Extreme weather secretly played a deeper role on M*A*S*H
The weather conditions became much more than a plot device in the seventh season.
"Are you all right?" Colonel Sherman Potter asks Radar O'Reilly in a scene from the M*A*S*H episode "None Like It Hot."
Radar's face is covered in sweat as he sits dutifully at his typewriter, hiding an illness and pushing through a heatwave to complete all his tasks.
"Oh, sure, sir," Radar answers, neglecting to mention that he feels sick. "It's just the heat and the work."
"You look like an old banana," Potter says, clearly sensing more something is amiss.
In this episode, Radar ends up needing a tonsillectomy that he wishes to avoid during an intense heatwave.
Later on, Radar is still suffering in silence when Hawkeye presses his hand to Radar's forehead and observes the corporal's temperature is high. Although Hawkeye knows Radar's tonsils are bothering him by this point, Radar again blames this high temp on the weather, insisting, "It's a hot day, sir."
Both men have patches of sweat dampening their green T-shirts. When Hawkeye responds, his concern reads more like a troubled dad than a duty-bound doctor when he gently informs Radar that eventually his tonsils will have to come out.
In the seventh season of M*A*S*H, extreme weather became a recurring plot element and yet another thing that the cast had to deal with, starting with a heatwave in "None Like It Hot," followed by a windstorm in the very next episode, "They Call the Wind Korea." Then, a couple of episodes later, cold weather so extreme that soldiers are exposed to hypothermia.
According to M*A*S*H writer Ken Levine, the weather became a force to reckon with on M*A*S*H as a way of expanding the audience's sense of what it was like to be at the 4077th.
"We were locked into that campsite and felt that after six seasons we needed to find ways to create some variety," Levine wrote on his blog. "Weather was one."
Attentive fans will likely recall other fresher settings used in this season. "That year we also did the 'Point of View' episode, another set primarily in a cave, and an episode entirely in Rosie's Bar," Levine noted.
However, M*A*S*H star Alan Alda wrote that the decision to depict the weather added another deeper meaning than simply a change of scenery when it came to connecting the audience more intimately to what the characters were going through. Everyone knows the burden of a hot day. It was easy to see how much harder it could be to endure in a tent.
"The characters in our stories lived together in harrowing conditions of overwork, extreme cold, extreme heat, and the barbarity of war. They knew one another better than any family," Alda wrote in his book If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face?
According to The Hollywood Reporter, "The real nurses in Korea volunteered to serve in the coldest country in the world in winter and the hottest in summer in a war in which the greatest killers were frostbite and snakebites."
Showing Hot Lips and Hawkeye and Radar and everyone else supporting one another through the harshest weather conditions, therefore, became vital to adequately portraying the deep bonds forged between M*A*S*H characters.
As we all remember, M*A*S*H was particularly deft at depicting friendships, pulling together gifted actors who truly connected onscreen and off, which became one of the most beloved ensemble casts of all time. Alda said the experience he had on the show changed "for the rest of my life" the way in which he prepared for his onscreen roles.
"I learned something during the 11 years we were filming M*A*S*H," Alda explained.
"When we began the show, we knew that somehow we had to become a tight-knit group," he wrote, adding, "We had to create that sense of intimacy, and yet the actors had never met before. I don't think any of us consciously devised a strategy to bring this sense of closeness about, but we gravitated to a solution that was utterly simple. And it transformed us."
He said that between shoots, typically actors will sit alone, considering the scene and "summoning up emotion and memory" before the whole cast reunites to film.
"But it was different for us," Alda said. "We would spend most of our time between shots sitting together with our chairs in a circle, making one another laugh. We would occasionally do something useful like going over our lines together, but I think the majority of our time was spent laughing."
Think about the easy way you feel around family, or the infinite cascade of laughter shared among life-long friends or that eternal smile you feel deep inside when a fond memory of your best friend comes to mind. That's the kind of energy the M*A*S*H cast rolled into filming with, and Alda said the cast's chemistry became actually electric, unlike any other film shoot he’d ever experienced.
"When they called us to the set, we kept the connection going as we walked across the sound stage," Alda said. "When the camera started rolling, we were still engaged, but now we were using the words and emotions called for in the script. The connections gave us a jolt of life."
So next time you watch M*A*S*H, think not just of how close the cast became or how talented the actors were at portraying their characters and their closeness, but also how even an element seemingly as minor as the weather forecast was played with complexity on the show, not just for visual interest and variety, but to complete the picture of what these people really meant to each other.
This is why it's safe to say the depths M*A*S*H went to connect to its audience remain unrivaled in TV history.
In "None Like It Hot," when Hawkeye takes Radar's temperature, it's his duty to care about the corporal, but more than that, he demonstrates the concern of a friend who knows when it’s time to stop holding hands and be blunt.
"Eventually, they're gonna have to come out, you know," Hawkeye tells Radar of his swollen tonsils.
Radar begs Hawkeye not to rush the surgery, and feeling compassion for his friend, Hawkeye relents, agreeing to postpone the tonsillectomy, but insisting they must do something to bring down Radar's temperature. It's not a doctor's instinct; it's a friend's.
Anyone watching has to admit that you can hardly blame Radar for wimping out, given an out. Imagine needing surgery in a M*A*S*H unit in the middle of a heatwave?
It sounds extra-miserable, but in the end, Radar gets through it, thanks to his M*A*S*H family.