McHale's Navy

by Norman Fischer | March 14, 2014 at 5:07 PM

March 9, 2014, Seatac airport

The other day while I was exercising I found a TV channel that was showing 1960's sitcoms. McHales's Navy was on, a show I remember well from the early sixties. Starring Earnest Borgnine, who was famous for his role in the movie Marty, it was one of those light comedies about World War II. Yes, that's right, light comedies about World War II, a genre common in those days. There were several such shows. Their basic promise of all of them was that the War was loonie and lots of fun. The guys in the shows clowned around a lot, and were especially fond of foiling their superior officers, who were usually portrayed as hilarious and pompous buffoons. There was usually a figure like McHale, a leader of men, but not a major serious leader, a sergeant, never a captain or a general. The McHale figure would run all kinds of scams, from smuggling women into the barracks to bootlegging, all harmless stuff of course, good clean fun, which would be perpetrated right under the noses of the buffoon pompous clueless commanders who were always trying to get the goods on the McHales and always failing. Usually the plots of such shows unfolded in barracks or on leave, not on battlefields. No blood. The war was mostly a gas, essentially light hearted, mostly about waiting for something to happen, was the idea. By the time, later in the decade, you got to MASH (which was actually about the Korean War, and which aired as Vietnam was heating up) you were beginning to have some sense, amid the fun and games, that maybe war was actually pretty terrible, not a good idea. But in McHale's Navy it was still pretty much a good time.

In the episode I was watching while I was sweating on my Nordic Trac, McHale's guys were busy collecting various sorts of stolen contraband to sell for personal profit when they went on their upcoming furlough. But suddenly the furlough is cancelled because there is a Japanese aircraft, nicknamed Washing Machine Charlie, that keeps strafing and bombing  the island where McHale and his guys are stationed. The commander tells them, No furlough till you get rid of Washing Machine Charlie. So this becomes urgently important. In and of himself, Washing Machine Charlie is no problem. He strafes, he bombs, but no one is ever hurt. And the sense is bombs don't ever land on anything anyway. The problem is the furlough. So they have to find him. Eventually they do and the scene is a classical comedy routine. The Japanese encampment is portrayed as a harmless comical bunch of sweet funny little Asian guys. Their leader is taking a bath and McHale easily climbs in through the window of his grass hut, picks up a backscrubbing brush, and bops him over the head - of course this happens off camera. It would be completely out of character and tone for McHale to be seen committing even such a mild form of violence. Eventually, through a series of ridiculous mishaps, Ensign Parker (played by the hilarious Tim Conway), who is an utterly incompetent guy, ends up flying Washing Machine Charlie's plane. Parker isn’t a pilot, and the aircraft careens wildly through the skies, as the Americans, not knowing it’s Parker aboard, attempt to shoot it down. All in good fun. All ends well when Parker parachutes out, and ends up, in the episode's final scene, dangling from a tree in a daze.

It’s hard to imagine a show like this airing today. Now any depiction of any war will emphasize the horror, the carnage, the trauma. Strange to think that McHale's Navy, and the many programs like it, were made only about fifteen years after the War, and were watched by the very men in whose memory the War must still have been pretty fresh. What was the point and the motivation of such shows? To take the edge off the trauma that people no doubt felt? To reinforce the denial that everyone was so forcefully working toward? Or maybe the War, and all wars, really are funny, full of all sorts of snafus and ridiculous events? Maybe war really is mostly about waiting for something to happen and scamming while you wait. Our present moment is so focused on suffering and tragedy. We are perhaps too aware of it, make too much of it. Terrible things of course do happen. But also a lot of funny things happen. And maybe even in the middle of something terrible there's something funny. The men and women (if there were any women, probably not) who wrote and produced shows like McHale's Navy were, after all, just professionals trying to make TV shows that people would watch. They probably didn't have self conscious cultural intentions. Nevertheless, there was a cultural power to these shows, and a truth to them. Maybe we are all too serious about the world - whatever that is - and its many supposed problems. If my saying this disturbs you, why would it? Of course there are problems. Of course war is, like they say, hell. Still, maybe we need to lighten up once in a while, and not be so certain of the tragedies we think we see. 


Norman Fischer