|Combat - Season 1, Campaign 1|
|DVD TV Shows|
|Written by Mel Odom|
|Tuesday, 20 July 2004|
Originally, “Combat!” was positioned as an anthology show. During the course of the first season, included in the first two sets of the television series as Campaign 1 and Campaign 2, most of the stories reflect the original intention. But as the series progressed and new directors and new writers brought their vision into the mix, the stories centered more on the King Company Squad soldiers.
Although the television series began its run with “Forgotten Front,” one of the frequent morality plays that took place in the episodes, the actual pilot was “A Day In June,” which detailed King Company’s beach landing. In that episode, Gil Hanley (Rick Jason) was still a sergeant. By the second episode, “Any Second Now,” which also aired out of the written sequence, Hanley had been promoted to lieutenant.
The four-disc DVD compilation places the episodes back in the order in which they were written, rather than in the order they aired. This is somewhat confusing, although not necessarily so, because most viewers won’t know that the on-air running order, as the first 16 episodes of the first year are billed as the first campaign, while the second series of 16 episodes are billed as the second campaign. These 32 episodes are freely mixed throughout the actual airdates, though.
“Combat!” stars Jason as Lt. Hanley and Vic Morrow as Sgt. Chip Saunders, the two tough men who ramrod King Company. Sgt. Saunders is the combat-toughened veteran of previous engagements who keeps getting busted down in rank and working his way back up to sergeant. He is the one who usually rounds up the soldiers and goes on patrol. Lt. Hanley presents a deeper view of the war, and is no slouch when it comes to fighting for survival in a foxhole. Vegas headliner and comic Shecky Greene also stars as Pvt. Braddock during the first season, but quit doing the show because he was making much more money doing stand-up comedy.
At the time “Combat!” aired, the ABC network was struggling, not a frontrunner. The budget was $125,000 per episode, which was a shoestring even in those days, but the results the revolving cadre of directors and scriptwriters bring to the show is staggering. Even by today’s standards, with the action somewhat toned down and crude language entirely missing (except for one episode where Kelly let loose and his lips can still be read by a viewer looking for it, shown in the “Memories of Combat” Featurette, which is funny and shows how human all of these actors were in real life as well), the stories are often gripping, by turns suspenseful and layered with humor, from outright belly laughs to black comedy.
In “A Day In June,” a fair amount of stock footage shot during the actual war is used, threaded between scenes showing King Company awaiting deployment. Looking back at how the show’s producers wanted to showcase “Combat!”, it’s understandable why they chose to go with “Forgotten Front” instead of this episode. “A Day In June” races too quickly, introduces too many characters, and talks too much for what the series is truly about. However, the crisp blacks and whites stand out as sharp instead of grainy. The audio, though monotone, remains excellent through all four DVDs. In fact, the storytelling is so good that most viewers will probably forget that the shows are in black and white and will be shocked when running the featurette to find it in color. Black and white photography really suits the feel of this show. In Chapter 1, the military guys are pulled from church to prepare for the invasion. The trademark gunshots for the show’s lead-in and the stirring music are unforgettable. Baby boomers who grew up with this show will definitely remember the audio sequence. Chapter 2 shows that Doc is left out as a new guy while everyone else plays games. He’s also nervous about going into combat. Hanley, the company’s ranking sergeant in this episode, argues with Saunders over a girl they’re both courting. In Chapter 3, the crash of the waves against the Navy ships, and later the landing boats, echoes true and clean through the surround sound system. Chapter 4 heats up the surround sound system with machine gun fire, explosions and the angry hiss of flamethrowers.
Episode 2, “Any Second Now,” deals with a British bomb disposal soldier stationed in France who has lost his nerve. Unfortunately, Lt. Hanley has gotten trapped under an unexploded time bomb that the Brit has to find the courage to neutralize. Chapter 2 introduces the British/American rivalry that existed at the time. The hiss and crackle of the flames in the burning city also come through quite clearly. This episode is one of those that strayed from the main characters and explored the people around them, providing a familiar framework to support unique stories where these extra characters lived and died in the trenches. The men of King Company aren’t safe either, because Kelly and others are later killed. Chapter 4 give a brief rundown on how the German bombs were made that is quite interesting.
Episode 3, “Just For the Record,” is another secondary character story. It begins with a voiceover by Saunders, which is also unusual. This episode features Sgt. Saunders, but is more about a French woman who has fallen in love with a German officer. She is shamed into harboring Saunders until his escape can be arranged, but that duty spills over her personal relationship with unforeseen consequences.
Episode 4, “The Squad,” is “Combat!’s” take on the “Sergeant York” mythos as a young Georgian recruit joins King Company. Moseby doesn’t care for hiding in foxholes and believes that honorable wars should be fought standing up. The action in this one revs up, while at the same time the balance between the newbie soldier and the old pros creates friction and suspense. The little touches, like the fact that a helmet makes noise through the brush and Saunders’ attention to taking his pistol out of his hip holster and shoving it into his shirt as they walk across the stream, make the episode real.
Episode 5, “Lost Sheep, Lost Shepherd,” stars Stephen Hunter as a haunted tanker sergeant. His dark secret becomes the backbone to the episode and poses the moral question of what all the soldiers are going to do when they return back home. They can’t simply forget the things that they’ve seen, the things that they’ve done, or the men they’ve killed. Saunders deals with the question in his own inimitable way. But the tanker sergeant’s secret is revealed and the moral play again shines. One of the things that jars, though, is the intercutting of the German tanks on the move in Chapter 2. King Company is clearly shown at night while the tanks are rolling in broad daylight. Getting that many tanks in motion in a setting that matches the soundstage footage would have been expensive, though.
Episode 6, “Forgotten Front,” deals with a German deserter who gets caught in a search and rescue attempted headed up by Sgt. Saunders. The German is taken prisoner and watched over by Doc (Steven Rogers), the young medic, who forms a relationship with the man. Unfortunately, the German sees them calling in an artillery strike on a big gun that has kept King Company pinned down. Saunders gives Caje (Pierre Jalbert) orders to shoot the German as they’re leaving to make their escape. The end leaves the viewer wondering what Saunders did about the situation.
Episode 7, “Missing In Action,” concerns a search and rescue effort headed up by Lt. Hanley. Again, a lot of stock footage of the actual war is used. The episode is action-heavy, with a number of good scenes. The family who hides the downed fliers and then King Company becomes deeply enmeshed in the resulting bloodshed.
In Episode 8, “Rear Echelon Commandos,” three new recruits arrive at King Company and Saunders has to break them in. The farm setting in Chapter 1 could have fit any western show filmed at the time. The three recruits are a cook, a physical fitness instructor and a radio announcer, which Saunders can’t believe. Morrow’s acting is superb, one of the staples of the show, as he gets disgusted with their lack of experience. The tension as the three new recruits learn what they’re really in for mounts as the episode goes along. The ballet dancer gets his moment of glory before the end.
Episode 9, “The Chateau,” opens with stock footage of the war, offering tons of explosions and burning vehicles. Doc gets his own cameo in this episode as he tries to deal with a wounded man. King Company invades a French home while Doc fights for the victim’s life. A German group arrives at the house and takes Doc and his men into custody, but the German officer offers mercy. The Germans remain within the house and the French father and daughter are mixed up into the action and the outcome in a very suspenseful episode filled with moral complications. Chapter 5 shows more stock footage, but played as it is against the end, it is extremely effective in showing the effects of combat on civilians caught in the war zones. The sound of the bombers flying overhead rumbles through the surround sound system.
Episode 10, “The Prisoner” gives Greene’s Pvt. Braddock a chance to stand on his own as he ends up driving for a colonel. Greene’s humor really pulls this episode together. A cow in the road in Chapter 3 puts a whole new spin on the assignment, especially when the German soldiers mistake Braddock for an officer because he’s wearing the colonel’s coat. A very young Tom Skerritt and Walter Koenig also show up in this episode.
Episode 11, “Escape To Nowhere,” opens with the capture of Lt. Hanley. The tension steadily increases as Hanley fights and plots for his life, ending up masquerading as a German soldier. This episode offers a view of how the German officers lived in occupied France and shows Hanley’s social survival skills. The German officer’s machinations grow even more involved, pushing Hanley and the situation to the limit. One of the more emotional scenes comes in Chapter 4, when Hanley and the German officer are held at gunpoint by kids and a French priest interferes with their impromptu firing squad. The German officer’s ulterior motive is a great surprise.
Episode 12, “The Celebrity,” offers audio commentary by Tom Lowell that isn’t to be missed. The commentary offers a lot of insights regarding the episode and reveals a genuine love for the series. With the airdates what they were, one of the incongruities about the original viewing was that Skerritt’s Billy, one of the King Company soldiers, was killed in this episode only to show up in episodes that had been filmed earlier, though shown later. With the DVD collection, that anachronism receives a makeover. Chapter 1 starts with another voiceover by Saunders, but strangely enough also blends in footage from earlier episodes and makes it appear as though those events are new. A baseball player superstar shows up as a new recruit. Interestingly enough, Chapter 2 mentions the pitcher’s pay as $40,000 a year, which is supposed to be a lot. Later, the baseball game is mixed in with a German attack, also put together from war footage. Chapter 3 offers Saunders and Packer in a great conversation, delving into both men. Again, this episode is packed with great action.
Episode 13, “Far From the Brave,” opens as King Company moves through a field amid machine gun fire. Distant rumbling from artillery slams through the surround sound system in Chapter 1. The bullet holes through the B. A. R. rifleman’s helmet are stark and offer instant notification as to the man’s fate without showing blood. In Chapter 2, King Company is ordered to stay behind and be the rear guard. Pvt. Kirby (Jack Hogan) steps up into prominence during this episode as he vies for the B. A. R. rifleman’s spot. Chapter 3 offers an instance of really good dialogue between Braddock and Delaney, a touch that puts a human face on the soldiers. Chapters 4 and 5 lean on the action to move the story along.
Episode 14, “The Quiet Warrior,” features Lt. Hanley again as he tries to exfiltrate a French scientist that was the father of a college roommate. The crash of big guns and rain fills the surround sound system in Chapter 1. In Chapter 2, Hanley arrives back at the Hotel Savoy in London and the viewers get to see the lieutenant in more urbane settings. The episode takes on a definite cloak-and-dagger feel that is a change of pace from the battleground venue, but it is a welcome one.
Episode 15, “Cat And Mouse,” opens in a graveyard as Lt. Hanley orders his men to dig in while they’re under heavy artillery fire. The explosions rocket through the surround sound system. Sgt. Saunders stumbles back with a wounded man after a long tour on patrol, the other four men having been killed by snipers and landmines. Chapter 2 sets up the animosity between the two sergeants. Plenty of action fills this episode.
Episode 16, “Reunion,” jumps into motion at once with an urban firefight backed with machinegun fire and heavy artillery. Sgt. Saunders is in action, taking the town building by building with the rest of King Company. Saunders is with a young soldier who is looking for his father, a Frenchman who is working with the Germans. The reunion of father and son, and the betrayals and sacrifices that result, are the heart of this story.
Although the extras on these discs are skinny, the featurette “Memories of Combat!” is excellent. The notes and bloopers are fun to sort through for trivia, as well as information regarding the actors, directors and writers that went through the series.
“Combat! Season 1: Campaign 1” is an excellent buy for anyone who enjoyed “Saving Private Ryan.” Perhaps the violence is a bit cleaned up and the shows are all in black and white, but the background of World War II couldn’t be better represented on television. Despite the shoestring budget the series operated under, the directors, writers, actors and actresses achieved remarkable success with the series.