Throughout its 11 years on air, M*A*S*H had countless classic episodes and many guest stars to join the fray. One of the best episodes in the entire series debuted early in the show’s history. The Season 1 episode “Sometimes You Hear the Bullet,” features Ron Howard as a 15-year-old kid who faked his name and age to enlist in the Marines. Wait a second, let’s backtrack for a moment — yes, we’re talking about the Ron Howard. The iconic actor turned filmmaker has been in the film industry for decades now, and even though he had two hit series to his name early on in his career, he also appeared on many TV shows like M*A*S*H. Although Howard’s role in “Sometimes You Hear the Bullet” is pivotal, he isn’t the only reason that it works. This is a classic through and through and it’s one of the best examples of why this beloved series is still relevant and important today.
What Is “Sometimes You Hear the Bullet” About?
“Sometimes You Hear the Bullet” starts out like most other episodes of M*A*S*H. It begins with Frank Burns and Marge Houlihan (Larry Linville and Loretta Swit) sneaking off for a night away in her tent, only for Frank to throw his back out while the two are dancing. Burns wants to be rewarded a Purple Heart for his injury, which Hawkeye and Trapper (Alan Alda and Wayne Rogers) scoff at. It’s the usual bit of back-and-forth banter that you’ve come to expect at this point in the series, especially between these two parties.
The episode takes a bit of a turn when an old friend of Hawkeye’s, Tommy Gillis (James T. Callahan), stops through their base. Tommy is currently writing a book called You Never Hear the Bullet, a text aiming to debunk the myth that soldiers will hear a bullet ricocheting off of another surface before being hit themselves. Things get a bit serious for a moment as Tommy explains this to Hawkeye and Trapper. As always, nothing can stay grim for too long in M*A*S*H, and the three opt out to get drunk instead of wallowing in this sad truth that Tommy is shining a light on. Instead of partying, Tommy ends up leaving the unit, leaving Hawkeye and Trapper to go about their business as usual.
“Sometimes You Hear the Bullet” Features ‘M*A*S*H’s First Failed Operation
The M*A*S*H episode shifts gears a bit to tell the story of a young marine who is brought to the 4077th Unit to be operated on for appendicitis. Hawkeye notes how the marine appears to be more youthful than most others but goes about the operation as is. Later on, the soldier wakes up and introduces himself as Wendell Peterson (Ron Howard). Initially, Wendell claims to be 20 years old, but then humbly admits that he’s really only 18. He quickly brushes aside any conversation about his age so that he can get back to “fighting the enemy.” It doesn’t take long for Hawkeye to learn that Wendell’s actually a 15-year-old named Walter, and that he took his brother’s name and faked his age so that he could be rewarded a medal and win back his girlfriend.
Soon after that, Hawkeye’s friend Tommy returns to the base, and not for a good reason. He’s back at the 4077th after having been shot on the battlefield, so Hawkeye immediately jumps in to operate on him. Tommy explains that this time he did actually hear the bullet, but dies soon after. Hawkeye isn’t given a chance to mourn until later, because Henry (McLean Stevenson) tells him to move on and help Trapper out. Eventually, he does get a moment to process the loss of his friend and recognizes it as the first time that he’s cried since coming to the unit, wondering why he never felt this way over the loss of other soldiers. Henry consoles Hawkeye, explaining that this is just part of life at war and that there’s nothing that doctors can do to stop it.
Hawkeye does do something though, and that is that he exposes Walter for faking his name and age to enlist. Walter vows to hate Hawkeye forever for having him sent home. This clearly doesn’t phase him, because at least he was able to save Walter’s life that night. Later in the episode, Hawkeye awards Walter with a Purple Heart, one that was supposed to go to Burns after his little accident at the beginning of the episode. The two make up and Walter heads home.
“Sometimes You Hear the Bullet” Showed ‘M*A*S*H’s Dramatic Side
Besides having a wonderfully written script, with all loose ends being wrapped up by the end, “Sometimes You Hear the Bullet” is actually a hugely important episode for the series. It’s the first M*A*S*H episode in which the unit is unable to save someone that they’re operating on and faces the grave realities of war in ways that many future episodes would also attempt. Hawkeye’s friendship with Tommy is also so well realized that you actually feel like they’re friends, there’s nothing about their friendship that feels staged just for a TV show.
This makes it all the more devastating when Tommy ends up passing away, and even more justified when Hawkeye saves Walter’s life, much to the young marine’s chagrin. Up until this point, M*A*S*H simply played as a goofy comedy with a wartime backdrop, but in “Sometimes You Hear the Bullet,” the true dramatic potential of this series becomes totally apparent. While an appearance on M*A*S*H must only be a footnote in the sprawling career of Ron Howard, “Sometimes You Hear the Bullet” remains one of the best episodes in the entire series. It was the first to show how dramatic this show could get, showed the horrors of war, and had a fantastic guest star, but it also stayed true to itself with plenty of hilarious bits along the way. While future seasons would bring on additional classics, fans would never forget the greatness and importance of “Sometimes You Hear the Bullet.”
THE BIG PICTURE
- “Sometimes You Hear the Bullet” is one of the best episodes in M*A*S*H history, showcasing the show’s dramatic potential.
- The episode explores the grave realities of war, as the unit is unable to save a patient for the first time.
- Ron Howard’s guest appearance as a 15-year-old marine who fakes his name and age is a perfect example of how M*A*S*H is able to blend comedy and drama.