• Joe Pace

Favorite Fictional Characters, #79: Benjamin "Hawkeye" Pierce


Rare picture of Arnold Vinick during his Army service

It might have something to do with having an Army doctor in the house, but M*A*S*H has found its way into our Netflix rotation. It's a good thing, too, because it's funny, still, even after all these years. According to the wife, for all its lunacy, there are some ways in which it cannily reflects the life of medical professionals in theater - long stretches of boredom punctuated by intense stress, camaraderie, pranks. That said, the show is very much a product of its time - it can be racist, sexist, anarchic - a fascinating time capsule of the 70s trying to make sense of the 50s. But mostly, it's funny, and often uproariously so.

At the center of the 4077th's surgical and comedic life is Captain Benjamin Pierce, MD - known as Hawkeye, a nickname pulled from The Last of the Mohicans, the only book his father ever read. A New Englander, Pierce is a brilliant surgeon with a stubborn anti-authoritarian streak that sets him up as the frequent foil to the camp's frazzled higher-ups. Portrayed by Donald Sutherland in the film, the character assumes his most familiar shape as interpreted by Alan Alda. Alda's infectious likability, his effortless charisma, give Pierce a lanky capital with the audience, which he spends liberally. His Pierce swills homemade gin in The Swamp, canoodles with nurses, bends (or breaks) every regulation he encounters, and does it all while saving lives and nudging the world toward a more humane place from the midst of a war zone. The giggles may seem at odds with the seriousness of their task, but as Pierce puts it, laughing is the only way to open his mouth without screaming.

As far as I'm concerned, we could use a bit more laughing and a bit less screaming these days, if our mouths have to be open at all.

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