Magnum P.I.’s ‘Never Again… Never Again’: “Little Fish”, Surprise Nazis and the Question of the War Criminal – Part 2/3

Editor’s note: This 3-part blog series on war crime, with special attention to the representation of Nazis in prime-time American TV, was written before the events in August in Charlottesville, VA and are not reflective or responsive of contemporary events involving terror white supremacy, neo-Naziism groups, etc. As this 3-part blog series focuses on the fictional representations of war criminals in American television, thoughtful discussions are absolutely welcome on topic. I understand that these topics have become more relevant in current politics; however let me be clear about where I stand on this issue. I absolutely denounce racism and bigotry of all kinds, and consider this a safe place for open and thoughtful discussion. Any comments encouraging racism, white supremacy, anti-semitism, anti-social behaviour and violence will not be tolerated; comments will be reported and removed. 

This blog entry is part two of three: the purpose of this series is to explore how perpertrators of war crimes are treated after the war in various points of genre television. Part one of this blog explores an episode of The Twilight Zone (referred to in this blog as TZ) episode ‘Deaths-Head Revisited’, and contextualises the attitudes of Rod Serling, post-war attitudes in the 1960s, as well as some historical background of the programme.  If you missed Part one and wish to read it now, please click here. Below, this second blog will focus on the 1981 episode of Magnum, P.I., ‘Never Again… Never Again’. The final entry in this 3-part blog series focuses on a 1993 episode, ‘Duet’, in the science fiction programme Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Each blog will examine how those who committed crimes of war are treated within these television episodes. As always, spoilers are ahead.

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‘Never Again… Never Again’ – Magnum, P.I.
Season 1, Episode 7
Aired: 22 January 1981
Story by: Jim CarlsonTerrence McDonnell Teleplay by: Babs Greyhosky
Directed by: Robert Loggia

Magnum, as an hour-long programme (45 minutes without adverts) is afforded more time for a more complex narrative – as well as cast. It is an interesting idea, but unlike ‘DHR’ and ‘Duet’, Magnum is an action-adventure programme. The opening credits show you exactly what to expect: helicopter chases, Hawaiian beaches, guns, Tom Selleck without a shirt, flashbacks to ‘Nam, Navy uniforms, explosions, beautiful bikini-clad women, car chases, Higgins with a cannon, random tomfoolery with his friends Rick and T.C., more fights, more beaches — all done with a flirtatious and knowing wink from Tom Selleck as he smiles at the camera.

 

As always, some context in this programme and this era is important. DHR in TZ was less than two decades away from the end of WWII – and as such, the appearance of Nazis in TZ made a bit more sense. Even Magnum is a bit incredulous at the idea of fighting Nazis in 1981 Hawaii – and Rick shows more than a little concern, saying ‘Thomas, I don’t know if I’m ready for Nazis!’

Let’s get this out of the way: ‘Never Again… Never Again (NANA)’ is not a great episode – certainly not one of Magnum‘s best (and definitely no ‘Did you See the Sunrise!’). But this blog isn’t concerned with whether or not this is a good episode: my main concern in this blog post is how Magnum deals with the idea of the escaped/unpunished war criminal. 

In ‘DHR’, a former SS Captain, Lutze, tours Dachau, the concentration camp he was formerly in charge of during the war. Lutze has escaped any formal punishment, and in the end of the episode, Lutze descends into madness. Twilight Zone takes a very harsh attitude toward those who, like Lutze, look at war through a lens of nostalgia and fail to appreciate the gravity and horror of the Holocaust.  A mere 14 years after the war ended, Jewish veteran Serling is understandably resolutely unsympathetic to those who, like Lutze, ‘decided to turn the Earth into a graveyard.’ His message is clear: those who romanticise or fail to recognise the horrors of the Holocaust will be punished – either in this life, or the next. 

Magnum, P.I. (1980-1988) approaches the Nazi war criminal 36 years after the end of WWII. In ‘NANA’, the focus on escaped Nazis of WWII can seem somewhat out of character for a programme that focuses so strongly on the Vietnam War. Like both Twilight Zone (TZ) and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (DS9)Magnum is a show very much preoccupied with war – in fact, it would be fair to say that out of these three programmes, Magnum focuses the most consistently on war, repercussions of war, and cultural memory of conflict. TZ and DS9 are science fiction programmes that frequently make direct commentary on war – sometimes in terms of historical wars, and sometimes in terms of fictional wars based upon historical conflict. 

Magnum is different: the four principle characters are all veterans of war. Thomas Magnum (Tom Selleck) and his friends Rick Wright (Larry Manetti) and T.C. Calvin (Roger E. Mosley) each served together during the Vietnam War. John Jonathan Higgins (Magnum’s best friend/most hated adversary depending on the day, played by John Hillerman) is retired British Sergeant Major who served in both WWII and Korea, and is, as Elizabeth Hirschman describes, representative of ‘the pomposity, elitism, and stuffiness of the Old Guard (literally and figuratively)’. Moreover, as discussed in the Part 1 blog on TZ, Rod Serling created TZ as a safe place to both discuss and analyse war from his own experiences in the US Army. Magnum, P.I. was similarly informed from first-hand experience, as Selleck served in the National Guard, and Hillerman served in the US Air Force. 

War is certainly an ever-present character in Magnum, but not always one that is immediately commented upon. Most episodes are splintered with flashbacks to ‘Nam: some of the flashbacks are addressed within the future, but very often the stories are left hanging as character backstory within the present narrative. Magnum, T.C. and Rick generally do not discuss the Vietnam War, and Higgins is prone to telling war stories: this conforms to the American cultural attitudes of WWII as a ‘romanticised’ war with good stories of heroism and valour in contrast to ‘Nam as a sore wound held within this programme (though there is often an effort to subvert both attitudes frequently within the programme). In fact, Magnum frequently calls Higgins up on his tendency to romanticise his war stories, as seen in this exchange in ‘No More Mr. Nice Guy’ (Season 4, episode 13):

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Magnum, P.I., has often been recognised as the first fictional media (film or television programme) that did not demonise veterans and show them as unstable killers, disabled, violent and suffering from debilitating PTSD  (see links  for examples). In general, I would agree with recognising Magnum as one of, if not the first, television programme that showed Vietnam veterans with sensitivity and respect, and that the programme actively tried to represent Vietnam Vets without demonising them.

In an interview with TV Legends, Creator Donald P. Bellasario comments that the portrayals of Vietnam Vets within the media 

 was very negative… [as seen in films like In the Valley of Elah, 2007] That everybody comes back so fucked up. Unable to function. Killers. I’m seeing it all over again. […] It leaves an image of people served that I don’t think is accurate. Because Vietnam was exactly the same way. And when I created Magnum, I got thousands of letters from Vietnam veterans thanking me for portraying Vietnam veterans who were something other than killers and drug addicts and crazy and unable to function in society…I never did the image of the guys that they had been in Vietnam and it had been a waltz, that they just loved it. I never did that. It had been a terrible experience. In fact, the key to Magnum was that after all the tours of duty he did, [when the Vietnam War] ended, he just didn’t know what to do. …The key to the whole show: he woke up one day and realized that he was 35 but he’d never been 25. He decided he was gonna be 25 and have a good time. So he was affected by [war]. And so was TC, and so was Rick. But it was quite a departure for television at that time, or for films. And the Village Voice did an article which said they thought it was a seminal moment in television, a changing to acceptance of Vietnam Veterans that had been a long time coming [.] That it was just time to do it.

This positive representation has been recognised by various mainstream press as well as cultural historians like Thomas Doherty, who argues that 

Magnum P.I. [sic] celebrated a rakish private investigator who was a veteran of naval intelligence in Vietnam, a man who oozed congeniality and psychic ability and who maintained a bond with his equally capable crew of war buddies – the kind of postwar bond that was common in 1940s cinema. [Through] the great wellspring of traumatic stress and residual shame, the Vietnam War was also the only credible back story for a mature action hero to have acquired skill in weaponry and certification of his courage on the field of battle Periodically tormented by flashbacks and night terrors, he was, by and large, a functioning human being whose Vietnam experience informed his police work and dexterity under fire.

Selleck is a driving force in continued recognition for Vietnam Veterans and the recognition of Magnum as a positive influence on culture and society in terms of Vietnam Veterans, and he serves as a spokesperson for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund. In fact, as Selleck explains

Magnum was a show that was taken very seriously. I’m most proud of the fact that Magnum is in the Smithsonian. They recognized [sic] it as the first show that recognized  [sic] Vietnam veterans in a positive light, and that’s why my Detroit hat and my Hawaiian shirt is next to Archie Bunker’s chair. 

As a result of this more sensitive approach to recognise Vietnam veterans in a  more positive light, the programme inter-spliced flashbacks of ‘Nam into nearly every episode. Generally speaking, each of the four primary characters were shown as highly functional despite any lingering PTSD they may have had, though when the plot called for it, it was certainly Magnum who struggled the most in moving forward. The attitude toward Vietnam Vets and Magnum will certainly be an area of interest for future blogs, but for right now, I’m primarily concerned with the generally positive attitude Magnum held in regards to soldiers and veterans, as it influences how the episode ‘Never Again… Never Again’ approaches war and the idea of war crime. 

As argued in Part 1 of this series, Conflict, criminality and atrocities are never easy topics to tackle, especially in television, due to the limited framework of the medium such as time, network restrictions, expectations of the audience, and even budget. TZ, as a half-hour programme, packs a solid and decisive punch in the viewer’s face in ‘DHR’: the cast is minimal, as are the set designs and even dialogue. What sells the punch for ‘DHR’ is the duet between the war criminal, Lutze, and his victim, Alfred Becker.

‘NANA’ seems so concerned with twisting the end to surprise the audience that it fails to deliver a solid punch. In short, this is a programme that concerns itself with action, reaction, and aesthetics. ‘NANA’ is, therefore, primarily focused on these elements and, unlike ‘Duet’ and ‘DHR’, does not necessarily take the time to present a specific point or attitude about how we see war, war criminals and identity. As such, discussing what should happen to those perpetrators of war crimes — in particular, those who have faced no negative consequences for their involvement in war crimes — is a difficult task for any programme, but especially Magnum, P.I.

The plot of ‘NANA’ is simple, if not a bit contrived. Magnum and his friends attempt to help Lena and Saul Greenberg (played by (Hanna Hertelendy and Robert Ellenstein), two Holocaust survivors (pictured below), as they are targeted by a group of Nazi pursuers. 

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Magnum et. al become suspicious when their very dear friends (that we’ve never met), The Greenbergs, announce they’re going on holiday. When Magnum and Rick go to see the Greenbergs at their shop, they find the shop has closed down. Screen Shot 2017-08-06 at 12.01.37.png

Worried, they decide to go to the Greenberg’s house to find Saul being taken away in an ambulance with a heart attack. Screen Shot 2017-08-06 at 12.04.23.png

When the ambulance does not arrive to the hospital, however, they quickly realise, that Saul has been kidnapped. Rick and Magnum work to calm down Lena to figure out where he might have gone. Screen Shot 2017-08-06 at 17.22.22.png 

Magnum asks Lena if she knows who took Saul. 

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Magnum and Lena meet with Dr Heller, Saul’s doctor who has been treating him for his heart – but Lena vehemently announces that Dr Heller is not Saul’s doctor. Screen Shot 2017-08-06 at 19.14.37.png

Unlike TZ or DS9, there is no attempt to discuss the horrors of war: imagining an educated viewer who is intimately aware of the Holocaust and Nazis, Magnum instead focuses on Magnum’s efforts to figure out where Saul might be and how to keep Lena safe. Magnum takes Lena to stay on the estate he lives with Higgins on. 

Over a cup of tea, Higgins spots Lena’s Holocaust tattoo, apologises for staring, and remarking, ‘it’s been a long time since I’ve seen anything like that.’  Screen Shot 2017-08-06 at 19.16.04.png

Higgins asks which camp she was at, and she replies ‘Jadwiga, Poland’. Fact check: there is no such camp, in fact: it is a fictional camp often used in fictional narratives referencing the Holocaust (such as Leon Uris’s QB VII), and is probably meant to reference Auschwitz, as that is the only camp that tattooed numbers on the prisoners. It is interesting to me that Twilight Zone uses real concentration camps but other shows use fictional ones. I might follow this up at some point in a future post. 

Magnum goes to Lena’s house to get her some clothes for her stay at the estate, and Higgins is attacked trying to save Lena from intruders. When Magnum comes home, he finds Higgins unconscious and calls his friend T.C. to take Higgins to the hospital. Lena is no where to be found. Screen Shot 2017-08-06 at 19.18.26.png

Magnum leaves Higgins at the hospital to try to figure out who might have Lena and Saul. He narrates to the audience:

Screen Shot 2017-08-07 at 17.15.52.pngMagnum contacts Kessler, who asks him to come to his house to discuss the Greenbergs. When Magnum and Rick arrive, however, Kessler is dead. Screen Shot 2017-08-06 at 19.20.20.png

It is at this point Magnum starts putting the pieces together. Kessler does have a number tattooed on his arm – he was in a concentration camp. This makes no sense to Magnum, who wonders if Kessler was a Nazi passing as a Jew. Magnum starts searching Kessler’s desk. He finds a picture of Saul and Lena in Kessler’s files:Screen Shot 2017-08-06 at 19.17.47.png

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Surmising that Lena killed Kessler, Magnum realises that Saul and Lena are probably on Kessler’s boat. When he arrives, he discovers another member of the Israeli Secret Police dead – Lena has slashed the man’s throat with a scalpel. Lena is in the quarters of the boat sobbing over Saul’s dead body – his heart attack, untreated, has killed him. Screen Shot 2017-08-06 at 19.29.00.png

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This exchange is literally the only point in the episode where direct reference is made to the horrors of the concentration camps and the mentality that lead to the camps. In comparison to ‘DHR’, (in which nearly every moment is spent considering the agonies experienced by the prisoners and the sadism of the Nazi officials), the minimal referencing of these in ‘NANA’ has four distinct possibilities for me:

  • Firstly, perhaps it is just a poorly written episode that fails to capture the subject it dares to bring up, or suffers from network limitations.
  • Secondly, it might be attempting to recognise old adage that the unseen/unspoken can often be more frightening than actually acknowledging it, as it forces the audience to fill in the blanks with their own imagination: whether this episode actually does this adequately is certainly up for debate. 
  • Thirdly, perhaps, in the dedication to portraying a more favourable attitude toward soldiers, especially Vietnam veterans who are so often represented within popular media as criminals, Magnum leaves the gravity of these crimes almost entirely unspoken as to avoid looking too harsh on the subject of war crime for fear of making inferences to these veterans.
  • Finally, perhaps because the programme is an action-adventure — one with a distinct comedic presence — Magnum felt it was too heavy a subject to address on only the seventh episode of the programme (though they certainly dealt with heavier topics within the show).

(Or a combination therein).

Regardless of whether the reasons for this minimalism is addressed here, I find it interesting that out of the three shows discussed in this series, the one that engages most consistently with war in this series is the one show that hides away from it so much. 

It is assumed that Magnum takes Lena into custody (though this is not shown to the audience) to pay for her crimes, but no resolution is even hinted at. An interesting take here for Magnum is in having Lena — an elderly woman — the villain of the episode, as this does seem an unusual approach. Magnum certainly tends to have it’s fair share of femme fatales — usually played by actresses like  Sharon Stone. In any case, ‘NANA’ seems more preoccupied with presenting an altogether serviceable but hardly original twist ending reveals that Lena and Saul are not, in fact, Jewish survivors being hunted by Nazis, but in fact Nazis being hunted by the Israeli Secret Police.

One thing I do want to unpick a bit here is Lena’s repeated attempts at justification, ‘it was war!’, as the denouement of the episode addresses this.

Screen Shot 2017-08-06 at 19.30.40.pngMagnum drives Higgins home from the hospital, and as they walk along the beach, they have this very brief exchange:

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In some ways, this conversation seems to belong to a different episode — one that might have done more than barely flash through any question of the realities of the camps, nor of the excuses like ‘it was war’ from those who committed these atrocities. We never know how involved Saul and Lena were in the Holocaust – we do know that Lena has killed two people in this episode, however. Whether they were ‘little fish’ or not, the episode seems completely non-plussed in answering this question. Nevertheless, for all the minimalism and even avoidance of the very topic ‘Never Again… Never Again’ brings to the table, this idea of the ‘little fish’ and the insistence that there were no ‘little fish’ is the most straightforward.

Like ‘Deaths-Head Revisted’, Magnum, P.I. declares here that whether they were ‘little fish’ or running the camps themselves, those who might try to justify the Holocaust by arguing that they did what they did because ‘it was war’ might meet the same end as Twilight Zone‘s Lutze. I argued in Part 1 of this series that Twilight Zone takes the harshest view toward war criminals for a variety of reasons. The time between the Second World War and this episode of Magnum, P.I. is 36 years – the same number, funnily enough, between today and this episode of Magnum. This distance is certain to change perceptions one way or another. In Serling’s ‘Deaths-Head Revisited’, wounds still sore and open from war, the attitude toward people like Lutze — and, indeed, to people like Lena and Saul. Although Magnum, P.I. approaches the idea of the escaped war criminal differently than Twilight Zone, ultimately each refuse to accept any idea of a ‘little fish’, arguing that everyone involved must be held accountable for the crimes and atrocities they allowed to happen.

In the final blog in this series, I explore the episode ‘Duet’ in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. In many ways, ‘Duet’ has far more in common with ‘Deaths-Head Revisted’, depite the amount of time between the two. Continuing this idea of what Higgins calls the ‘little fish’, ‘Duet’ explores fictional war criminals in a futuristic setting. As I will argue, however, the setting and details may change, but the question of what to do with someone who has taken part in an atrocity like the Holocaust after the war has ended still lingers. 

 

 

Dr. Harmon: Maybe it’s never over. Maybe we always carry the war around inside of us. Like a time bomb, ticking away, waiting to go off. – Magnum, P.I., Heal Thyself [3.12]

Intro Blog

cropped-image1.jpgWell, not sure how you found yourself here, but I’m happy you stopped by.

Why am I here? Well, I have a passion for exploring TV and culture. I’m an occasional academic, writing on masculinity, fashion, Irish literature, comedy and war (and a few other things). I’m here because I probably spend a bit too much time watching television and way too much time thinking about it.

One thing I find myself thinking quite often about is how television uses war for entertainment. I can’t think of anything less entertaining than war — it’s brutal, horrific and cruel. But it’s also everywhere – films, TV, video games… Jean Baudrillard refers to it as ‘war porn’.

And yet, there has been a distinct lack of exploration in how war  is conveyed to an audience through scripted television. This is surprising, as there are literally hundreds of television programmes that explore various war settings. Perhaps one of the most famous of these programmes is the programme M*A*S*H (1972-1983), set in an army hospital during the American involvement of the Korean War (1950-1953). Other programmes worth note include Hogan’s Heroes (1965- 1971); It Ain’ Half Hot, Mum (1974- 1981); ‘Allo ‘Allo (1982-1992); Dad’s Army (1968-1977), each set in World War II; China Beach (1988- 1991), Tour of Duty (1987- 1990), focusing on the American involvement of Vietnam War (1959-1975).

The representation of war is not limited to programmes specifically set during a war, however: several programmes also explore life after war for veterans who struggle to adjust to civilian life. Most noticeable for this is Magnum P.I., which regularly uses flashbacks of the Vietnam War focusing on Thomas Magnum, a veteran who lives in Hawaii, along with three friends who are also veterans.

Genre programmes, specifically science-fiction, tends to utilise the trope of the ‘shell-shocked veteran’ who proves somewhat unstable due to PTSD from war. There’s Firefly (2002-2003), (and the subsequent theatrical feature, Serenity, 2005), focusing on a soldier, Mal Reynolds, a veteran from a futuristic war; and Battlestar Galactica (2004-2009) shows both life during a futuristic war as well as those who suffer from PTSD from the war itself. In Doctor Who (revival- 2005-present), The Doctor, as the lone survivor of the Time War, occasionally shows PTSD and instability due to his war experiences. Specific episodes address this link between war, trauma and the veteran. Other programmes, such as Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987-1994) explore life in war, war survival and PTSD in a more limited capacity for specific episodes such as ‘The Hunted’, ‘Common Ground’, ‘Chain of Command 1& 2’, and ‘Yesterday’s Enterprise’. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, more than TNG, deals with war — ‘Duet’, for example, shows war veteran Kira trying to bring justice to a man she believes was responsible for war crimes. Although this is set in a fictional war in the future on a fictional planet, there are very intentional and specific links to be made with the prison camps and war criminals of World War II.

These are just a few areas of interest — but most striking is the fact that war, as entertainment, is such an under-researched field. Moreoever, as a Gothicist, I can’t help but notice that there are some very strong links in how many Gothic tropes are used within these programmes to represent war. It doesn’t seem to matter whether show is comedy or drama, portraying historical or fictional wars, or whether or past traumas resurfacing for veterans suffering from PTSD: Gothic tropes are used to display these experiences.

So, this blog aims to further explore how war, comedy and gothic are used together for entertainment within television, but to also give attention to how the experiences of soldiers and veterans are relayed through gothic tropes. Not every post will have such a specific focus, but generally I will try to keep it all related. Rarely, I might look at films like war films Duck Soup (1933) and Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964) — but television is definitely my preferred medium.

Due to my busy schedule, I intend to post a blog once a month – however, this may be a bit over-ambitious, so forgive me if there are long delays. I shall try!

If you’re still here after reading all of that, then welcome again to Khaki Gothic!

sunday

 

 

Nice war we had. Of course, every war has its cute things. World War II had nice songs. The War of the Roses had nice flowers. We’ve got booms, they had blooms. Actually, every war has its ‘ooms. You’ve got doom, gloom, everybody ends in a tomb, the planes go zoom, and they bomb your room.’ – Hawkeye Pierce, ‘Goodbye, Farewell, Amen’ (M*A*S*H)