Wednesday, March 27, 2013


As a young boy growing up in the late 50's and early 60's, we played Combat! whether we intended to or not.  I cannot really remember if my family watched this show, which had its run from 1962 to 1967, but I do know that when I played with my friends we would divide ourselves up into a squad just like the platoon on the show.  Boys like me had oatmeal boxes full of plastic army men and their epic battles would be played out on dining room tables or on shag carpets for hours.  As an adult who has seen too much combat in the world, I would not recommend that young boys play with guns or army soldiers now because I cannot deny that, even though I would consider myself a pacifist by nature, I love watching this show.

Combat! was produced by ABC for five years and 152 episodes.  I am not sure why but each season is issued in the DVD boxed set split between two campaigns although the shows do not really scan that way. 

Combat! is an excellent television program for a number of reasons. 

First, let's talk about the premise.  A squad of American soldiers, part of King Company, land on the beaches on D-Day and then fight their way across France.  While their enemy is the Nazis, the show is really about all the other enemies they must battle:  fear, fatigue, loneliness.  The show lasts for five seasons and the landscape is always France. 

The show is a fantasy in many ways, mostly because it condenses all the possibilities of war into the experiences of a handful of men.  In order to enjoy the show, it has to be viewed with the understanding that the men are representational:  as many times as they are captured or shot, they would at a minimum get separated from the squad if not be sent back to field hospitals or back to the states. 

As a representation, the squad gets itself into situations that would test all men.  The picture above is from an episode where they find an abandoned baby which may seem like a cliche.  How about this twist:  after spending half the episode trying to save the baby, they figure out he is a German baby and then they are not so keen on risking their lives for him. One very fine show has Saunders injured with severely burnt hands but, of course, there he is next week fully recovered and suffering no ill effects.  Representational, representational.

The number of women they run across appears to be extraordinary. Women are used for a variety of issues including a bossy war photographer, collaborators, insane victims and nurses.

Second, the cast really helps sell the show.  While often receiving first billing, Rick Jason as Lieutenant Hanley is not the pivot on which the stories move.  In fact, there are many episodes in season one that he does not even have a part. 

That is left to Vic Morrow who plays the hard-bitten, put upon real leader of the squad, Sergeant Saunders.  In the first season, it is interesting to watch Morrow start out strong and then becomes the ghostly, depressed agent of death who perseveres no matter what.  It is also amazing that in half the shows, Morrow gets top billing as the two stars alternate that honor. 

The squad is made up of various privates who appear and disappear as needed. The comedian Shecky Greene appeared in the first campaign of season one, does an excellent job, but then disappears without explanation.  Steven Rogers plays an excellent young medic in season one but is replaced by Conlan Carter for the rest of the run. 

The main stay featured players are Jack Hogan as the always challenging Kirby, the guy who gropes the native girls to their distress, goes over the hill so many times he would be in the brig, and is the loudest complainer in the bunch.  As the show matures, so does Kirby.

One of my favorites is Littlejohn, a huge bear of a man played by Dick Peabody.  Peabody's calm delivery of some of the funniest lines are a welcomed relief from the bleak drama that dominates the show.  His straight man is the naive Billy played by Tom Lowell who unfortunately only is in the seasons one and two. 

A necessary character for the show is Caje, a Cajun who conveniently for the squad, speaks excellent French.  The reason this is needed is the third cool thing about this show.  When French villagers are encountered, they speak French.  Equally, when we hear the Germans, they speak German.  At times this foreign dialog can go on for five minutes, leaving the viewer to interpret from the actors' behaviors what the words mean.  This is an amazing trust in the audience that I do not think any modern show would do.

In addition to dialog in foreign tongues, the show also has huge chunks of its broadcast that are without dialog.  Soldiers might wander in the woods without speaking to anyone.  Battles take place with only an occasional shouted order.  Again, it is an amazing trust in the audience. 

The scripts are generally well written.  The only one of 32 I could not quite buy was one in which Hanley is taken prisoner and ends up impersonating a German officer which, at the very least, would have meant he would be replaced in the squad.

A fourth thing I liked about this show is direction.  For the first four years it was shot in black and white which helps add to the historical nature of the broadcast but also at times gives the show a noir feel. The show also hired some marvelous directors who made the show what it was:  by watching it as a DVD set you can tell that the show has an overarching ark that holds it together rather well.  Directors like Robert Altman did a great job and one show was directed by Richard Donner.   Some times the episodes can look weird like season one's set in a nunnery were the women have a vow of silence while the squad tries to keep a guy alive despite being operated on by a German.

One of the things viewers have to excuse are the Hollywood back lot sets used for filming which means the men keeping attacking the same village over and over again from different angles.  Field maneuvers are made in the hilly country outside LA and at times look like it. 

Fifth, the show progresses in its character requirements from being normal to the 1,000 yard stare by season two.  Men suffer, men die.  You can see it in what is called upon for the actor's to do including scenes where soldiers, out of fear, are unable to carry out their duties and follow orders.  Pretty brutal but pretty honest. 

Lastly, one of the cool things about the show is they were not shy about bringing in talent to take the weekly guest star role.  Season one had 32 episodes and saw folks like Jeffrey Hunter, Gary Merrill, Dean Stockwell, Frank Gorshin, Tab Hunter and Robert Culp.  Every once in awhile, a minor role is taken by some one who will be a big star down the road like Keenan Wynn, Tom Skerrit, Howard Duff, William Windom or how about Ted Knight as a Nazi (and a Nazi again in season two). 

Season one had some memorable episodes including one with a female photojournalist who is a tab overeager and where the Resistance fighters are exposed in a small town before the Americans can protect them.   The episode where Saunder's hands get burnt is painful to watch and the performance is top notch. 

Season two had a chilling episode with a maniacal explosives expert played by Lee Marvin who goes head to head with his equal in Morrow.  The episode with Nick Adams where the men need to cross the river against impossible odds is a major anti war statement as well as a tribute to individual courage.  The episode called "The Pillbox" is tough to watch when the Lt. Hanley has to decide whether to kill some Germans in order to save the life of one American soldier played by Warren Oates.  The very next episode is about the liberation of concentration camp full of Polish workers and it is painful to watch. At age 24, Beau Bridges played a fifteen year old soldier who ends up under Saunders' wing. Vic Morrow on occasion was allowed to direct and he did a wonderful job with a show called "The Glory Among Men" which is about the unit having to make a decision about whether or not to rescue an unpopular soldier in their unit when he is caught in no man's land.  Other major guest stars included Eddie Albert, James Coburn and James Caan.

Third season continues the same level of quality and action.  The first episode of the season, "The Silver Service," stars Mickey Rooney as an irritating solider who tries to cheat at everything.  He is teamed with only Jack Hogan who gets to do his best acting as Kirby--once the unit's most irritating soldier in an odd twist of irony.  This episode also stars Claudine Longet and the three of them are forced to walk through a snowstorm to make it back to their own lines.  It is directed with a brutal perspective which make it very good. 

A great moment comes in the show "Dateline" (written by Richard Newhafer), where Dan Duryea plays a war correspondent named Barton who would rather be a prisoner of war than die trying to escape from a POW camp.

Saunders:  What's the matter, Barton.  Your leg?
Barton:  No, I'm going to get killed, that's what's the matter.  I'm afraid, Saunders, afraid. You don't understand that, do you?
Saunders:  Sure, I do.  I'm afraid, too.  We all are, didn't you know that? You think you write about soldiers, but all you write about is the war.  There is a difference. 

In the episode "Losers Cry Deal,"  guest star Mike Kellin gives one of the best performances in the entire series as a mouthy soldier who is victimizing another soldier in his outfit.  However, either the superior direction (by Vic Morrow), the excellent script or his effort yanked Pierre Jalbert up to giving one of his best performances as Caje.  Another treat is to see Tom Skerrit in an early role in his career.

"A Cry in the Ruins" (directed by Vic Morrow for a script by Edward J. Lasko) is a brilliant episode where a truce must be called between a German patrol and the Americans when they agree to look for a missing baby.  Other big season three stars were Roddy McDowell, Theodore Bikel, Charles Bronson, Frank Gorshin, pop stars Bobby Rydell and Frankie Avalon (in two separate episodes), and Robert Duvall or James Whitmore as a sneaky Nazis.

Season four starts with a guest appearance by Jack Lord as a soldier who trusts no one.  In a show with Dennis Weaver who plays a soldier/farmer, Weaver is told by Saunders, "Forget the land.  It is to be taken, passed over and forgotten."  The episode "The First Day" features four new recruits, at age eighteen, who experience their first combat--it is a brutal story with Vic Morrow providing some of the toughest acting he has done in the show.  For the second time in the series, Leonard Nimoy shows up in a minor role as a translator for the unit.  By far the best episode is a two part story called "Hills Are For Heroes" (written by Gene L. Coon and directed by Vic Morrow) in which we spent two full episodes watching the soldiers uselessly charging up a hill and retreating, only to be asked to charge again.  This may be the best episode of the entire run.  (In aside, it also took three weeks to film instead of two and put the show way over budget).  Other season four stars include Fernando Llamas, John Cassavetes, Dwayne Hickman, Sal Mineo (paired with Tom Skerrit who makes his second appearance) and Keenan Wynn.

Season five's big news was the show was now going to be done in color.  Honestly, I am not sure I liked it as much as the news reel feel of the black and white.  The other issue with the color is that it makes the background look exactly like it was:  the remoter areas of California.  Perhaps the writers were starting to feel the time passage as well because we have a second show where Saunders goes blind in battle.  No one could ever claim that Dick Peabody (Little John) as actor was a match for the others in the cast and the guest stars brought on the show but this season he gets a stand alone episode called "Gulliver" which has a very chilling portrayal of the effects on the orphans.  The children they got to act in this episode are magnificent but very scary.  In a bit of irony, in the scene where Peabody has to run from a strafing (ala North by Northwest), he wrenched his knee, had to go on crutches, and missed a number of remaining episodes in the final season.

The star power continued to shine with the first show "starring" Warren Stevens with one of the young privates played by Wayne Rogers, who would go on to play Trapper John in M*A*S*H*.  In a little bit of irony, another season five episode has a couple line part for a doctor, played by Mike Farrell, who would replace Rogers as B. J. Hunnicutt on M*A*S*H* .  The episode "The Brothers" starred Fernando Lamas & Sal Mineo (each making their second appearance) and Ted Knight (making his third appearance as a Nazi officer). This episode is a powerful tale of a young boy who wants out of the war while his brother wants to be the leader of the underground.  One of the great things about this show is it does not always take the easy route.  For example, when Saunders heads to England on furlough to deliver some money to an orphanage (the dying wish of one of the soldiers in his outfit), his is almost less a comfort and more a hulking presence.  While London's residents quiver in an underground shelter, he sits unafraid, having been totally numbed by his war experiences.

Another great episode, "Cry For Help," gives Conlan Carter (Doc) his best individual work when he and a captured medic (played by Robert Duvall) discuss what it means to try to save lives on the battlefield.  In the episode "The Masquers," Nick Adams gets star billing but a big part is played by Gavin McLeod as a solider referred to as Englisher who sounds like a Scotsman but who is identified at the end as Irish. In the show "A Little Jazz," the stars included Dan Duryea, Noah Berry and of all people, Dennis Hopper as a baby-faced jazz musician. Other stars include Bill Bixby, Carol Lawrence, Tom Skerrit, Ricardo Montalban, James Franciscus, James MacArthur (Book 'Em, Danno), Robert Duvall, Claudine Longet and Telly Savalas.

A lot of people die in this show but no one died as much as Paul Busch.  In "A Little Jazz," he even manages to get killed twice.  I have no evidence to back this up but I do wonder if the show went off the air because the general American opinion in 1967 was that the war in Vietnam was not such a good idea and people were seeing too much war in their news.

While Morrow was outstanding in the role of Saunders, after this show it did not lead to anything worth writing home about.  He was tragically killed in an helicopter accident on the set of Twilight Zone:  the Movie at the age of 53.  Rick Jason has a more acceptable experience in Hollywood but did kill himself at the age of 77. 

I would really encourage you to seek out this great example of 1960s TV done right.  It is about war but also has its moments showing the uselessness of Combat!  Ironic, eh?

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