Monday, May 14, 2012

M*A*S*H Issues - Hawkeye Pierce

Out of all the main characters on the series, Hawkeye is my least favorite. Much of that has to do with Alan Alda’s projections onto the character, but at the same time there seems to be too much of an over-the-top aspect to the writing and the framing of the character. This was true even early on, before Alda got ahold of the writing and direction for the character (and the series) and drove him into the ground.

If one were to look back to even first season episodes such as “I Hate A Mystery” and “Yankee Doodle Doctor”, the character lacks a certain subtlety to it that is present in other characters. The third season episode “Adam’s Ribs” has a memorable scene in the mess tent, but the lines ascribed to the Hawkeye character are so unrealistic; no person would actually think to say something like this after being told that he would have to eat either liver or fish for the eleventh straight day:
It’s inhuman to serve the same food over and over again. Liver, fish, day after day! I’ve eaten a river of liver and an ocean of fish! I’ve eaten so much fish, I’m ready to grow gills. I’ve eaten so much liver I can only make love if I’m smothered in bacon and onions.

Or perhaps the following line, though memorable, is not something a regular person would say, from the episode “Officer of the Day”:
I will not carry a gun, Frank. When I got thrown into this war, I had a clear understanding with the Pentagon: no guns….I'll carry your books, I'll carry a torch, I'll carry a tune, I'll carry on, carry over, carry forward, Cary Grant, cash-and-carry, carry me back to Old Virginia, I'll even 'hari-kari' if you show me how, but I will not carry a gun.

While not portrayed the same way, Donald Sutherland’s Hawkeye from the 1970 feature film has a subtle and quiet quality to it. He is a much more cynical character in the film, and while they tried to play it that way at first in the series, over time the tie between film and series faded and Hawkeye became solely associated with Alan Alda’s rendering.

I understand the whole ‘great humanitarian’ thing, but that also became a parody of itself eventually, as if Hawkeye was the only one who cared about the fate of all of humanity, only he had the guts to take on ‘the man’. The latter was where it descended into parody more than anything else; no one doubted that BJ, Potter, Winchester, Radar, Klinger, or Margaret were humanitarians too, but none of their efforts were caricatured in such a positive fashion (if there is such a thing).

This is not to say that there weren’t positive things of Hawkeye. I have found myself moved at times with some of the things the character has said and done. His nervous breakdown and recovery in the finale (“Goodbye, Farewell, and Amen”) is one of the most riveting and chilling television experiences I have ever had, and even though I have seen it a thousand times, the chill remains each viewing.

So where can we find the problems? Part of it, no doubt, is the fact that the series went eleven seasons. With that long of a run, continuity is a huge problem, and characters just can’t stay stale for too long – Frank Burns became stale after four seasons; the series would have been intolerable with eleven seasons of Burns. 

The other main problem was Alan Alda’s projection of his issues and pet causes onto Hawkeye. While this could be seen all through the series, there were just too many things that were not part of an early 1950’s world and there was no way in hell that the stuff Hawkeye did and said that would have been tolerated in the army, even as skilled a surgeon as he was. They tried to write that away at various points in the show (even the pilot), but the reality is that he would have been at Leavenworth many times over, and not for the stupid stuff of which Burns accused him constantly (i.e. "The Novocaine Mutiny" - Season Four).

Thankfully, the series wasn’t just about Hawkeye, or else I think I would have hated the show completely, with all his whining about war, the army, and life in general. There were enough plot lines that didn’t depend on him to make it worthwhile, and many of the other characters were strong enough to provide a good counterbalance.

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