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Film / Battle Circus

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Battle Circus is a 1953 war picture directed by Richard Brooks and starring Humphrey Bogart and June Allyson. The film chronicles the work of the 8666th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital (MASH) as they treat wounded soldiers during The Korean War. The film is notable for being a more dramatic forerunner to the M*A*S*H franchise. Comparisons between the two are inevitable.

Lieutenant Ruth McCara (Allyson) is newly assigned to the 8666th (often shortened to 66th in dialogue) MASH, officially commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Hilary Whalters (Robert Keith), but effectly controlled by the Chief Surgeon, Major Jed Webbe (Bogart). The womanizing Webbe is quickly drawn to McCara, who constantly rebuffs his advances. Initially a poor addition to camp, McCara soon proves herself in the operating room, only increasing Webbe's interest in her. All the while, the camp must deal with a constant flow of wounded, enemy fire, supply shortages, and regular moves as the front line shifts.


This work contains example of the following tropes:

  • The Ace: As chief surgeon, Webbe is this in spades - he's the one who takes on the complex surgeries and assists with field rescues.
  • The Alcoholic: Webbe imbibes frequently when off duty, to the point that Whalters has to warn him to dry out.
  • The Alleged Boss: Played with. Whalters is shown to be an entirely competent leader and Reasonable Authority Figure, but is absent or incapacitated for much of the film, Webbe calling most of the shots instead.
  • Asian Speekee Engrish: Strongly averted. All Korean characters who appear speak Korean, as do some members of the camp.
  • Broken Ace: Webbe is a hardened veteran of combat surgery, relying heavily on alcohol to get him through. Notably, early in the film he performs open-heart massage on a Korean boy he's operating on to revive him. By the movie's end, he walks away from a flatlined soldier on the operating table without even trying to bring him back.
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  • The Casanova: Webbe has a camp-wide reputation for flirting with the nurses, who warn McCara of this. They suggest he may be married, but this is never established for certain.
  • Combat Medic: One of Webbe's first scenes has him fly into a combat zone to help treat wounded soldiers at the front and evacuate them to the 66th. He catches some flak from Whalters for this.
  • Covered in Mud: McCara and Webbe get this while trying to get out of the shower tent when it collapses.
  • Crouching Moron, Hidden Badass: McCara's Establishing Character Moment has her try to pull wounded soldiers out of harm's way when the camp comes under fire during a dogfight between American and Korean fighter jets.
  • The Ditz: McCara is this when she first arrives. When she sees the camp's tents being dismantled ahead of a move early in the film, she is under the impression that the war has ended.
  • Drinking on Duty: Played with. Webbe confines his drinking to his off hours, but being at a front line army hospital means off hours tend to be curtailed without warning. This leads to his being summoned for surgery, only for it be discovered that he is unfit to operate.
  • Gentle Giant: Sergeant Orvil Statt, a former circus roustabout who is in charge of dismantling and reconstructing the unit when it moves. He develops a soft spot for a Korean orphan who is brought in as a patient.
  • Gung Holier Than Thou: McCara shows some of these tendencies, genuinely believing in her mission as an Army nurse. Gradually downplayed over the course of the movie.
  • I Need a Freaking Drink: After the safe arrival of a helicopter carrying a shipment of whole blood through a nighttime windstorm, Webbe goes on a bender.
  • MacGyvering: When the hospital train fails to arrive, the camp evacuates recovering patients by putting an abandoned set of railroad wheels under the nose of the evac truck, turning it into a proto-hi-rail.
  • The Main Characters Do Everything: Webbe seems to have a hand in everything that happens in the camp. Justified in that he is chief surgeon and therefore a de facto second in command. Played straight at the beginning, when he goes into combat to treat wounded soldiers on the line, something a chief surgeon would not be expected to do.
  • Meatgrinder Surgery: The movie spares no punches in showing the stresses MASH personnel were under during the Korean War.
  • Meet Cute: Webbe and McCara meet after the former drags the latter under a truck when the camp comes under fire during aerial combat.
  • Mildly Military: Webbe is never shown to be particularly GI. Indeed, Whalters tells him that had he been more military in his attitude, he would have been made commander.
  • The Neidermeyer: Webbe displays tendencies of this, demanding that the helicopter pilot Captain John Rustford fly at night in a windstorm to deliver an overdue shipment of whole blood.
  • You Are in Command Now: After Whalthers is injured, Webbe has to oversee the relocation of the camp.