'The Real MASH' seeks real-life Hawkeye,
The MASH operating room is pictured in this undated handout photo. Many of the real-life doctors and nurses who inspired the film and TV versions of "MASH" are only just now coming to terms with the horrors they witnessed during the Korean War, says documentary filmmaker Min Sook Lee, who spent nearly a year searching for the real Hawkeye, Hot Lips, Klinger and Radar. THE CANADIAN PRESS/ HO- VKPR
TORONTO - Many of the real-life doctors and nurses who inspired the film and TV versions of "MASH" are only just now coming to terms with the horrors they witnessed during the Korean War, says documentary filmmaker Min Sook Lee, who spent nearly a year searching for the real Hawkeye, Hot Lips, Klinger and Radar.
The Toronto-based filmmaker tracked down several of the men and women who served in the 8055th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital (MASH) that inspired the fictional 4077 MASH unit and its zany residents, immortalized on the small screen by Alan Alda, Loretta Swit, Jamie Farr and Gary Burghoff.
Among her findings: a headstrong career nurse with a striking resemblance to Margaret (Hot Lips) Houlihan, competing claimants to the real-life identity of Benjamin (Hawkeye) Pierce, and an ideological clash between the TV series' left-leaning writers and the conservative war veteran who inspired their stories.
Lee examines whether the war was accurately reflected in the 1970 Robert Altman film and the long-running TV series, conducting interviews with TV producer/writer/director Gene Reynolds, stars Swit, Farr and Burghoff, and William Hornberger — son of author and veteran surgeon Richard Hornberger, who kicked off the franchise with his 1968 novel "MASH."
"What we wanted to do with 'The Real MASH' was to sort of parallel two stories: the point of view of celebrities in Hollywood — the creators and the actors and the writers in the MASH series, their POV — and then sort of contrast that with the actual real-life individuals, the doctors and nurses who worked in the MASH units," says the 41-year-old Lee, who was born in Korea and raised in Canada.
"I was personally quite amazed at how many of the stories, especially in the first, I would say five seasons in the 'MASH' TV series, how many of those episodes were based on real-life anecdotes that the doctors and nurses provided."
Real-life elements include the show's martini-drinking, wise-cracking, moral anchor, Hawkeye. One helicopter pilot insists in the documentary that Hawkeye was based on his surgeon friend, but Hornberger's son William says his father was the real Benjamin Franklin Pierce — pointing to his grandfather's name, Franklin Pierce, as evidence.
"I came across a number of doctors who said, 'Oh, I think so-and-so was Hawkeye or so-and-so was Hawkeye," says Lee, whose 2008 doc "Tiger Spirit" looked at what the two Koreas would look like if reunified. "What's interesting to me is how many people have come forward to sort of take their ownership of 'MASH.' "
The true identity of Margaret (Hot Lips) Houlihan, was more definite. Many interview subjects pointed to Maj. Ruth Dixon, an attractive nurse known for her firm hand.
"She's since passed away but many of the doctors and nurses recalled her and said she was definitely the inspiration for Hot Lips because she was tough, she was a career nurse and she was very flirtatious with the doctors," says Lee.
The real cross-dressing Klinger was believed to be a mild-mannered doctor who showed up at a Halloween party in drag, while Hawkeye's houseboy Ho-John was based on a real Korean teen whom the doctors sent to the U.S. for a university education.
The characters proved to be indelible symbols of the '70s, says Lee, noting the storylines drove home a clear anti-war message to a generation weaned on activism and increasingly critical of U.S. foreign policy amidst a horrifying Vietnam War.
But Hornberger wasn't a fan.
The veteran stopped watching the show after the first season, complaining it moved further away from his original book and that he didn't identify with its leftist agenda.
"It was set in the Korean War, but it was a thinly disguised protest against the Vietnam War and for many of the producers and the writers and even the actors who were involved in MASH, the show was a vehicle for social commentary," notes Lee.
"And it's quite remarkable when you think about television these days and how, the kind of TV sitcoms that we see or even the drama, dramedies or dramas, so few of them will take a political stance because it's just too dangerous."
Lee says the project offered a rare platform for real-life veterans to give their account of the so-called Forgotten War.
"There's so much bitterness among Korean War veterans," says Lee. "It wasn't even called a war until decades after they had returned and so the Korean War has always been overshadowed by Vietnam.... There just has not been the storytelling or the kind of media attention to it that subsequent wars have had but the amount of napalm that was dropped on North Korea was comparable to what was dropped in Vietnam."
"The Real MASH" airs Monday on History Television.