Episode Spotlight: Cowboy

5 Comments

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.

Boom.

Boom.

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.

5 Replies to “Episode Spotlight: Cowboy”

  1. A lot of people hate this episode, but it’s actually one of my favorites… matter of fact, when I first started watching M*A*S*H back in the summer of 2005, this was the first episode I ever taped. It’s so unintentionally funny the way Henry is so shocked and confused, all he can mutter is, “Jeep… tent… boom… kill… jeep… tent… boom… kill…” over and over again. XD

    As for the writers, I don’t believe that they were basing their stories on actual Korean War events just yet – this was just the first season, and I know Alan Alda has said that during the first season, a lot of the scripts were written by “outside” writers, who kept cranking out “hijinx and the front” kind of stories, which this episode almost seems to be.

    There’s actually something of an oops moment in this episode as well: when Trapper and Hawkeye get ahold of Cowboy over the radio to tell him they finally received his letter from his wife, Trapper assures him, “We’re not jiving you cowboy”. I don’t believe they said “jive” in the 50s, did they? The 70s, definitely, but I don’t think they did in the 50s.

    And you have a point about stand-ins in choppers, many’s a time there’s been scenes with the characters in choppers, and it’s clearly NOT their respective actors in the shots. Like from “Kim” (2×06), when Trapper and Kim are hanging from the rope ladder from the chopper, that’s clearly not Wayne Rogers; likewise in “Comrades in Arms, Part 2” (6×14), that’s obviously not Mike Farrell in the chopper when they go out searching for Hawkeye and Margaret.

    1. Jive

      verb (used with object)
      7. Slang. to tease; fool; kid: Stop jiving me!
      adjective
      8. Slang. insincere, pretentious, or deceptive.
      Origin: 1920–25; origin obscure;

  2. It’s a very good episode. Interesting plot, funny accidents. When I watched it for the first time, the scene with Radar giving Henry documents to sign with a fishing rod cracked me up.

    The Cowboy character looks a bit exaggerated and it’s strange they didn’t court martial him for trying to kill Henry. At first, I didn’t like the part with the letter. “Dear John from Reno” didn’t sound too realistic. But it’s common for comedies that there are strange coincidences.

    So, for me it’s a memorable episode, and like almost all Season One, one of my favorites.

  3. This episode was mostly off-kilter except for when Trapper, Hawkeye, and Radar read the letter from Cowboy’s wife. Incidentally, Cowboy’s hometown is the same as my Uncle.

    Hawkeye–(reading the address on the envelope) Box 743, Reno.

  4. Radar tells Mulcahy that a jeep must have broken loose and gone through Henry’s tent. Is this at all possible outside the world of sitcoms? Did Army Jeeps at one point have faulty ignitions that somehow activated themselves accidentally?With all the trouble Chevy had a few years ago, I hesitate saying anything is impossible sight unseen.

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