The Ambiance of Black and White
For me, most of what made this show great were all the gutted buildings and blown up cities with rubble lining the streets. The sound of tanks, or halftracks blazing through muddy roads made it all the more realistic in re-creating what I imagined to be wartime Europe. I always loved the fact that the Germans spoke German. This made it all the more intriguing and helped build up tension, as there's nothing worse than not knowing what your enemy is thinking or saying. The show, with its gritty realism, and wonderful character portrayals, fueled a lifelong fascination for World War II.
Everyone has their favorite Combat episodes, but my favorites always center around an "outcast" character, (this can be anybody, even an officer), the one who must redeem himself in the end after the whole squad has given up on him. I also like whatever comic moments there were. For example, the episode "Birthday Cake" Littlejohn gets punished at the end of the show for being such an idiot in the field trying to protect his precious cake. Another great moment was the premiere episode "A Day in June" where Sgt. Saunders gets his fair share of comic one-liners. (It's actually surprising to me that the premiere episode had so much comedy in it). It was also interesting to see Hanley as a Master Sergeant, and seeing Saunders carrying an M1 rifle instead of his iconic Thompson. The scenes that still make me laugh out loud are those of Braddock attempting to use a grenade launcher. Every shot heads straight toward Saunders!
60's television was relatively simple. Though some shows were complex in their plots, and at times just as engaging as modern film, the programs were simple. In the end, problems were resolved quickly without wasting a single ounce of action. Combat was one of those marvelous programs that followed that perfect formula. The program moved quickly and followed a typical 50's and 60's plot and special effects regimen, and provided dynamite entertainment without all the computer FX that plagues modern film andTV.
Combat was quick, paced exceedingly well, and made splendid use of archival war footage. There are even a few episodes that to this day put me on the edge of my seat. "The Pillbox" and "Rescue" are two such episodes. Nowadays-especially with cop shows, there exists an undercurrent of sensitive male bonding that's a bit hard to take and eats into valuable action time. With Combat, there was none of that baloney.
60's era TV actors were all-American and strong, yet their characters showed concern in a more virile manner. They didn't need to show the weakness that resides in all of us. What was the point? We watched television to be entertained and escape real life; We didn't need to be reminded of our weaknesses. To this day I ask, where are the Lieutenant Hanleys that can take the blow and come up charging? Hanley was as tough as we expected any soldier to be. He was "large and in charge." The actor Rick Jason was the best choice for this role. He had me convinced every step of the way that he was in charge. He even seemed smarter than the colonels and generals handing down his orders. Then there was Saunders; he controlled his unit, and nobody was as good a combat tactician as Saunders.
Watching these episodes now is like a sweet homecoming. I especially enjoy seeing them in black and white. Among the things I like, and find amusing, are just how many bloopers there were in this show. On the blooper scale, Combat exceeded its share! Of course, bloopers can be mistaken for continuity errors. Almost all of the earlier TV shows suffered continuity errors. What's the difference between a blooper and a continuity error? A blooper is an obvious mistake that didn't get edited out, or went noticed during shooting. This could be anything such as a jet flying overhead, or someone in the background who does not belong.
A continuity error consists of common mistakes that happen in between takes: for example the length of cigarettes between takes. one minute Saunders may have a freshly lit cigarette, but when they cut back and forth, it's almost burnt down. Messed up hair is another notorious CE error, especially in fight scenes. Between takes the hair is messed, then appears perfectly combed in the next. There are even more, such as wet uniform one minute, dry uniform the next. You get the general idea.
There were in fact, so many bloopers, it seems like a commonplace event. My favorites in this category were always the German soldiers moving after they've been killed. One is seen talking after he's dead, and another one reaches over and places his rifle on chest after he's been killed. Plus, many of them "jump out" (as if being blown out) of their foxholes almost before the grenade hits. However, bloopers are great; they just make the shows more human.
The Germans were a class unto themselves, and I had never seen a more formidable and entertaining enemy than the German soldiers of Combat. However, their strategies left much to be desired. First of all, they always stood up to get shot. Second, whenever they attacked the squad, they never waited for everyone to make it out to the open, but instead shot the first American that showed himself, thus giving the entire squad ample time to "TAKE COVER!" Even as a kid I was never fooled, and realized that the Germans weren't as stupid as they were portrayed on this program.Obviously, the Germans were much smarter than this, but for 1960's television, they made the perfect victims. As a kid, playing Combat with my friends made being a German a tough choice because they never lasted for very long.
In my neighborhood, one kid had these great German toy accessories that I really envied. He had a helmet, Luger, and a tall pair of black rubber boots that looked like the genuine article. He also had some toy "Potato Mashers".
Many great actors and character actors portrayed the Germans, and there was always one that usually spoke perfect English. One episode in particular that I loved was "Cry from the Ruins" where the Americans and the Germans laid down their weapons and worked together as a team in an attempt to rescue a french woman's baby buried in a collapsed building.
CHECKMATE KING SIX
TAKE THE POINT
"ALRIGHT, KNOCK IT OFF!"
"CAJE, KIRBY, YOU'RE ON ME"
SHUT EYE/SACK OUT
"GIVE ME COVER"
BRING UP THE REAR
KRAUT TANK / KRAUT PATROL
"THIS IS WHITE ROOK, OVER"
Fall in for Purple Hearts
How many times have these guys been shot up in the field? With each episode it seemed like someone was going to take one in the arm or leg, and usually did.
Just how many purple hearts did these guys have anyway? Any member of the squad-with the exception of Doc-was the odds on favorite for getting wounded. Arm, leg, hand, or shoulder wounds were the most likely. Anything in the stomach or chest was deadly so we couldn't have that.
Just as "Star Trek" had their "Redshirts" (the ones who died first and quickly), Combat likewise had their own victims.
They were usually the ones you didn't recognize. If they had a speaking line or two in the beginning, they were probably going to survive. If they didn't, they were history.
All things considered, as an adult I learned so much more about WWII, its history, the battles, and about the forces themselves. Looking back on "Combat!" I find that it was actually quite realistic, and faithful in many ways, at least as much as it could be and still be a popular and surviving prime time television show. In my area, Combat was never really featured in syndication for any reasonable length of time, so I literally hadn't seen this show for many, many years. I'm surprised at just how much I really love it again, and how it has become a #1 in vintage viewing pleasure.
Rick Jason as "Lt. Gil Hanley"
Hanley was the toughest combat officer ever to come from this era of film and television. He even topped Patton in my book. Taking into account that this show was produced in the sixties, Hanley presented as a much stronger, more serious and a more dedicated officer than I'd ever seen top stars play before in movies. Rick Jason's performance in "Hills Are For Heroes" is a stand-out. He's challenged as an officer and human being when he has to order his men into a meat grinder of German machine gun fire from two unstoppable pillboxes. How it takes it toll on him is played well. When push comes to shove, Lt. Hanley can chew out a soldier as good as Saunders any day of the week.
Vic Morrow as "Sgt. Chip Saunders"
Sgt. Saunders was my all-time hero. He led the squad, held them together, and was the voice of morality in a world gone crazy with war. No matter how tough it got, Saunders got tougher. His trusty Thompson was the model for the most relished toy I think I can remember owning. Nobody can chew out a soldier like Saunders! I can still hear the echoes of his famous rapid-fire responses of "When I give you an order, you follow it!" or "Knock it off Kirby!" or, even better, "I'm still in charge of this squad!" in my head long after the show is over. Saunders was the "go to" guy whenever a tough mission was called for. He always came through no matter what.
Conlan Carter as "Doc"
"Doc" held everyone together. He was the voice of conscience and reason. Though he never carried a gun, or fired a shot, Doc was the most dependable guy in the unit. He had a magnificent way of wincing during just about any conversation, much in the way David Janssen did in "The Fugitive" when somebody was getting a little too close for comfort. Doc was also the sage of the outfit. Whenever a soldier was out of line, or blamed an officer for their predicament, Doc set 'em straight. He would do anything to save a man. His sad, hound dog face and honest G.I. appeal made him one of the more memorable characters in the show. Like most WWII medics, he was fearless, and a truly unsung hero. Rightfully so, actor Conlan Carter was nominated for an Emmy in 1964 for his role as "Doc" Basically a country boy at heart, one of my favorite "Doc-isms" was in the episode "The Farmer" where he watches the new guy carefully planting in a field. "You gotta have one them green thumbs" .
Jack Hogan as "Pvt. William G. Kirby"
"Kirby" was the B.A.R. man (Browning Automatic Rifle). He was the most irresponsible, yet at the same time, a dependable, likeable guy in the squad. What Kirby lacked in discipline he made up for in courage and affable charm.He was scared in battle like everyone else, but he jumped in and did his job. Kirby would be a fun guy to hang out with-for awhile. He was the guy who made anyone feel at home. However, Kirby was also incorrigible, and something of a trouble maker when it came to following military procedures. He was probably the most immature soldier in the squad, but provided hours of entertainment!
Pierre Jalbert as Pvt. Paul LeMay "Caje"
His real name is Paul LeMay, but everyone knows him as "Caje". A Louisiana Cajun, Caje was the charismatic french translator. Next to Doc, he was probably the second most dependable. Caje never caused any problems; he didn't drop equipment into the river, try to con his fellow soldiers or sneak out of camp AWOL, or look for any other available trouble. Caje was an excellent foot soldier. I always liked Cage; whenever he spoke, I hung on to every word. I'm not sure what it was about him, but he always intrigued me to no end. Plus, he was a great soldier, fierce in battle, (and very few could smoke a cigarette as well as he). I always knew he'd be the ladies man of the show. It amazes me how Caje never got promoted.
Dick Peabody as "Pvt. Littlejohn"
"Littlejohn" was a classic. Talk about your stand up guy! Littlejohn was a dependable and loyal front line soldier. He was the gentle giant of the squad. I loved the fact that his helmet always looked too small for his head! Littlejohn was the absolute icon of the "dog soldier". He was the heart and soul of the squad, rarely complained, and was always dependable. He was twice referred to as a "stumble bum", no doubt owing to his acts of stupidity and clumsiness. Littlejohn has his share of mishaps that put the squad in jeopardy, but he usually manages to redeem himself.
Tom Lowell as "Pvt. Billy Nelson"
Pvt. Billy Nelson added comic relief as the younger, more comical recruit Nelson was portrayed as something of a bubble-headed kid who always looked up to Littlejohn for advice and leadership. In the episode "Far from the Brave" he mentions that he's the guy whose helmet always gets snatched for a cooking pot by the rest of the squad. Billy had a few serious moments, but his comic manner seemed to be his most shining moments. He not only lost the pin to one of his grenades "Littlejohn, you're gonna be mad at me again...", but once got chewed out by the sarge for "washing his rifle in soap and water." Billy was likeable, though he seldom got serious parts.
Shecky Greene as "Pvt. Braddock"
I loved this character. Braddock never seemed to have a first name. Played perfectly by comic Shecky Greene, Braddock was a hustler, con man, and probably the most uninspired soldier in the squad. I loved every single scene he had, but few will ever stand out as much as in the pilot episode "A Day in June" as he constantly fumbles with a grenade launcher. He ends up firing grenades at Saunders every time. His expressions were priceless. Braddock's truly attentive and reassuring speech to a new replacement soldier in "Far from the Brave" is another of his shining moments: BRADDOCK:"Look, I'm not much of a deep thinker, but I do know one thing: anybody who got himself into this man's war when he didn't have to, is okay in my book; a little nuts maybe, but ok."
Other Cast Members
These are members of the squad who barely had a season, or just didn't reach me personally. The original "Doc" played by Steven Rogers left me cold. The Conlan Carter "Doc" was so much more entertaining. Pvt. Kelly played by Joby Baker was in season one, but he never seemed like a strong character. Kelly was yet another con artist in the outfit, a role that can be overplayed if not careful. Though Braddock I mentioned before, and above as one of my favorites, he was gone too soon. Pvt. McCall, convincingly portrayed by William Bryant, was great, and I wish he, like Braddock, could have been in more seasons.
My Favorite Episodes
I use the Grenade Rating System:
2 grenades: Not bad, could stand improvement, but still, not bad.
3 grenades: Very good, worth many repeated watchings.
4 grenades: Outstanding.
"Hills are for Heroes"
This was probably the most impacting episode I've seen in the Combat catalog. "Hills are for Heroes" depicts the arduous task of taking a nearly impossible hill guarded by two German bunkers that keep the squad at bay. Making matters worse, their orders are to take the hill with no armored support, and only company mortars. Hanley tries his best-several times to convince command that the hill cannot be taken, yet command will not take "no" for an answer. Instead, the mandate to keep pushing and to "take that hill", is enforced. Directed by Vic Morrow, this episode plays out like a movie instead of a television two-part program. I found it to be one of the most impressive of the Combat episodes ever broadcast.
"The Little Carousel"
Humanity gets in the way of war in one of Combat's saddest episodes. This one really took me by surprise. Who could've possibly predicted that a program episode of this era would show us such a devastating act of violence and destruction of innocence? By sixties television standards, innocents were protected, and heroes prevailed, or died trying. However, in this episode, all bets were off. "The Little Carousel" gives us an innocent teenager, who wants nothing more in life but to be a good nurse. What she gets is a step on a booby trap and blown to pieces. The lead actress (Sylviane Margollé) that carried the episode, is the self-appointed caretaker of the squad. She isn't just killed, but rather "wiped out" like an enemy. The episode was built up by Saunders' obvious fatigue. His nerves, being stretched to their limits, force him to not want to get close to her kindness. He becomes irritable always yelling at the girl to get lost (so she wouldn't get killed or seriously injured.) He'd already lost enough men in war.
If Saunders has taught us anything, it was this: it's much better to be cruel than put an innocent in harm's way. However, the girl would not go away, nor be swayed by his austere warnings and commands. From a well-crafted story by writer Gene Levitt, "The Little Carousel" begins with the agony of war and ends as a genuine horror story. It was a terrible ending to a great episode.
Kirby is appointed squad leader in Saunders' absence. What begins as a simple babysitting job ends up in a nightmare as unexpected German forces surprise the line. Item Company is wiped out leaving the line with several dead and many open gaps. The abrupt confrontation brings Kirby's leadership skills into play when he has to lead what's left of his squad to survival.
One pleasurable aspect of this episode is the appearance of actor William Bryant who later appears as "McCall" in season five.
"Billy the Kid"
In keeping with my favorite theme of an "outsider" having to prove himself, this one comes in the form of a first lieutenant who just happens to be the son of General "Bull" Benton. Lt. Benton, known jokingly to many as "Billy the Kid", has to prove himself to the squad to be a worthy leader. His objective: to knock out a goliath German gun which moves quickly out of sight after striking.
The worthy talents of actor Andrew Prine literally shine in this episode as the dedicated-to-duty lieutenant. His apparent idiotic plan to fool the enemy is actually quite clever, and well thought out.
Tempers flare while fatigue and emotional duress get the better of Littlejohn and Caje. What begins with an argument ends up in extreme ugliness as the grudge is carried into battle. With an objective of capturing a German prisoner, the overly-exhausted squad, desperately in need of sleep, are ordered back out into the pouring rain on a night time raid to capture an enemy soldier. Littlejohn demands a transfer out of the outfit as he and Caje - for the first time - become soldiers not to be depended on.
"Nothing to Lose"
A hotshot private and a sullen replacement get off on the wrong foot in their first moments of battle. While the angry replacement is more akin to a psychopath, the hotshot replacement is cocky and eager to fight, and in doing so, saves Kirby's life.
Two greats are at work here; Sal Mineo is the cocky replacement who, as we learn, literally has "nothing to lose", and outstanding veteran actor Tom Skerrit plays the hot-tempered grudge-bearing soldier.
"One at a Time"
Actor Jan Merlin who frequently plays a bad guy, turns in an excellent performance as an escaped prisoner out to execute Saunders' squad one by one. After overhearing a disparaging comment made about the German troops from a conversation between Saunders and his men, the German soldier is bent on a personal vendetta. As a sniper par excelence, he manages to either kill, or wing most everyone along the way. More like a ninja than a soldier, this German manages to cause a lot of damage before he calls it quits.
"Your sergeant said my men panicked and that is why they died. before this day is over, I promise his men will panick and die one at a time!"
"Anatomy of a Patrol"
A race is on between Saunders' squad and a German squad led by a fiercely clever and dedicated sergeant (James Caan). The objective: to reach a downed American recon plane and recover the film inside the plane's camera. A battle of bullets and wits ensues as each squad leader is intent on outsmarting the other. The title should be changed to "Anatomy of a well written and fast paced episode".
"The Glory Among Men"
There's one new guy in the outfit that just isn't liked by his peers. Nearly impossible to get along with, he ends up in a jackpot situation, wounded, and serving as bait for a German machine gun. The squad tries desperately to get to him, but they are hopelessly pinned down by the enemy. This was one of the more tense episodes in the Combat catalogue, and the story, action and direction are all top notch. I can see Vic Morrow's method acting talents in place here-especially at the end when he freezes in place, arms outstretched in odd positions, camoflaging himself as one of the dead trees surrounding them.
It rarely gets better than this! Talk about an episode that begs to be seen many times over, Saunders becomes a one-man demolition derby as he picks a fight with, and destroys a German Tiger tank. Naturally, it takes the entire show to do it, but it's pure genius. With no other viable option in sight, Saunders is forced to disable an approaching Tiger Tank using only a few grenades, his Thompson, and sheer know how. The excitement never stops in this one.
"The First Day"
Four new replacements eager for battle get more than they bargained for on their first day. On a patrol, they encounter Germans who offer up their usual brand of resistance. Though the youthful innocence of the three - and the hard bitterness of one - are a bit hard to accept in today's world where innocence has been lost ten times over, it's still a compelling episode.
The "separate the men from the boys" theme drives home hard, and gives us several views of typical war traumas that occur during battle. The end result is sad, but works itself out. This one is well worth the watching.
"Losers Cry Deal"
Enter one lousy recruit; Pvt. Jackson is a self-centered, bullying and just plain rotten soldier who wants nothing more than to be the acting command of his remaining outfit. Combat! once again offers up a dynamic character study of the squad, and a the remainder of a former squad joined up with Saunders.
This is one of the better Caje performances, and overall, the episode plays out more like a movie with its strong character portrayals.
The title refers to a battle acronym S.I.W. Self Inflicted Wound which is attached to a new replacement who has a reputation for getting men killed and running from battle. As turns up with a leg wound, he must prove his innocence as he insists that he did not shoot himself. Played with the usual talent of John Cassavettes, this show unfolds in the usual Combat! style. If the episode "The Little Carousel" has taught me anything, it's that the Combat! program can still offer up jaw-dropping surprises. This is one of the standout episodes.
The squad picks up a replacement who does not fit in with the rest of the guys; he's a reclusive anti-social man whose only dream is to buy a decent tractor and return to his way of life farming on a bit of rocky land. Littlejohn is the only member of the squad that truly understands him and sympathizes. Kirby takes an immediate dislike to the soldier who doesn't consider himself a soldier at all. This is a top notch episode with great performances by all, but especially actor Jason Evers who plays the surly and distant replacement.
Each year Littlejohn's mom sends him her "award-winning" birthday cake that must not be opened until his actual birthday. Naturally, protecting this cake is as important as covering a fellow solider in battle, and he does his best to guard that cake. Upon forgetting it under a bridge where they'd been hiding from the Germans, Littlejohn abandons a fellow solider to run back to get it. As we would expect, the soldier is wounded when a German patrol surprises him. Two stories unfold here: the first being the replacement soldier who's waiting "any minute now" for his transfer orders; Second, is Littlejohn and his precious cake. The ending of this episode is classic.
"Far from the Brave"
Actor Joe Mantell who has instant fame in his portrayal of "Ange", Marty's best friend in the film "Marty" plays the role of a gentle unassuming replacement soldier. His character of Pvt. Delaney is the focus of Kirby's ire as Delaney is selected to be the new B.A.R. man who replaces beloved soldier Grady Long. It's Kirby who wants the position of B.A.R. man, and gripes consistently. Delaney, who previously was nothing more than a cook's helper, agrees with Kirby, but Saunders will have no part of it; Delaney is the new B.A.R. man, and must prove himself in battle.
Jack Lord is excellent as an angry and embittered communications expert who finds fault with everyone, complains about the lack of escort he receives, and basically alienates himself from the squad. Matters aren't helped any after Littlejohn clumsily drops a spool of valuable radio cable into a deep river. The wire, it seems, was accounted for inch-by-inch, therefore rendering the objective hopeless. Of note are the lavish location shots filmed in The Loire valley of France. Though this episode gets a bit tiresome at times, it's still a favorite.
Teen idol Tab Hunter plays the title character, famous baseball pitcher Del Packer who is assigned to the squad. Having never seen combat action, the soldier is terrified of injuring his "million dollar arm". As is common with some, all-consuming fear disables him in combat, and Billy, who idolizes him, gets wounded because of Packer's inability to perform in battle.
Every actor shines in this great story reminiscent of "Hills Are For Heroes". The action is great, and the photography even better. The squad, which includes a number of new replacements, faces the arduous, and seemingly impossible task of taking out a building fortified by German troops. In the midst of all the action is a new replacement who refuses to fit in. Disliked by officers and fellow soldiers, he barely supports the squad with both rife fire and commaderie. Billy Gets a dramatic role in this episode. Conlan Carter turns in one of his more powerful performances as Doc, and trauma strikes Littlejohn. This episode moves like a freight train and never stops.
Saunders and the squad's orders are countermanded by a commanding officer needing help escorting 18 German prisoners back to the line for interrogation. "If only one of them talks, it will have been worth it" the officer explains to Saunders. The episode title refers to frequently taking count of the prisoners. Again, actor Jan Merlin returns as a captured German officer who offers up most of the trouble in the episode. There's very good action in this one, and one nice continuity error: both Littlejohn and Kirby are submerged to their necks while crossing a river, but onshore, they are dry. Then, the scene cuts, and they are wet again. No spoilers here, but if you haven't seen this episode, you will love the end!
"Nightmare on the Redball Run"
Veteran great Claude Akins stars as a surly-badly-in-need-of-sleep sergeant in this great road trip episode. In what he thinks will be a "piece of cake" detail, Kirby volunteers himself - and Littlejohn to drive two supply trucks in order to relieve their exhausted drivers. What they don't know is that the trucks are loaded with ammunition and explosives. Kirby also doesn't plan on having the gruff sergeant on his back at every possible moment. Given the theme of driving trucks with very necessary cargo, you can expect just about every mishap along the way. Akins turns in his usual best performance in this episode. The final showdown makes the whole thing worthwhile.
"A Little Jazz"
Caution: patience is needed in order to tolerate the stupidity of a group of USO jazz musicians. They are led by a stubborn Dan Duryea whose acting performance is up to its usual fine standards. The band leader refuses to follow Saunders' orders claiming that he is a civilian, and doesn't have to listen to anyone. He gets off on the wrong foot with Saunders after the band inadvertantly causes the death of a soldier by setting up their instruments, and practicing in enemy territory. Naturally the Germans find the horns and drums great target practice and engage. The episode feels a bit off balance which accounts for my 2 grenade rating, but the fight scenes are excellent. Also, some great character actors fill the void. Noah Beery Jr. and Dennis Hopper also star.
NOTE: These are just a few of my favorite episodes. I may add more later.