Battle Circus

In 1968, H. Richard Hornberger (writing under the pseudonym “Richard Hooker”) published MASH: A Novel About Three Army Doctors, which went on to inspire a movie, a TV series, and a string of literary sequels. But 15 years earlier, Humphrey Bogart and June Allyson starred in writer-director Richard Brooks’ 1953 medical melodrama Battle Circus, set in a very familiar Mobile Army Surgical Hospital during the Korean War. For anyone already aware of the M*A*S*H franchise, watching Battle Circus can be a strange experience, like stumbling across the forgotten prequel to one of the most popular franchises of all time. The incoming choppers, the frenzied triage, the marathon surgeries, the poor Korean orphans, the mess halls and showers, the drinking and womanizing… It’s all as it would be later on M*A*S*H, though Battle Circus skips the satire and wackiness and goes instead for docu-realism, interlaced with romantic comedy. The movie is fascinating both as a look at how Hollywood treated a moment in American military history (while it was still fresh, no less), and as a shadow to a pop-culture colossus.

But even without the M*A*S*H connection, Battle Circus would be worth seeing. It’s one of Bogart’s latter roles, from the time when he’d settled comfortably into his regular, not-far-removed-from-reality character of a hard-bitten alcoholic with a good heart. It also spotlights the oft-underrated Allyson in her adorable aw-shucks mode, playing a plucky, rigidly moral nurse who loves Bogart in spite of herself. And it has Keenan Wynn as a can-do sergeant who tries to keep his comrades’ racism in check.

Plus, Battle Circus is one of the earliest films by Brooks, who was one of Hollywood’s few true writer-directors at the time, and was skilled at balancing the studio’s desire for middle-of-the-road entertainment and his own interest in ordinary moments. Brooks relies heavily here on scenes of the doctors at work, which play out more as anthropology than as anything relevant to the plot. But then Brooks will goose the action unexpectedly, as in one scene where a terrified Korean prisoner reacts to all the whirring machines in pre-op by pulling out a grenade. The movie gets into the heads of the prisoner and the doctors he’s threatening, showing sympathy to both sides while generating the kind of real-life drama that made a certain sitcom so successful, two decades later.

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