[50 years ago this coming weekend, the pilot episode of M*A*S*H aired. So in honor of that ground-breaking sitcom, this week I’ll AmericanStudy wartime comedies in various media, leading up to a special post on M*A*S*H!]
On three competing yet ultimately intersecting layers to the hit 1980s wartime comedy.
The origin point for Barry Levinson’s film Good Morning, Vietnam (1987) was a pitch for a sitcom very much in the vein of (and likely even inspired by) M*A*S*H. In 1979, former Armed Forces Radio Service DJ Adrian Cronauer pitched a sitcom based on his experiences during the Vietnam War; no network picked it up, so he turned it into a TV movie script which became the basis for the feature film’s screenplay (if with significant revisions by screenwriter Mitch Markowitz, who had in fact worked as a writer on M*A*S*H). The whirlwind known as Robin Williams (on whom more momentarily) certainly shifted things from there, but there’s a reason why the character name was and remained Adrian Cronauer—this is a story intended to be grounded in reality, in a historical figure’s actual experiences at the interesting and fraught intersections of DJ and soldier, American rock music and Southeast Asian warzone, comedy and tragedy. That history and humanity alike come through at key moments, and I’d argue constitute the film’s most successful elements.
They’re not the most famous one, though. Cronauer once said of the film’s central casting that Williams “was playing a character named Adrian Cronauer who shared a lot of my experiences. But actually, he was playing Robin Williams.” Partly that seems to me an understandable critique of Williams’ tendency to ham it up and treat film roles like excuses for stand-up comedy, a problem that to my mind severely affects a film like Dead Poets Society (1989). But at the same time, there’s no doubt that Williams was a profoundly talented actor as well as comedian, and he brings both layers to his performance in Good Morning, Vietnam—infusing the justifiably famous radio sequences with humor and energy to spare (selling the audience entirely on why this DJ would have become so beloved among his soldier-listeners); but gradually and impressively making his Cronauer into a complicated and conflicted human being whose mistakes and morals alike influence the film’s events. Williams was right in the upward arc of his explosion into full movie-stardom in 1987, and there’s no doubt that this performance and film both reflected and amplified that trajectory.
That 1987 moment was also amidst another striking Hollywood trend—the explosion of late 80s Vietnam War films that I discussed as part of this post, and which also of course included another 1987 film from yesterday’s focal director Stanley Kubrick, Full Metal Jacket. Good Morning, Vietnam is of course by far the funniest of those films, which might also make it seem like the least serious and/or the least focused on the war—but I hope this whole series would offer a clear counterpoint to those ideas and a clear reflection of the role that humor can play in cultural portrayals of wartime histories and themes. The film has some overtly tragic events, particularly those connected to Cronauer’s fraught friendship with the Vietnamese young man Tuan (played movingly by Tung Thanh Tran). But I would add that its humor is likewise an element of its portrayal of the Vietnam War, both in the necessity of Cronauer’s broadcasts and in the challenge they present to official narratives of the conflict. Just one more layer to this complex, compelling wartime comedy.
Last wartime comedy tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other wartime comedies you’d highlight?