The purpose of the classic 1970s show “M*A*S*H” was to create an accurate portrayal of what was going on during the Korean War.
At the same time, the writers wanted something that was humorous and light-hearted, rather than dark and controversial. Alan Alda was a part of the cast as the hilarious surgeon, “Hawkeye” Pierce. Alongside a crew of outstandingly different people, “M*A*S*H” was able to turn war into a human interest story unlike anything else on television.
Finding Realism for ‘M*A*S*H’
When it came time to start writing “M*A*S*H,” it was important that writers had an accurate depiction of the war.
“Larry [Gelbart] said to me one day, he said, ‘I’m going to Korea … I want to go to Korea. I’ve been sitting here thinking about writing about something I know nothing about,'” Reynolds said.
Although the show is often considered a situational comedy, some call it a “dramedy” since it is based on such dark and dramatic subject matter. The show is about a medical team set up in Korea during the Korean War. However, at the time, the Vietnam War was ongoing. This controversial war meant that parts of “M*A*S*H” were analyzed as a war commentary piece.
At the end of the day, Reynolds and others wanted the show to focus on the strength of people.
“It was helpful to see the personalities to these outstanding Americans that were, they had been drafted … they hadn’t volunteered for Korea, they were chosen. They were the chosen few,” Reynolds said.
Writers Interviewed Real Surgeons
The writers of the show also interviewed real surgeons that worked during the Korean War. To write something, you need to learn from those who have experienced it firsthand.
In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter in 2018, the writers discussed how these interviews were shaped into characters and unique plot lines for “M*A*S*H.”
“We drove out to the L.A. suburbs to see this guy who’d filmed his MASH unit. He said he’d never shown it to anybody because it was such a terrible time in his life. That’s where the look of ‘The Swamp’ and the city signposts and other things came from,” Walter Dishell said.
Alan Alda also recounted time spent reading and evaluating the interview transcripts. “We’d pore over those transcripts and look for a sentence or a fragment of an idea that we could build a story around,” Alda said.
Gene Reynolds shared that these stories he heard were beyond life-changing. The level of violence is something that would shape the show and his life.
One line always stuck out to him during the interviews, “We’d have guys who were over there for two years and said they had to get out because they couldn’t go through seeing guys dying all the time. I’ll never forget that line: ‘Guys dying all the time.’ It was brutal,'” he said.