When the MAS*H movie premiered in 1970, critics breathlessly forecasted it would snag every Oscar nomination.
And it did. That year, it was nominated for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actress, Best Film Editing, and Best Screenplay.
After the statuettes were doled out, the movie would only come home with that last one, which you could consider a nod to how the success of MAS*H was inextricably tied to how unique the writing was.
In 1970, The Hollywood Reporter said in its review, “The picture will make a fortune,” despite some of its most off-putting scenes, including bloody operating room cringe-fests where surgeons are depicted acting rashly. Their critic explained:
“While the point of the comedy requires that much of it be played against some gory backgrounds of emergency field surgery, only a negligible portion of the potential audience is apt to be offended. Nor, in context, will the language of MAS*H greatly offend.”
Roger Ebert said it was precisely how off-putting these surgical scenes were that made the movie MAS*H so funny.
“One of the reasons MAS*H is so funny is that it’s so desperate,” Ebert wrote. “It is set in a surgical hospital just behind the front lines in Korea, and it is drenched in blood. The surgeons work rapidly and with a gory detachment, sawing off legs and tying up arteries, and making their work possible by pretending they don’t care. And when they are at last out of the operating tent, they devote their lives to remaining sane.”
That’s why when it came time to do the TV show, some critics became alarmed to hear the TV version’s leading men like Wayne Rogers and Alan Alda downplaying the need for gruesome surgeries in interviews leading up to the premiere.
“Recent conversations with these gentlemen leads to suspicions this will be a very bloodless and respectable MAS*H, with a seal of approval on its safe approach to life, death and the mobile army surgical hospital,” wrote one critic wearily for The Akron Beacon Journal in 1972.
However, just like the movie, the TV show succeeded on the strength of its writing, and early on, MAS*H TV writer Larry Gelbart defended the way the TV pilot strove to stay true to the spirit of the book within the confines of network TV’s more constricting standards when it came to all that gore.
“There’s one area in which we can’t make the movie or book: The painful surgery scenes,” Gelbart told the Journal. “It’s that television cannot, or will not, show the sickening face of war – not in a program labeled ‘entertainment.’ Certainly not as black comedy.”
Gelbart thought the TV pilot found the perfect middle ground.
He even went so far as to say that the TV pilot “more closely followed the spirit of the Hooker novel than did the movie.”
But while Gelbart somewhat deflected from explaining how MASH was better, Alda unleashed what might be his most controversial MASH opinion in the same interview.
He argued critics like Ebert were dead wrong about how necessary those painful surgery scenes really were.
“I would like it (the series) to be as funny as the movie and poke holes in the same things,” Alda said. “But I don’t think anything was gained by the film being totally abrasive. That’s what we would like to avoid.”
For Alda, it wasn’t important that the audience be clenching their teeth in pain watching horrifying fast-paced decision-making lead to stunning life-saving recoveries.
For the critics who watched the pilot expecting to be grimly disappointed in the lack of gore, this seemed a hard pill to swallow when anticipating what the TV show would look like.
The Journal critic especially did not agree with Alda’s opinion, writing: “Well, MAS*H was-is a story of young men for whom war and the military are totally abrasive and they respond in kind. If Gelbart, Alda, et al, don’t understand that, they don’t understand why people stood in line to see the film.”
Of course, Alda and Gelbart proved all these critics, even Ebert, wrong. After the TV show debuted, it was promptly nominated for eight Emmys, including Outstanding Comedy Series, Outstanding Directorial Achievement, and, for Gelbart, a nomination for Outstanding Writing Achievement, specifically for the MAS*H TV pilot.
Gelbart understood the TV show had captured that magic in the novel before any TV critic could know to predict how well the TV show MAS*H would work:
“We got an overwhelming feeling when the affiliates saw the pilot film that it reflects the movie and is a continuation,” Gelbart said.