Tuesday 6 January 2009

Battle Circus (1953)

From a Bogart I'd seen before to a Bogart I haven't, this 1952 film begins just like an episode of M*A*S*H, with a helicopter bringing in wounded to a Mobile Army Service Hospital not far from the action in the Korean war. It's only the fact that this is in black and white and there's Suicide is Painless to back it all up that tells me I'm not going to see Alan Alda and Harry Morgan any moment. Sure enough, it's Humphrey Bogart and Keenan Wynn instead, but the action is roughly the same, with just a little less comedy. In fact it was even going to be called MASH, but the director and studio both thought the title would be misleading to viewers. So it goes.

There's so much here that is reminiscent of what would come a couple of decades later that it's impossible that this wasn't treated as primary influence source material for the writers of MASH and M*A*S*H. The original book that MASH was based on was written by a Korean War veteran under a pseudonym. This film was written for the screen by professional scriptwriters, but it was made during the war itself so the material was fresh. From what I've read about the response to the film from people who were there in the field, they got it pretty accurate. The film certainly closes with a note that it was made with the cooperation of the Department of Defense and the US Army.

Bogart is Maj Jed Webbe, second in command of the MASH unit 8666 to Lt Col Walters. Webbe is a surgeon and a good one at that. He's capable enough to deal with the pressures of a hospital unit that has to work under far less than optimal conditions, with too many patients, too little equipment and a propensity to move at the drop of a hat. He's tough enough to keep working in surgery when prisoner enters the operating room with a hand grenade. He's also something of a wolf but not a one dimensional one.

In short, he's a believable character in a believable drama, even though much of the light relief is hung on something as potentially flimsy as a relationship between a major/surgeon and a lieutenant/nurse. The mix of serious and tough drama with comedy and light heartedness is why Bogart took the part in the first place, at a point in time where he could choose what he wanted, two films in from an Oscar win for The African Queen. It's also one of the key reasons why the film works, and for that matter why MASH and M*A*S*H worked too, decades later.

Those later versions are far better known, of course, but this came first, and it set the tone. I'm sure a lot of that tone comes from director and co-writer Richard Brooks, who was once a reporter in New York with Sam Fuller. He was never a prolific director (it took him 35 years to make 24 films) but those films included peaches like Blackboard Jungle, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and In Cold Blood. Like Fuller, he's one of those directors who I respect more and more with every one of their films I see. Unlike Fuller, he worked a lot more within the system, which got his work more widely seen but with less of an individual touch.

The nurse is Lt Ruth McGara, a good nurse but a rookie in the field who arrives in Korea without any conception of how to keep her head down. She's played by June Allyson and she does a very good job indeed. She's believable not just as a nurse, which many actresses could play well, but as a romantic interest for Bogie. It's well known that he didn't get along with a number of his leading ladies and that often shows on screen. He seems to have got on very well with Allyson because their scenes together just flow.

There are other people here too, though I don't recognise most of them. The colonel is Robert Keith, who finds the right balance of tough and fair. Needless to say he gets injured and Bogie has to take over. My favourite character is the ever ingenious Sgt Orvil Statt, a former Barnum & Bailey worker who runs the slick process of pulling the unit down and bringing it back up somewhere else, is Keenan Wynn. He gets a lot of scenes, though is rarely a focus of them, and he shines throughout. He's solid as both the tough sergeant and the tender heart who takes special care of a young Korean boy who dies for a few seconds on the operating table. I've always been a fan of Keenan Wynn and this is an early but very memorable performance.

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