Combat! was a sixties American TV show that ran for five seasons. This 4 DVD set contains the first half of the inaugural season, kicking off with the D-Day landing in “A Day in June” and covering the push through France, culminating with the liberation of Paris. The show focused on King Company, with the late Rick Jason (Lt. Gil Hanley) and the later tragically-killed-by-helicopter Vic Morrow (Sgt. Saunders) as the show’s stars. Through these early episodes the supporting players come into their own and the show develops more of an ensemble feel, with Pierre Jalbert (Caje), Jack Hogan (Kirby), Shecky Greene (Braddock) and the rest as important to the show as its stars.
As with all episodic television the quality is variable but it’s never less than watchable and at its best it ranks alongside far bigger productions. There’s a grittier, more ‘real’ feel to Combat! than the star studded, mega budget The Longest Day for instance.
There are several recurring plot themes – scouting missions, new recruits, and three members of the squad are, at different times, captured by the Germans – but the best episodes transcend these basic plot ideas.
The three standout episodes are “Forgotten Front”, “Escape to Nowhere” and “Cat and Mouse”.
In “Forgotten Front” the squad are sent behind enemy lines to get the location of hidden German heavy artillery. They find a good hiding place in an abandoned factory to phone in the coordinates of the big gun, but things get complicated when they discover a German deserter hiding inside.
The episode highlights the moral complexities of war, as Saunders must decide what to do with the prisoner when it becomes clear they can’t take him back and he’s overheard too much information that would be useful to the Germans to be allowed to go free.
Morrow gives an outstanding performance as the man forced to make the morally repugnant yet necessary choice, while Pierre Jalbert and Steven Rogers as the battle hardened Caje and the more innocent Doc offer exemplary support.
In “Escape to Nowhere” it’s Hanley’s turn to get captured (Saunders had been nabbed in “Just For the Record” and Pvt. Braddock in “The Prisoner”). When the Lieutenant is captured a German officer involved in a failed plot to assassinate Hitler enlists his aid in order to get across to the American side, but first they must make their way through the German lines.
It’s a tense episode that manages to keep Hanley’s fate in question, no mean feat for a weekly TV show, as the American is forced to masquerade as a German officer to reach freedom. This episode features possibly the most haunting image of the series, as Hanley and the German are held at gunpoint by a group of children in a desolate graveyard. It’s a moment that brings home the real horror of war far more than any explosions and gunfire could.
Good though both of those episodes are, “Cat and Mouse” is even better. We don’t find out what Saunders did before the war (at least not in this set) but in “Cat and Mouse” we learn that he wasn’t a soldier. Stumbling back after an ill fated scouting mission that left his men dead, Saunders is ordered out again. This time he’s to accompany Sgt. Jenkins, a professional soldier who resents the ‘shoe salesmen’ who have been drafted in to fight the war. The episode is a battle of wills between the two sergeants, one a professional soldier the other a gifted amateur, which escalates when the farmhouse they’re hiding in becomes a makeshift German command centre. Morrow meets his equal in Albert Salmi as Jenkins, one of the shows most complex characters – bitter and arrogant, yet also undeniably heroic. The episode features an appropriately downbeat climax.
Apart from Salmi the series features such notable guest stars as Jeffrey Hunter, Tab Hunter, Keenan Wynn and Dan O’Herlihy as well as before-they-were-famous appearances by Tom Skerritt, Walter Koenig and Harry Dean Stanton. But it’s the names behind the camera that show why Combat! is such a quality piece of television.
All three of those standout episodes I mentioned were directed by film legend Robert Altman (“Cat and Mouse” was also written by him) while Burt Kennedy, a director more famous for westerns, particularly the comedy variety, also helms a couple. Both men were war veterans and bring a level of realism to the show that helped elevate it above its TV budget. Also worth a mention is the writer of “Forgotten Front”, Logan Swanson, better known under his real name Richard Matheson.
While watching this set I’ve been reading Audie Murphy’s memoir of his wartime experiences, To Hell and Back and I was struck by how similar the two seem, not in plot but in the gritty feel. There are little touches, like taking off helmets before going on a night reconnaissance mission because they would make too much noise, that also feature in Murphy’s book and add to the shows feeling of authenticity. In fact Combat! is far truer to the spirit of the book than the more gung-ho 1955 Hollywood adaptation.
I’ve no idea if the show ever aired in the UK or other parts of Europe, I can find no mention of any such transmissions online but it’s hard to believe such a quality production could have slipped under the radar of European TV executives. One thing is for sure – its powerful performances, strong scripts and assured direction all come together to make Combat! a series well worth unearthing from the TV tomb.
The series is currently only available on Region 1 DVD.