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Friday, November 11, 2011

TGIF Episode Spotlight: "Abyssinia, Henry" from M*A*S*H

Today happens to be the eleventh day of the eleventh month in the year 2011. Written numerically, the date would read 11/11/11. Neat, isn't it?

Today also happens to be a day of remembrance in the world. November 11 is a day reserved for all of us to remember those soldiers and veterans of various wars fought all over the world who died trying to protect our rights and our freedom. All over the world, people will be holding ceremonies and memorial services dedicated to those brave soldiers and war heroes who fought with all their might, and certainly, I'm going to try and make this blog entry do exactly that.

Whether you refer to today as Armistice Day, Veterans Day, or Remembrance Day, the meaning is the same. So, in today's blog entry question of the day, I ask all of you, what does the eleventh of November mean to all of you?

Growing up, November 11 was always regarded as an important day. In history class, we learned that on November 11, 1918, at eleven o'clock in the morning, World War I was officially declared over. Since 1918, we have set aside November 11 as a date in which we remember all the sacrifices that those who fought in that war, and all other wars since. Over the past ninety-three years, thousands upon thousands of soldiers risked their lives to fight for our freedom in both World Wars, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Persian Gulf War, and the current war going on against terrorism that commenced just a year and a half after 9/11.

And, in my hometown, we did this a number of ways.

The most common way that all of us could remember those who sacrificed everything for us is by wearing a red poppy pin, similar to the one posted up above. The poppy is a symbol linked to November 11 ceremonies, influenced by the poem 'In Flanders Fields' written by John McCrae, a lieutenant colonel who died of pneumonia during World War I, less than a year before the war officially ended. Below is the poem that he wrote in memory of a friend who died during the Second Battle of Ypres, in 1915.

At school, Remembrance Day was a day that was a really big deal. As far back as I can remember, our classes would always leave the school during the morning, and walk down to the cenotaph which was located in the middle of our town square (which was named Court House Square, as most of the law offices in town were set up in the surrounding areas at the time). There, we would watch the Remembrance Day ceremonies, and watch as various wreaths were laid down at the foot of the cenotaph. From there, we would stand quietly as we all observed the moment of silence, to remember those who we lost.

Sometimes, our school would even have assemblies during the week of Remembrance Day, and in fifth grade, I ended up having a role in the Remembrance Day assembly. It was November 1991. Myself and six other kids from my fifth grade class were asked to hold up a letter in the word BRAVERY, and recite what each of the letters in bravery stood for, and then we would all have a line to say simultaneously. Again, nothing really major, as all of our parts lasted a grand total of thirty seconds at the most.

But the fact that I played the B in Bravery did make me somewhat happy, as I was the one who went first!

The point is that Remembrance/Veterans/Armistice Day is a very big deal, as it really should be. So, it is here that I am going to post a video, and from here, I ask that you watch it, and reflect on those who fought and lost their lives for all of us out there before continuing on with this entry.

Now we can continue.

All right, so seeing as how today is November 11th, I really wanted to find an example that linked today to a television show. Initially, I found it quite difficult to do, because on a somber occasion as today, the last thing that I thought would be appropriate would be a funny sitcom. So, it took a while for me to think it through, and come up with a show that would fit for today's topic.

And then it hit me.

The television show M*A*S*H had an episode that illustrates this brilliantly. And although the subject of this blog note was a fictional character, it still was considered to be one of the most shocking moments in television history, and coincidentally one of the saddest endings of a television show.

Now, you all know how much of a ratings powerhouse M*A*S*H was. The show started off as a 1970 movie, (which stemmed from a 1968 novel written by Richard Hooker), that became a television series two years later. From 1972-1983, M*A*S*H aired on CBS, and became an instant success, ranking in the Top 10 viewed shows in the Nielsen ratings for nine of its eleven seasons on air. In fact, when the show aired its final episode on February 28, 1983, the show managed to attract 125 MILLION viewers, the most watched television broadcast of all time! A record that as of right now has not yet been broken.

The television show was an ensemble piece was was considered to be a 'dramedy'. The subject matter was often dramatic in nature, but was presented in a humourous manner. The show was about a United States Army Mobile Army Surgical Hospital (where the name M*A*S*H came from). The show focused on the various staff of the unit which was set up as a surgical unit during the Korean War (1950-1953). The stories were both plot and character driven, and the show used the laugh track function sparingly (notably being absent during the scenes which were shot as the staff performed an operation on someone).

The original cast of the series when it debuted in September 1972 included the following;

Alan Alda played Captain Benjamin Franklin “Hawkeye” Pierce, the chief surgeon of the 4077th MASH.
Loretta Swit played Major Margaret “Hot Lips” Houlihan, the head nurse.
Jamie Farr played Corporal Maxwell Q. Klinger, a corpsman (recurring role until 1975).
William Christopher played First Lieutenant John Patrick Francis Mulcahy, a chaplain. He is also referred to as Father Mulcahy in the show.
Wayne Rogers played Captain John Francis Xavier “Trapper” McIntyre, a surgeon.
Larry Linville played Major Franklin Marion Burns, a surgeon.
Gary Burghoff played Corporal Walter Eugene “Radar” O'Reilly, company clerk and bugler of the 4077th.

Now, most of these people changed their ranks over the course of the show. Klinger, for instance went from the rank of Corporal to Sergeant, and some people even changed job titles. Some even left the show after a few seasons.

But some of you M*A*S*H fans might notice that I purposely left out one name from the original cast list. The reason is because this name is the subject of today's blog.

That name is Lieutenant Colonel Henry Braymore Blake, commanding officer and surgeon of the 4077th MASH unit, played by the late McLean Stevenson.

And, the way that Henry Blake left the show was one that was talked about for years. McLean Stevenson's departure from the show changed the course of the show for years to come.

The episode in which we said goodbye to Henry Blake aired on March 18, 1975. The title of the show was “Abyssinia, Henry”, and it aired as the finale of the show's third season.

Henry Blake wasn't exactly the most forceful, or even most competent commanding officer, but he made up for that by being a great surgeon. His laid-back manner and personality made him very well-liked by his colleagues, and he always managed to exhibit a happy-go-lucky attitude around the 4077th. This earned him great accolades from Hawkeye and Trapper John, but scorn from the more serious minded staffers, such as Frank and Hot Lips. His subordinate, Radar, had probably the closest direct relationship with Henry, as Radar could almost anticipate Blake's wishes and turn them into military orders.

But by 1975, McLean Stevenson had decided that he wanted to be written out of M*A*S*H, as he was feeling disenchanted with the way things were going. It was rumoured that he was growing tired of his character playing second fiddle to Alan Alda's character of Hawkeye. He asked to be released from his contract after the third season, and the writers, and producers Larry Gelbart and Gene Reynolds had to scramble to write out the character.

The episode “Abyssinia, Henry” began just like any other episode of the series. The staff of the 4077th were having lighthearted fun, playing a rousing game of Name That Tune while in the operating room, when Radar comes in to inform Blake that his discharge from duty has been approved, having received all of the needed Army service points needed to go home. Blake is overjoyed at hearing the news, and excitedly plans his trip back home to Bloomington, Illinois, where he looks forward to seeing his wife and family again.

The changes to the 4077th are almost immediate following the news. Frank prepares to take over in his new role as commanding officer, as Radar helps Henry clear out his office. The two share a moment of bonding, and even exchange gifts. Radar gives Blake an inscribed Winchester cartridge, and surprised by Radar's kind gesture, he spontaneously gives Radar a rectal thermometer that belonged to his father.

The night before Henry's departure, Radar, Hawkeye, and Trapper John take him out to Rosie's Bar and Grill for a going-away party. Under the influence of many, many drinks, the four reminisce about the good times they shared. When Henry excuses himself to go to the bathroom, the other three men plot out a ceremony designed to 'drum Henry out of the army', but one of the gifts the men give him is a brand new suit for Henry to wear on his flight home to the United States.

The next morning, with Frank in charge, it becomes clear that the rest of the unit don't seem to have as much respect for him as they did with Blake, with Klinger (known for dressing in some rather unusual outfits) going out of his way to dress to unimpress. But the moment Blake surfaces, wearing the brand new suit that was given to him the night before, everyone gives him a round of applause and a rousing chorus of “For He's A Jolly Good Fellow” as he approaches the helicopter that will take him home.

A poignant scene occurs just before Henry leaves, as Radar emotionally salutes the departing Blake. Blake runs over to Radar, salutes him right back, hugs him, and leaves him with these final words.

You behave yourself, or I'm gonna come back and kick your butt!”

And, that's the last that we see of Lieutenant Colonel Henry Blake.

But if you think that he had a happy ending, you would be tragically wrong. This was the final scene of the episode, with Radar having the very last line. (And, I apologize for the silliness that appears at the end, spoiling the clip, but it's the only one I can find...just stop the video at the 1:03 mark.)

There you have it. Henry Blake, on his way home from Korea never made it home. His plane being shot down over the sea of Japan. One of the first instances of a main character being killed off of a television show.

To make the reaction of the cast as believable as possible, the last page of the script was purposely kept from them until the day of shooting, so that the producers could get the maximum impact of shock and sadness from the members of the cast. Reportedly, only cast member Alan Alda had seen the last page of the script prior to it being distributed, and because of this, McLean Stevenson was on set to watch the scene play out. The scene was so emotional that the cast felt drained afterwards, and as a result, a planned farewell party for Stevenson was cancelled. A few months later, Wayne Rogers would also leave the show, and both Rogers and Stevenson were replaced with Mike Farrell and Harry Morgan for the 1975/76 season.

Still, though, the episode garnered a lot of public reaction, and not all of it was good. It was reported by Larry Gelbart and Gene Reynolds that after the initial airing of Abyssinia, Henry, they received more than one thousand letters from angry viewers who were upset that Henry Blake was killed off. Some said that Blake's death was a cheap move, and didn't belong in a show like M*A*S*H, while others said that his death was just unnecessary. Some threatened never to watch the show again (which reflected in the following season's ratings, which only peaked at #15 from the #5 spot it held the year before).

It wasn't just home viewers that didn't like the way the show ended. CBS was also unhappy with the ending, as were 20th Century Fox, the company that produced M*A*S*H. CBS was reportedly so unhappy with the ending that when it was rebroadcast in reruns later that year, the final operating room scene was cut out entirely! It has since been restored in syndication airings and the season three DVD set for the show. Even McLean Stevenson himself reflected on the exit, saying that it was disappointing that the show chose to kill his character off, effectively nixing any chance of him coming back to the show in the future. He later admitted in an interview that leaving M*A*S*H the way he did was a mistake.

So why did they kill off Henry Blake?

Basically, it was to send out a message.

Keep in mind that during the first three seasons of M*A*S*H, the Vietnam War was in full swing, and you don't need me to tell you just how that war affected American citizens at the time. With news outlets broadcasting more and more footage of people dying each day during the war, the producers felt that they had to bring up the subject in the television show.

By having Henry Blake's plane shot down in the Korean War, it really struck an emotional chord, given the time period. I think Gene Reynolds described it best in this excerpt of an interview he gave around the time of the show first airing;

...if we turned on the television, we would see fifteen people [killed in Vietnam every night]. They don't complain about that because it is unfelt violence, it is unfelt trauma. And that's not good. I think that if there is such a thing as the loss of life there should be some connection. And we did make a connection. It was a surprise, it was somebody they loved. They didn't expect it, but it made the point. People like Henry Blake are lost in the war.”

In a rather ironic sense, the Abyssinia, Henry episode was broadcast the same year that the Vietnam War officially ended.

Nevertheless, I can get the grasp of what Reynolds was trying to say. When people were seeing the images of war on television (even now during the war on terrorism currently going on), they didn't necessarily feel emotion for what was going on. But when M*A*S*H killed off Henry Blake, although he was a fictional representation of a soldier, it still resonated with viewers, as he was someone that they knew. Millions of viewers tuned in to watch M*A*S*H, and they all grew to know and love the characters in the show, and many were saddened to know that Blake never got his happy ending.

And that was a fictional program. Imagine all of the families out there whose loved ones never came home from the war that they fought in. I imagine that for those families, those wounds will never heal, and they won't ever forget what these men and women who died fighting for their countries did for them.

Which is why we remember them every November 11th.

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