For 11 seasons staring in 1972, MASH dominated TV as one of the best shows around, including a series finale that still holds the record for most viewers of an episode in the U.S. with over 100 million people watching. It was a unique show that came along at the right time which viewers connected with to the point the show lasted four times longer than the war it was based in, the Korean War.
Comparing the four major wars the U.S. was involved in during the 20th Century, the Korean War was a turning point, both because the U.S. didn't win but also with the changing technology between WWII and Vietnam. In the MASH tv show, the focus was on Mobile Army Surgical Hospitals, hospitals built near the front lines so casualties could be treated quicker and more efficiently. They were always on the move, going backward or forward depending on how the fighting went, and were always on-call in case of incoming casualties that needed to be treated. MASH dealt with all this in its 11-year run, but what about a movie made during the Korean War that dealt with these MASH units? Throw in an unnecessary romance plotline, and you've got 1953's Battle Circus.
It's the middle of the Korean War and nurse Ruth McGara (June Allyson) has received a posting to MASH 66 near the front lines. There she finds a camp with a commanding officer, Lt. Col. Whalter (Robert Keith), who doesn't seem to have much in the way of respect with one of his surgeons, Major Jed Webbe (Humphrey Bogart), basically running things. Ruth tries to settle in as best she can with the chaotic life led by the troops stationed at this MASH unit. With the front lines up in the air and a Communist attack always a possibility, Ruth falls for the roguish Maj. Webbe. While showing interest in the new nurse (almost like Hawkeye Pierce in training), Webbe has little to no interest in a serious relationship with Ruth. Can those two crazy kids keep it together?
Filmed with the help of the Department of Defense and the Attorney General and released in 1953, the movie lacks the typically blunt messages of a war-time movie. Little to no propaganda is thrown at the viewer, and other than a North Korean prisoner, the enemy is almost an afterthought that is spoken of but never shown. The semi-documentary style works well in showing the inner workings of this MASH unit. Where the TV show MASH unit never seemed to move, this one is packing up and on their way several times. Some great sequences with Keenan Wynn's Sgt. Statt leading these moves illustrate how crazy these units could be at times, usually just a mile or so from the front line.
The day-to-day life of MASH 66 are obviously the worthwhile segments in Battle Circus, showing similar things the TV show would deal with almost 20 years later. Several vignettes come to mind, including a helicopter pilot (William Campbell) flying into a hot zone to pick up a wounded soldier and then later trying to reach camp in the dark with his fuel running out. It's the type of thing that almost certainly happened thousands of times during the war, but seeing it brings it to life. The finale especially works as Bogie's Webbe evacuates the hospital with guerillas closing in on all sides, all the while trying to care for the most seriously wounded patients.
For whatever reason though, the day-to-day life portrayal must not have been exciting enough for the studios because Bogart and Allyson's love story was added in. I've never been a huge fan of Allyson -- she comes across as too whiney in all the roles I've seen -- and teaming her with Bogart (who was 20 years older than her at the time) is an odd pairing. Bogie is basically Hawkeye Pierce carrying a gun and has the look of a frazzled, often exhausted surgeon dealing with the neverending flow of wounded patients. He doesn't have much in the way of chemistry with Allyson, and their scenes together ground the otherwise enjoyable/exciting story to a halt.
Too bad because much more time is spent with the falling in love storyline instead of the inner workings of the hospital. Bogie is always cool, and it's fun to see him in a war movie, but the thrown together romance derails the movie. Wynn is solid in a key supporting role, as is Keith, but the division of the storyline takes its toll late. See this one for the sequences of a front-line MASH unit and fast forward through the smaltzy love scenes.
Battle Circus <----trailer (1953): ** 1/2 /****