Episode Spotlight: Rainbow Bridge


Every Monday, I spotlight a random episode of M*A*S*H, providing a brief review and asking readers to offer their thoughts.

“Rainbow Bridge” (#50, 3×02)
Originally Broadcast: Tuesday, September 17th, 1974
Written by Larry Gelbart & Laurence Marks
Directed by Hy Averback

Capsule Summary: The 4077th is contacted by the Chinese who offer to hand over nine wounded soldiers, leading to a tense meeting deep in enemy territory.

I have to wonder, given how so many of the stories on M*A*S*H were based on actual experiences and incidents during the Korean War, whether an exchange of wounded like the one seen in this episode could have actually happened. Is it in any way realistic? How would the Chinese have contacted the 4077th? Did Radar routinely monitor Chinese frequencies or did the Chinese broadcast on a known U.S. or U.N. frequency?

Why would Colonel Blake have made the decision to send doctors deep into enemy territory and not top military brass? It wouldn’t have fit the tone of the episode but where was Colonel Flagg? This would have been perfect for him. He would have insisted on impersonating a doctor and using the exchange to gather intelligence on Chinese medical capabilities, not caring at all about the wounded soldiers.

One of my favorite scenes in this episode was Father Mulcahy’s conversation with Hawkeye and Trapper while they were preparing for Tokyo, particularly his entrance timed to coincide with Trapper giving thanks and his earnest question about Klinger’s training bra. This is followed with Colonel Blake and his Orville Carver bit, which is another favorite scene. Was it cut in syndication?

“Rainbow Bridge” was the first of three episodes in which Loudon Wainwright III portrayed Captain Calvin Spalding, the troubadour doctor (the others were “There Is Nothing Like a Nurse” and “Big Mac”). I don’t think the character worked well here. Seeing him sitting and singing pulled me out of the episode. That said, I liked his singing and I think it added a lot to the scene in which the bus is shown leaving the camp. His guitar playing also made the final scene in the Swamp feel far more personal than the regular background music.

Still from the M*A*S*H episode Rainbow Bridge showing Frank's tiny gun.
Frank’s tiny gun.

This was the first of four guest appearances by Mako, all as different characters.

The gun Margaret gave Frank looks almost impossibly small. Are there any weapons experts out there who can say whether it was a functioning firearm or a lighter?

There were a few unfortunate rape jokes made during the first few years of M*A*S*H and one was in this episode.

Was this the only episode to mention a casualty report or at least one as detailed as the piece of paper Trapper was reading from?

Which is better: Hawkeye’s “It could be a trap, Trap” or Margaret’s “Can I be frank, Frank?”

Watch the background carefully in this episode. You’ll see a South Korean man on a bicycle loaded with what look like metal cans at least twice. Also, when the bus is being loaded you can see Igor standing with two men next to the Pre-Op Ward. I wonder what they were talking about.

19 Replies to “Episode Spotlight: Rainbow Bridge”

  1. I enjoyed the episodes featuring Capt. Spalding. I’ve always assumed, but never been able to verify, that his namesake was Capt. Spalding “The African Explorer” played by Groucho Marx in “Animal Crackers” — Spalding’s monolog included the famous “I once shot an elephant in my pajamas…” line.

    As to ‘Rainbow Bridge’ I always found the storyline preposterous. I don’t know if such exchanges took place during the war, but considering the level of rancor in the Korean conflict, I can’t see a situation where Americans would travel deep within enemy lines and then be allowed to leave peacefully. The episode did contain many humorous moments, I just have to ignore the overall theme in order to enjoy them.

  2. The overall plot may strain credibility, but I *love* this episode! Another real solid entry in a season that, IMO, can do no wrong.

    “Frank, that R-E-D speaks English better than Y-O-U!”

      1. Season 3 has always been my favorite overall. Season 2 is my second favorite and Season 1 and 4 are tied for 3rd.

  3. I really like the ‘Oh, Tokyo!!’ song that Capt. Spaulding sings at the beginning of the episode.

    Mako was a fantastic guest star and very very memorable in all his appearances. Margaret certainly seemed to have colorful parents judging by all the stories she used to tell Frank about her mother and father exchanging gifts on their wedding night.

    Great episode from a great season.

    1. Indeed, I love the tone of this episode. A really funny part takes place in the mess tent after a very long day ( and night) in OR for the surgeons ( and Major Houlahan) Trapper says “ he may be right” or something like that in response to Hot Lips saying something about the Chinese exchange offer- Margaret says “ I said that” to which Trapper ( or is it Hawkeye?) “ I know” – the expression on Frank’s face is priceless!

  4. Frank: Army STP is as follows: American wounded first, allies second, enemy last,repeat,last.

    The only thing that would’ve made the bus ride footage better would be Walter Cronkite narrating.

  5. This is a highly fictionalized, and much simplified, account of things which actually happened in every war.

    Two things to consider:
    -MASH units at that time were an almost uniquely American concept; most other armies just had aid stations at the front to quickly patch up the worst wounds then pile all the casualties on ambulances for a several hour trip to the nearest hospital (a trip many of the wounded didn’t survive)
    -repatriation of enemy combatants is a decision that cannot be made at the military level, it is negotiated at the political/diplomatic level

    In this episode we have a North Korean doctor, who lived and studied in the US, in a situation of having to fight the people with whom he so recently lived. He has a handful of US soldiers so badly wounded he can do nothing for them, if he has ambulances available these men would probably not last long enough to get to a hospital, so he violates protocol and contacts the enemy to come get them. (Technically he has just committed treason – aiding and abetting the enemy – for which in nearly every army he could be shot). But had he gone through channels, those men would have most certainly died before any decision was made.

  6. “How would the Chinese have contacted the 4077th? Did Radar routinely monitor Chinese frequencies or did the Chinese broadcast on a known U.S. or U.N. frequency?”

    Most radio communications at the time were via standard shortwave; for everyone. So everyone could listen to, and talk to, everyone else. Confidential information (such as units and locations) were only referred to by codes, so unless you had the enemy’s unit lists and maps you had only the most general idea what they were doing. For this reason every time you see Radar mention “MASH 4077” on the radio, this is absolutely wrong. (The unit would have a meaningless ID code, such as “BD62Y”, and the codes were changed periodically.)

    This is greatly simplified in MASH. In reality the company clerk would not be using the radio at all; a unit the size of a MASH would have two to four radiomen (who also doubled as electricians for the camp) who received specialized training after boot camp. For privacy and safety the radio equipment is housed in its own building (hence “radio shack”) and, since the unit receives its orders and news via radio, must be monitored 24hrs/day. It is isolated so the noise of the office doesn’t interfere with radio use and the office isn’t annoyed by constant radio chatter; and so the equipment can be easily grounded – that antenna sticking up 30+ feet in the air is a great lightning rod.

  7. I love the ending where Radar refers to Hawkeye and Trapper as ‘Supermen’, and tucks them in. A touching moment 🙂

  8. As long as you asked, Id vote for “It could be a trap,Trap.” Over “…..frank,Frank” There was a better exchange IMO in another episode using Franks name between Hawkeye and Blake. Blake:” I’m going to be Frank with you,I mean straight.” Hawkeye: ” Oh good, cause then Frank would try to be Henry with me, and I don’t think I could take that.”

  9. Once watching this episode with some friends playing ” Mash Science Theatre 4077″, someone came up with “The Chinese said we could bring three doctors, two corpsmen, and no more than one Balladeer.”

  10. Watched this & “General Flipped…” last 2 days. Good double start to S3. Perfect mixture of drama/anti-war message & humour/one-liners in “…Bridge”. Why I like MASH so much. Was this Loudon Wainwright III’s 1st appearance in the show?

  11. I wish we could have seen more of Spalding…along with his musical talent, he looked like he would have made a good fit in the Swamp. As it is, we never found out what happened to him in later episodes.

  12. One of my favorite lines by Hawkeye I have later learned was a true quote:

    “I think Ralph Bellamy said it best when he said if I can’t get the girl, at least give me more money.”

    Ralph was a well-known character actor (remember Randolph Duke in “Trading Places”?) who was speaking about movie parts where his character didn’t get to be with the leading-lady in the end.

  13. Has anyone else noticed that Loudon Wainwright as Captain Spalding bears a striking resemblance to NHL hockey superstar Connor McDavid? ( I know this comment is a dead giveaway that I’m Canadian)

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