There are a number of movies with stories based on

history. Even thoughthey are said to be ‘stories’, the majority of those movies are analytical
in representing the historical facts. The movie M*A*S*H is one of those
movies based on history. This seminar will be looking at the dominant
reading of the movie, the historical event which the movie is based on, the
validity of the dominant reading in the film and how the future remake of
the film should be done according to the historical facts and events.

The 1970s movie M*A*S*H is about a group of army surgeons in ‘Mobile Army
Surgical Hospital (M*A*S*H)’ during the Korean War. A brief outline of the
plot is as follows: M*A*S*H imitates the episodic structure of the book
upon which it is based, detailing the pranks that the unit’s personnel
engage in between the frequent outbreaks of intense surgical activity. Upon
arriving in Korea, newly drafted Army doctors Benjamin Franklin “Hawkeye”
Pierce and Nathan Bedford “Duke” Forrest are sent to M*A*S*H 4077th. They
are soon joined by another draftee, Dr. “Trapper John” McIntyre, and the
three attempt to maintain their sanity in the face of so much blood by
doing what regular army soldiers would do, such as forming a football team
et cetera. Another character that holds significance is the Senior Nurse
Margaret “Hot Lips” Houlihan. The three doctors afflict “Hotlips”
throughout their stay in the M*A*S*H because unlike other people in the
unit, she is bureaucratic.

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Before discussing the dominant reading of the movie, let me briefly give
details on the Korean War, which is the key issue in this seminar. Korea
was formally annexed by Japan in 1910. Korean Nationalists in China and the
United States (US) co-operated to form a provisional government in exile
under the leadership of the anti-Japanese resistance leader Syngman Rhee.

The Koreans based in the Soviet Union, leaded by Il Sung Kim, initially
sought to co-operate with the Nationalists in China and the US but were
rejected because of their commitment to communism. After the rejection, Il
Sung Kim and his associates developed their own strategy for ousting the
Japanese. Upon the defeat of Japan in World War II, the US President
Roosevelt, the Britain Prime Minister Churchill, and the Soviet Union
President Stalin agreed that Korea should become free and independent in
due course since it was clear that if independence was given to Korea, the
Communists would become dominant in the country -Korea was suffering from
poverty and the principle of Communism that everyone is treated equally was
admired. The US and the Soviet Union decided that Korea should be divided
at the 38th parallel, the US troops disarming Japanese forces South of the
parallel and the Soviet Union doing the same North of the parallel. On June
25th 1950, the North Korean troops invaded South Korea in order to unify
the country, having Communism as the dominant power. After suffering from
three years of war, the two divided nations underwent a number of peace
talks, establishing a demilitarised zone (DMZ). Now it has been over fifty
years from the war and the two nations technically remain at war.

Approximately 37000 US troops currently station in South Korea.

The dominant reading of the movie can differ depending on what perspective
the viewer is on. In a perspective of an American, this movie can be seen
as representing the anti-war movement which was active during the time the
movie was made. “Hot Lips”, who emphasises the bureaucracy of the military,
represents the government of the US, which played the key role in the
Korean War. Meanwhile, “Hawkeye”,”TrapperJohn”and”Duke”are
representing those US civilians who were solidly against the Korean War.

The way the doctors treated “Hot Lips” shows that the US civilians were not
in agreement with the government when the government decided to enter the
Korean War. However, from a perspective of a Korean, the dominant reading
can be quite different. In this case, the only Korean character in the
movie “Ho-Jon”, a maid in the M*A*S*H, holds significance. All the doctors
in the unit, representing the US as a nation, act heroic, arrogant and
confident – trying to teach him how to read English, getting him to make
their drinks et cetera – bossing around “Ho-Jon”, who represents Korea as a
nation. The way doctors treat Ho-Jon demonstrates the way that the US
treated Korea as a minority and a ‘disinterested friend’ (Schnabel, 1992:3)
prior to the Korean War. As the result, the dominant reading of this movie
is that the US entered the war without the US civilians support, and their
involvement was not a generosity or an act of goodwill but rather an act of
heroism, or for their own benefit.

While researching, it was interesting to see that the US did not have to
enter the war – it was the President and his advisers’ will. According to a
statement made by the US Secretary of State, Dean Acheson, a few months
prior to the Korean War, the US had told the world that in line with the US
policy of containing communism within certain geographical boundaries, the
defensive perimeter in the Pacific would run from the Aleutians, off
Alaska, down to Japan, which excluded Korea. On hearing of the invasion of
South Korea by North Korea in June 1950, President Truman and his advisers
made the decision to enter the war, effectively reversing their statement
made only a few months ago. It had been only a short time since the World
War II was over, which once again the US was involved, and the public was
suffering the damage. To justify its action, the US government sought and
obtained the support of the United Nations (UN) for its action. The UN
voted to support the US, aiding South Korea, without the Soviet Union’s
veto. The fact that the President Truman was aware of the public opposition
is evident in one of the interviews that the President conducted. “We are
not at war, that (police action) is exactly what it amounts to.” (Sauvian,
1985: 151).

In the course of investigating the event, it was also evident that the US
sought to benefit from supporting South Korea. When Japan annexed Korea,
the US had no interest in defending Korea. An authority of the US
government stated “Korea was in the position of an incompetent defective
not yet committed to guardianship. The US was her only disinterested friend
but had no intention of becoming her guardian.” (Schnabel, 1992: 4) The US
took the step even further – the Secretary of War of the US negotiated a
secret ‘agreed memorandum’ with the Japanese (Schnabel, 1992: 4). The US
approved that Japan’s ‘suzerainty over Korea’ in return for its pledge not
to interfere with the interest of the US in the Philippines Island. It is
clear that the US supported whichever benefited them at that time. After
the defeat of Japan in World War II, the US was left with the old Japanese
empire. The US officials feared that if Korea was in hands of the
Communists’ power, there would be a short time left until the US and the
most of the nations surrounding the US were under strike of Communists, as
the Communism was spreading fast. By defending Korea from becoming a
Communist nation, the US, on the other hand, obstructed the increase of the
Communism around the US, defending itself from being annexed by the

The recommendations for the remake of the film can be made by comparing and
filling the gaps between the movie and what actually happened in the
history. In the movie, it shows Ho-Jon, who represents Koreans, as a
minority. In fact, some highly educated Koreans worked in the surgery part
with the US doctors, according to an M*A*S*H unit doctor. Also, this film
possibly leaves a wrong impression of the war, by making it a laughing
stock. The doctors playing golf in the middle of a war seems somewhat
impossible. According to Otto Apel, who served as a doctor in 8076 M*A*S*H
unit, the experience in Korea was rather different to what it seems in the
movie. “The newly arrived doctors went into the camp, didn’t sit down and
went straight to work for eighty straight hours.” The movie should show the
seriousness of the war, discussing what actually happens in a medical
hospital during the war. The way the nurses are treated in the movie also
is quite different from what it was in the actual M*A*S*H unit. According
to Otto, the nurses were all volunteers, and were treated with respect by
other doctors. The movie should be considering the fact that the viewers
will be seeing the untruth, rather than the truth. Also the movie should
include characters representing North Korea, China, the UN et cetera to
portray the roles and the importance of each nations / associations.

Finally the end of the movie should discuss the changes the war brought to
Korea, for instance, how the US army is still stationing in South Korea
after the war and how South Korea developed with the support from the US
after the war, as South Korea received economic aid of US$ 200 million
(American Military History, 1989: 571).

The new dominant reading should be focused on the importance of the Korean
War, since the war has been known as the ‘Forgotten War’ although the war
holds some significance. The significances are: first, the Communist China
first entered the world stage as a major power, supporting North Korea and
defeating the US at some stages. Second, the Korean War was an important
example of the post World War II trend for the fate of countries to be
determined by the strategic interests of the major powers rather than by
the people of those themselves. Lastly, for the first time the UN reacted
to aggression with a decision to use armed force. By creating this new
dominant reading, the viewers will be informed with the impact of the event
in the history in depth. Thank you.


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