Every Monday, I spotlight a random episode of M*A*S*H, providing a brief review and asking readers to offer their thoughts.
“Cowboy” (#8, 1×08)
Originally Broadcast: Sunday, November 12th, 1972
Written by Robert Klane
Directed by Don Weis
Capsule Summary: Colonel Blake is targeted by a disgruntled chopper pilot, leading to a tense helicopter ride high above Korea.
Once you get past the slightly corny concept of a chopper pilot nicknamed Cowboy actually wearing a cowboy hat and wearing six-shooters in leather holsters, this is a very solid episode with a lot of special effects and action sequences. Between all of the helicopter footage and the explosion, this had to be an expensive episode to produce.
Henry is often thought of as something of a buffoonish character, a pushover easily swayed by Hawkeye, Trapper or Radar. True, Radar did pull a lot of things and Henry wasn’t nearly as by-the-book as Frank or Margaret would have liked. But he did do a lot of what Hawkeye and Trapper would call “regular army” things, like refusing Hawkeye’s request to send the Cowboy stateside.
But this isn’t an episode about Henry’s sometimes devotion to military regulations. It’s about an over-the-top character with a cowboy hat, a game of golf gone awry, a runaway jeep, an exploding latrine and a high-stakes, high-altitude confrontation.
Given that the writers of M*A*S*H, particularly during the Gelbart years, often based episodes and plots on true stories from the Korean War, I wonder how much, if any, of the Cowboy character is based on a real chopper pilot. I can’t imagine a real soldier not being charged with attempted murder for, well, attempting to murder someone by tossing them out of a helicopter, regardless of how much combat fatigue and worry they were suffering from.
There’s something very maudlin about the juxtaposition between the Henry’s brushes with death at the 4077th (and the lengths the rest of the camp goes to in an attempt to stay away from him) and the sequence in the helicopter. The jeep going through Henry’s tent and the explosion in the latrine are both played for laughs. Even though the latrine is entirely destroyed, Henry does not seem injured at all.
The helicopter sequence is far more serious. Henry, in his own words, is “in real trouble.” This might be a rare case where watching without the laugh track drastically changes the tone of the episode. Watch the helicopter sequence with captions and then without and consider the placement of the laugh track during the reading of the Dear John letter. When you watch without the laugh track, it is actually a lot more dramatic.
I wonder who the stuntman was doubling for Henry in the scenes where he can be seen struggling with the Cowboy in the air.