectively have spawned a cultural chapter of its own). Janie Hall, the stoic nurse who had the thousand yard stare and brought a philosopher's thoughtfulness to her memories; Alvin Blount, the laughing surgeon in North Carolina who broke racial barriers by being one of the first African American doctors in the field; the natural born storyteller Richard Kirkland who flew choppers during the war and continued to fly well into his late 60's (even made an emergency helicopter landing in downtown Chicago to rush his pregnant wife to the hospital!); and the eloquent Melvin Horwitz who wrote daily letters to his wife while stationed as a doctor in the MASH unit. In his own words: 'it was more like butchery than surgery'.
MASH can't help but be inspired and informed by these remarkable people. They lived and worked in close quarters in a war zone that they knew little of and used each other to survive. They formed a family or sorts and built the kind of temporary alliance forged in trauma that holds memories dear six decades later. I didn't realize how important it was for the creators and producers of the TV show MASH to stick close to reality until we interviewed them for the Real MASH. Gene Reynolds (Producer/Director/Writer), Jamie Farr (Klinger), Gary Burghoff (Radar) and Loretta Swit (Hot Lips) all spoke about how the series used stories plumbed from interviews with the veterans to build the fictional world of MASH for TV viewers. Especially in the early seasons, most of the episodes were based on the research provided by the real doctors and nurses. This made me realize how fictional TV stories connect with viewers in their living rooms – by steering closer to reality that fiction. When it comes to gripping drama, larger than life characters and truly funny moments – nothing scripts better than life. I believe part of MASH's success was because it was so damn real. It jolted viewers with a light of recognition.
MASH is known for its politics. The series premiered on American television during the Vietnam War and its creators were unequivocal about using their voice to make a statement about war. For a mainstream political show to be so pointedly political is unusual, especially when you think of television today. It's hard to imagine a searing anti-war sitcom on American television set in the Middle East broadcast during the height of the gulf wars. MASH had guts and many of the creators behind the show were left- wing progressives, some who had been persecuted during the McCarthy years. They wanted the show to mean something. Tracing the roots of the MASH fictional path led me to a great irony about the series. The doctor who wrote the book that started the whole thing rolling, Dr. Richard Hornberger was a deeply conservative man who hated the show and the politics it stood for. It took him eleven years to write the book MASH which he finished writing with the collaboration of a local sportswriter and finally published under the pen name Richard Hooker. It's a slim book, not that well written, based loosely on his experiences as a doctor stationed in a MASH unit during the Korean War. Sexist, racist and American to the core, the book is a jaunt through a few escapades of young doctors stationed in a MASH unit who go 'wild' in the middle of a war they know and care little of in a foreign country. The play pranks, drink to excess, visit prostitutes and carryout some humanitarian surgery on a young orphan. There's little in the book to indicate a mega million dollar cultural franchise would be borne from it.
I can't quite believe how many die-hard MASH fans are out there, not just swarming the Internet but even lurking in my life. Every few weeks another one is uncovered. I will mention I am doing this doc and someone I've known for years will swear 'I love that show!' MASH is President Obama's favourite television show ever. The show has an endearing appeal. Now for a confession. During the whole two years of making this doc I haven't been able to watch one single episode in it's entirety. Producer Ed Barreveld got us the DVD special edition which came with a fancy box and other collectibles. But other than zipping through a particular episode for a scene, I haven't sat down to watch the show. Not once. I can't. I grew up watching MASH. I loved the show, I had a deep school girl crush on Hawkeye (he seemed so sensitive and smart and did I mention sensitive?) and I remember countless afternoons I'd be on the living room floor watching the show. The theme runs like an alternate heartbeat through my blood. But I am deeply conflicted by the show. On an emotional and political level. My father hated the show and would scoff at it but I just dismissed his displeasure as part of his every day orneriness. When I was older and started reading about the Korean War I realized that MASH was set in the Korean War. But I had never known that. All those years watching the show, I never caught on that those helpless Asians that occasionally wandered onscreen were supposed to be Korean. Me! Something like shame set in when I understood that I was watching a warped re-visioning of me and my people on the small screen and yet I didn't even know enough to be angry about it. And then I understood my father's response. He'd lived through the Korean War which had killed three million Koreans and ripped apart the country which remains divided to this day. In the first month of their operation alone, the Strategic Air Command groups of the allied forces dropped 4,000 tons of bombs on Korean soil. Besides high explosives, the bombers used napalm. One bomber pilot described the devastation saying, "we eventually burned down every town in North Korea... and some in South Korea too. We even burned down [the South Korean city of] Pusan -- an accident, but we burned it down anyway." So for surviving Koreans, the war was not a comedy and the American portrayal of Korea's tragedy was an insult.
Most of the Koreans who appear in the series are usually stereotypes or caricatured in one way or another. They appear as prostitutes, helpless victims, or malevolent criminals. When I asked Gene Reynolds about this he admitted that Koreans were written that way because it was well, just funnier. He said: "One thing that we did and I admit that it was something that Korean audiences would not care for and I'm, I feel guilty about it myself and that is that we caricatured Koreans often." In making the doc I wanted to bring this perspective forward without hammering the point.
It seems like the TV gods get the last laugh when it comes to MASH. They played tricks on Hornberger, turning his politics upside down. They took a war most of America had forgotten and repurposed it for political exigency as another Asian war. And they have taken a chapter in history about the heroism of ordinary people that might have left forgotten in some memory chest somewhere and parlayed it into a television classic that continues to matter to this day.
Nurse Cathy Drake from MASH 8055 puts it best:
"And who would have ever thought that the word MASH which means Mobile Army Surgical Hospital would be such a big word. I mean we just got assigned to a MASH and that was it. And to think what that term has turned out to be besides mashing potatoes huh?"
Min Sook Lee
When Canwest commissioned us to produce The Real MASH, it seemed logical. Canadian-Korean director Min Sook Lee and I had just been nominated for a Gemini Award (which we ended up winning) for our documentary Tiger Spirit about the divide in Korea following the Korean War. We had plenty of interest left in Korea for another film.
I had seen the movie M*A*S*H by Robert Altman shortly after it premiered and had occasionally watched the TV show by the same name. To be honest, I never cared for it. Not only did I have a problem with a TV show that made a comedy out of war, I had a hard time watching the series' main character Captain Hawkeye, played by Alan Alda, whom I found smugness personified. But given the enduring popularity of the series, an unusual 11 year run and perennial reruns, mine was decidedly a minority opinion. As was further evidenced by the enthusiasm Min Sook exhibited after we got the commission and subsequently by just about every person I mentioned our new documentary to, including Dave Kazala who ended up editing the documentary.
Interestingly enough, both the fan (Dave) and the non-fan (me), were under the false impression that the series was set in Vietnam. I'm not sure what that says about our collective smarts, as there were certainly Korean references in the TV series, but we weren't alone as Loretta Swit, who played the popular Hot Lips Houlihan character states: "Every once in a while people would, even in an interview, let's say they'd talk about Vietnam being the backdrop for MASH and we would always have to correct them".
Credit for the series' covert anti-war message must be given to the series creators Larry Gelbart (who died the day we were commissioned), Gene Reynolds and many of the actors who strived to make and keep M*A*S*H a vehicle for social commentary. As Reynolds mused: "They (the studio) were always on us, keep it funny, we would get calls saying that last show was very sobering. You know there was a long time between jokes. And of course the networks feel that unless they're really laughing they're not watching". It would be hard to imagine a series like M*A*S*H being made in today's broadcast climate.
Our interview subjects were situated all over the US and due to various commitments we only had a tiny window for our documentary shoot. During the two week shoot, split in 2 segments, we traveled over 18000 kilometers interviewing former MASH surgeons, doctors, nurses, helicopter pilots, soldiers treated by MASH units and talent associated with the television series including Gary Burghoff (Radar), Loretta Swit (Hot Lips Houlihan), Jamie Farr (Corporal Klinger), MASH writer/director Charles Dubin (who unfortunately didn't make the cut), MASH co-creator/producer/director/writer Gene Reynolds and pop culture historian Jim Wittebols. The intense shooting schedule ran like a Swiss watch, despite delayed planes, snow storms, Christmas, New Year's Eve and time zones.
The MASH veterans, all septuagenarians or octogenarians in primo health and state of mind, were all pleased to tell their stories and we were humbled by many of their memories, painful in some cases, as demonstrated by Master Sergeant Bill Stedman's breakdown midway through his interview.
We were thrilled to discover that many of our vets possessed photographs of the time and were willing to lend them for archiving. A particular treasure trove came from Dr. Melvin Horwitz who had some one thousand beautiful Kodachrome slides and 90 minutes of Super 8 footage; quite a bit which ended up in the film. William Hornberger, son of Richard Hornberger, the man who started the MASH adventure when he penned the novel by the same name, gave us rare black and white footage of his father while serving in Korea. Cathy and Dale Drake, who met in Korea when they both served there, also provided great images and it was through their daughter in law, Nancy Tarsitano Drake, that we found other images, including the photograph that inspired Jamie Farr's Corporal Maxwell Klinger's character and a wonderful scene in the documentary.
An added bonus was that we got to meet and interview TV legends Charles Dubin (director), Gene Reynolds (co-creator/producer/director/writer), Loretta Swit (Hot Lips Houlihan), Gary Burghoff (Radar O'Reilly) and Jamie Farr (Maxwell Klinger). It was obvious that MASH had a special place in their hearts and it was fun to meet some of the folks we'd been watching for decades.
To round out our stories – we couldn't just rely on archival and TV series clips - we undertook a 3 day re-enactment shoot for which we hired director Gary Lang, as Min Sook was unavailable for this stage of production. Not surprisingly, what was supposed to be a simple recreation took on its own life. In Confederation Park in Hamilton, production designer Florian Schuck and his team created a mini MASH camp and for 3 days the park became Korea. Nurse Cathy Drake had told us how occasionally producer Gene Reynolds would call her during production of the MASH TV series to ask questions, and in a case where art imitates life, I found myself calling Nurse Janie Hall for advice on how to shoot one of the scenes!
If we learned one thing from our experience, it is that there are so many more stories buried in the Korean War that it feels we barely scratched the surface. Now that the film is done we hope that Korean War veterans and fans of the film and TV series alike will find something of value in The Real MASH.
Min Sook Lee – Writer/Director
Min Sook Lee is an award winning filmmaker whose documentaries have screened at major festivals around the world including the Toronto International Film Festival and Hot Docs. Her award-winning feature documentaries include El Contrato, (Cesear E. Chavez Black Eagle Award), Hogtown: The Politics of Policing (Best Feature-length Canadian Documentary at Hot Docs 2005), and Tiger Spirit(2009 Gemini's Donald Brittain Award for Best Social/Political Documentary), Badge of Pride and My Toxic Baby. She is also co-creator of the sitcom series She's the Mayor.
Ed Barreveld – Producer
Storyline Entertainment CEO and Emmy Award-winning producer Ed Barreveld is one of Canada’s top independent documentary-film professionals. A hands-on producer with 35 years of experience in both financing and the field, Barreveld brings together Canadian and international storytellers, investors, and partners on documentaries that explore underexposed places and perspectives in society and culture.
Storyline titles have sold internationally, screened at Tribeca, Hot Docs, IDFA, and TIFF, and garnered numerous festival accolades, as well as Emmy, Gemini, and Canadian Screen awards and nominations.
Derek Rogers – Director of Photography
Derek Rogers has excelled for many years in documentary, drama and TV commercials with over 30 feature and TV drama credits including the cult hits: Cube, New Waterford Girl, Foolproof and Resident Evil. For his documentary work, he won a Gemini award and a CSC nomination for Storyline Entertainment's Shipbreakers and a CSC nomination for Diamond Road. For The Real MASH, Rogers shot the recreation scenes and the documentary interviews.
Stan Barua – Director of Photography
Born in Poland to a Kenyan father and a Polish mother, Barua's formative and working years in Europe and in Africa explored the traditions, culture and aspirations of both. Stan weaves this eclectic perspective into his work. As comfortable with lyrical cinema and bold television as with direct documentaries, Stan's award-winning cinematography includes collaborations with European, North and Latin American, and African directors, producers and crews across five continents. He is a MA graduate (distinction) of the Lodz Film School, Poland. For The Real MASH, Barua filmed the documentary interviews.
Robin Bain – Director of Photography
Robin Lupita Bain began her career at the National Film Board of Canada and has been actively involved in the film industry for more than thirty years. With experience in the fine arts, Robin has gained recognition for her creative approach to her subject matters. Some award winning feature documentary credits include: Albert Nerenberg's Laughology, Sheona McDonald's Capturing a Short Life, Brenda Kovrig's Relativity, Erin Faith Young's Crossing Atillan, Nancy Nicol's The End of Second Class, Manfred Becker's The Life Of Me and Storyline's My Toxic Baby and It's a Teen's World: Wired for Sex, Lies and Power Trips. For The Real MASH, Bain filmed the Loretta Swit interview.
Dave Kazala – Editor
Kazala's career in documentary spans over a decade. His outstanding work has contributed to the making of many acclaimed films including: It's a Teen's World: Wired for Sex, Lies and Power Trips, Diamond Road (2008 Gemini Best Documentary Series) The Bomber's Dream, Sex Slaves (2007 Emmy Best Investigative Journalism, 2006 Bafta Nomination); The Secret of the Snake Goddess (2007 Golden Sheaf Award) and The Ritchie Boys (2005 short-list for Best Documentary Feature by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences).
Ken Myhr – Composer
Ken Myhr has written soundtracks for more than 75 dramatic and documentary series and features. His orchestral score created for the series Geologic Journey (2007) garnered a Golden Sheaf Award, a Gemini nomination and the score was honored with a full orchestral reading sponsored by the Guild of Canadian Film Composers. Ken's work can also be heard in the Gemini Award winning series Diamond Road and Storyline Entertainment's Bruce & Me and Shipbreakers (Gemini winner). He is also the composer of the title credit music for CBC's flagship series The Nature of Things. As a musician, he has performed on concert stages world wide from the Royal Albert Hall to the David Letterman Show and has contributed to hundreds of CD's including the Cowboy Junkies and Jane Siberry.
Gary Lang – Director/Recreations
Gary Lang is an accomplished Director and Writer specializing in factual entertainment for international television. In the past fifteen years, Lang has directed or written over a hundred award-winning programs seen by millions worldwide. His screen credits cover a vast number of science and history subjects, including archaeology, nautical disasters, exploration, war, and espionage.
Peter Sawade – Location Sound Recordist
Peter Sawade is a Gemini-award winning sound recordist, who has done on-location sound for hundreds of award-winning productions that have taken him around the world.
Lisa Valencia-Svensson – Associate Producer
Lisa Valencia-Svensson's first films, Borderless and Sedition, directed by award-winning filmmaker Min Sook Lee have screened at festivals globally. Since 2007 she has been working at Storyline Entertainment, where she produced Resilience: Stories of Single Black Mothers. She has a number of documentary projects in development, including The House That Herman Built. Lisa has a background in finance, community media, and research work. She plans to continue working on film projects which explore political issues and socially relevant themes, and which encourage audiences to view their world through a constructively critical lens.
Daniel Pellerin – Post Production Sound
Daniel Pellerin is one of Canada's finest recording and re-recording mixer/engineers, sound designers and music supervisors. He has worked with a who's who of Canadian filmmakers such as Atom Egoyan, Clement Virgo, James Cameron, Shelley Saywell, Min Sook Lee, Michael Kot, Ron Mann and Bruce MacDonald. He has been nominated for 10 Genie Awards of which he has won three (Atom Egoyan's The Sweet Hereafter, Istvan Szabo's Sunshine and Clement Virgo's Love Come Down). He has been nominated for 16 Gemini Awards, for which he has won two (Musicians in Exile and Under the Piano). He has worked extensively with Storyline Entertainment and he was the supervising mixer for Min Sook Lee's Tiger Spirit and My Toxic Baby.
Amanda Feder – Researcher & Production Coordinator
Amanda Feder graduated with honors from Ryerson University's Film Studies program, where she focused her degree on writing and producing. Amanda has written and produced short segments for CNN International and Salt & Light Television, and has worked as a researcher for Gemini-nominated documentary filmmaker Andrée Cazabon. She has been working at Storyline Entertainment since August 2008. She's currently working on her film Sex on Wheels.
Alvin V. Blount Jr.
Samuel M. Gelfand
Richard C. Kirkland
William B. Stedman
James H. Wittebols
The Korean Times Daily review The Real MASH
Produced by 2223450 Ontario Inc. for Storyline Entertainment in association with AETN UK and produced with the participation of Rogers Cable Network, Canadian Media Fund, the assistance of the Canwest-Hot Docs Completion Fund, The Canadian Film or Video Production Tax Credit and produced in association with Canwest.
© 2010 2223450 Ontario Inc.