Discuss: Would Frank Burns Have Made a Good Commanding Officer?


Monday M*A*S*H Discussions offers fans the opportunity to offer their opinions on a wide variety of topics relating to M*A*S*H. Please share your thoughts and ideas in the comments section. My hope is these discussion posts will continue to elicit comments in the weeks and months after they’re initially published. Have a suggestion about something you think might be worth discussing? Let me know and maybe it will become my next Monday M*A*S*H Discussion topic.

Doc Funnypants suggested today’s topic: Would Frank Burns have made a good commanding officer?

Good for the 4077th or Good for Comedy?

I see this as a two-part question. First, would Frank Burns (the man) have made a good commanding officer for the 4077th. Second, would Frank Burns (the character) have made a good commanding officer for the series and viewers.

Viewers got their first taste of Frank as temporary commanding officer early during Season 1 in “Henry Please Come Home.” Colonel Blake is assigned to Tokyo and Frank, now in command, attempts to turn the 4077th into a by-the-books military outfit. Later, in “The Trial of Henry Blake” during Season 2, Frank attempts to use his temporary power to stop Hawkeye and Trapper from defending Colonel Blake during a court-martial.

During Season 3, Frank was in charge twice. In “Officer of the Day,” Frank forces Hawkeye to take on Officer of the Day duties. In “Alcoholics Unanimous,” he bans alcohol while in command.

The peak of Frank’s power came at the start of Season 4. In “Welcome to Korea,” he is once again in temporary command–and under the impression he’ll become permanent CO. Frank and Margaret work to reshape the 4077th, with military efficiency and protocol. Sadly for Frank, he’s replaced by Colonel Potter in “Change of Command.”

Frank got at least one more temporary shot at command, as seen in “The Novocaine Mutiny” later in Season 4. He banned gambling and forced the camp to practice bugging out. He even brought Hawkeye up on charges for a so-called mutiny.

Let’s Discuss

I think most fans will say no to both parts of the question. It’s hard to believe Frank Burns in command would have been good for the 4077th. Whenever he was in command, he tried to drastically later how the camp behaved. His edicts were overturned quickly and things returned to normal. Had Colonel Potter not arrived to take over command of the 4077th, how long would it take before morale sank to an all-time low? No booze, no gambling, no fun?

Would Frank in charge of the 4077th work for the series? Or would it quickly get old as the writers struggled to come up with new ways to make Frank an annoying CO? As a novelty, once or twice a season, Frank in command works.

Hit the comments with your thoughts.

11 Replies to “Discuss: Would Frank Burns Have Made a Good Commanding Officer?”

  1. Whenever Frank is in command, we generally see one of two things happen:

    1. As Hawkeye once put it, “He turns into Instant Hitler.” He’s not so much a Commanding Officer as he is a dictator: not only does he try to whip the 4077th into a more by-the-book military unit, but as both Hawkeye and B.J. discuss, he makes up all kinds of crazy rules that are a bit much for a bunch of dumb doctors – not to mention, as Frank was losing his sanity, he would pull all kinds of crazy things that were logistical nightmares, such as bugging the camp out across the road one day, then bugging them right back to the same spot the next, simply because, “‘M’ stands for Mobile.”

    2. He becomes a puppet for Margaret. He even points this out in “Welcome to Korea,” “Gee, Margaret, ever since I became Commanding Officer, you never let me do anything!” Margaret was in command at least once in “Carry On, Hawkeye,” and we’ve seen throughout the series that she can be just as power hungry as Frank, and with the two of them being in each other’s pants all the time, I can see where she feels entitled to share some of the power when Frank is in command. And like him, she too demands by-the-book military discipline, so not only is Frank “Instant Hitler,” Margaret is essentially “Instant Hitler With B-Cups.”

    Now, to answer the main question, in the grand scheme of things, I don’t think Frank being Commanding Officer would have been good for the series. Unlike Henry and Potter, he was an antagonistic character you loved to hate, and I think putting everyone else in camp at his mercy would not have taken the show into a good direction. I’m sure it would have been funny for a little while, seeing Frank basking in glory of being in command, and seeing the rest of the camp try to carry on as if nothing has changed, but I think it would have gotten just plain sad after a while (not “boo-hoo” sad, more like shake-my-head sad).

    I’m not even sure Frank would grow as a character – especially given that unlike others, he was actually starting to de-evolve by that time. Henry was showing signs of growth his last season in showing a rarely-seen serious side, and I think he could have eventually become a more competent Commanding Officer had he stayed; Frank on the other hand, not so much. In fact, I could almost see him in a similar vein as our current “President”: eventually whining that being Commanding Officer was harder than he thought it would be, that it’s too much work for him, and his previous position as Second-in-Command was so much better.

    Bottom line: no. Frank being permanent Commanding Officer would not have been good for either the show or the character.

  2. I don’t think it would have worked on either question based on what has already been said. The only way it MIGHT have worked is if Frank evolved as a character the way Margaret and Klinger did (i.e. they essentially become a different person). Perhaps in such a scenario Margaret & Frank’s relationship would have blossomed, with Frank finally giving up his ‘10,000 mile umbilical cord’ and divorcing his wife.

    But overall, I am glad it was handled the way it was (for the character & the series). I think that Larry Linville picked the right time to get out. I find him to be a largely extraneous character in Season 5. His story lines in that season usually come across to me as the writer’s saying “Linville is one of the stars of this show, so we have come up with some way to use him”.

  3. For the question of Frank making a good commanding officer, my answer is without question: No! As pointed out already, we saw him as commanding officer, and every time we did, he was just bad.

    As for the question of if it would be good for the show… I think they could have gotten some good material out of it. It would be interesting to see them having to work around Frank as a CO, and to see his political ideals affect the bigger decisions of the camp (i.e. how they deal with local Koreans, especially North Koreans). However, I think there could only be so much you could do with that kind of thing, which is why I think it was better to have as a recurring theme/joke for episodes, rather than a major change in the show’s dynamics.

    Not to mention, having a more competent CO with Potter, as well as a competent doctor and adversary with Charles, really helped the show to evolve in the way it did. Granted, not everyone viewed those changes as a good thing, but I personally like how the show adapted to its changes for the most part.

  4. No. Frank being in command a couple of times each season was funny. However, long term he could not handle the responsibility, pressure, balance of understanding when to be sensitive and when to be firm, smart, and kind was not something Frank had a hold on. Margaret would’ve been an a better commander in the short term because underneath the tough as nails exterior she was a kind, sensitive, smart, capable, understanding, and thoughtful human being.

  5. Can I take this topic off to a slightly different part of the same plane? Back in 1984 — and still today — I think it would’ve been a GREAT move for the “AfterMASH” people to have brought in Larry Linville into that program when the decision was made to put in a different hospital administrator after that show’s 1st season. This would’ve put some fun ongoing antagonism into that show’s 2nd year … particularly with Potter suddenly finding himself having Frank Burns as his “commanding officer”! Plus, Frank as a character — and transformed into someone with a role of authority — would’ve boosted the humor quotient on that program. Plus, I think some sense of “veteran camaraderie” could’ve been added to Frank’s character development as a now-stateside war vet who was reunited with some of his former campmates. It’s the type of change that would’ve brought some interesting changes to ol’ Frank … and the advertising promotions during the summer of ’85 would’ve offered some really enticing images to “M*A*S*H” fans to see one of the more higher-tier characters added to the Potter-Klinger-Mulcahy mix from the 1st season. V.A. hospital administrator Frank Burns would’ve brought some solid cohesiveness and direction to that program (which had neither of those qualities during the 2nd season).

    Beyond that: It would’ve given Larry Linville the chance to finally earn the Emmy nomination he so much truly deserved for what he did with Frank on “M*A*S*H”. If you want to see just how diverse Linville was an actor, check out his dramatic role in an early 5th season of “Mission: Impossible” (which happened to air one week before his future co-star, Loretta Swit, also made a guest appearance on that same series).

    FYI: I asked writer Ken Levine on the Internet “Stu’s Show” program a couple of years ago if any consideration was made about bringing Larry onto the follow-up series as Potter’s new boss. Ken responded that the idea actually DID come up. I also wrote a fan letter to Larry during mid-1984 suggesting that he should revive Frank for “AfterMASH”, and Larry responded to me that I had a “brilliantly perceptive letter” (!) and added that the same creators from “M*A*S*H” were no longer involved in the new program … to which he added: “as can be seen in the sequel” (!).

    1. What a terrific idea! Had your idea been applied in Season 2 of AfterMASH they might have been able to survive against the A-Team….and AfterMASH could have been a much better show.

    2. The only thing I see working about Frank being in charge is him carrying out petty revenge against Potter: Frank genuinely hated Potter because he felt he stole command of the 4077th away from him, so I see Frank as being unnecessarily hard and cruel on Potter compared to the rest of the hospital staff.

      1. “AfterMASH” needed something after that first season. They kind of had a Burns character already in Alma Cox (Brandis Kemp), but I can’t help believing that Larry Linville as Burns would have hypoed the comedy quotient of the show, which was lacking.

        Of course he’d have to be Ferret Face Burns, not some namby-pamby nicer version a la post-Penobscot Margaret. I can see him making stabs at getting along with others, for various reasons both sincere and venal. There would also be an interesting power dynamic with Potter, as David G. says. Burns would be Potter’s de facto supervisor, yet as a Lt. Colonel would be outranked by Potter’s full-eagle status. This sets up an interesting dynamic.

        I love Burns, but I could only see him as a commander in “AfterMASH.” Being a heel and having life-and-death power over all on the original show would have sapped him of his comic vitality. At a VA hospital, he could be a jerk (or not) and still be funny.

  6. Don’t think this would be a good idea for the show or the character. In 4 or 5 times we got Frank as a commander, there wasn’t really anything funny about it. He just turned into more of a jerk, and as pointed out, a puppet of Margaret. Having that be a permanent think would be detrimental to the show.

    It’s really too bad they couldn’t have found a way to evolve Franks character to be something better so that Linville had stayed, but then of course we wouldn’t have gotten Charles.

  7. No. Frank was always established as a lousy doctor, but more importantly the show made no qualms about him being a puny, cowardly soldier to boot. This was always a clear line in the sand for the creative team whenever they broke stories about the power hungry and insecure commanding people below them; they typically created more harm than good and often maimed those under their command through their actions, through their missteps.

  8. Burns WAS the 4077’s CO for a little over a year after Henry Blake was discharged. Of course, the show had very few episodes with Burns actually in charge. In a real-life sense, Burns would’ve been a terrible CO. He was inept as a leader, a total coward, and a horrible surgeon. Additionally, he was far too “by the book” for the average draftee. Nobody took him seriously except MAJ Houlihan.

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