Greetings all and sundry!
Having had a brief week in Hell clearing out, shutting down and moving from the suburbs of Maryland to apartment living in Falls Church, Virginia. I was left with several evenings without television or internet. Allowing me the opportunity to dig into my unpacked library of DVDs and savoring what “Good” was a half century ago.
A weekly television series that ran from 1962 to 1967. Compiling five seasons of what could be called “Must See TV” for an eight year old kid. Who had distant relations who had endured and survived World War II. Seeking a connection and finding it in a multi Emmy nominated series that focused on a Army rifle squad performing the day to day reconnaissance and run ins with Germans infantry and occasional armor across many disparate parts of France.
With that said. Allow me to introduce many and reacquaint some to one of the most solidly written, directed and executed dramatic series of the early to late 1960s. With a sampler of three favorite and memorable episodes of…
Classic Forgotten Television of the 1960s: Combat!
The time: Post D-Day. My guess. Late summer, 1944.
The place: France. European Theater of Operations (ETO).
The men: Members of a rifle squad belonging to King Company. Under the command of recently promoted Lt. Gil Hanley (Rick Jason). Former Tech Sergeant, recently promoted through a Battlefield Commission during the landings at Omaha beach.
His second in command, Sgt. Chip Saunders (Vic Morrow), Battle savvy from combat experience in Northern Africa. Competent, and has been around long enough to know the ins and outs of his squad. And German infantry and armor tactics. Favors a Thompson Sub Machine Gun and .45 sidearm for personal protection.
The squad: Tall, broad chested and large-handed, Pvt. Littlejohn (Dick Peabody). Enlisted after Pearl Harbor. Rural in upbringing. Of no specified state or town. Usually shared point duty on patrol with Pvt. Paul “Caje” Lemay (Pierre Jalbert). An Arcadian from Louisiana. Bi lingual. Decent translator and smooth ladies’ man when off the line.
Backed up by Pvt. William G. Kirby (Jack Hogan). The squad’s BAR (Browning Automatic Rifle) man. Something of a conniver and low-level schemer. Shuns responsibility, but respects authority. Has an annoying habit of looking out for himself first. Until the shooting starts. With the squad being rounded out by “Doc”. Young, sensitive Steve Rogers during early first season episodes and Conlan Carter later in the first season. Quiet. Wise. Patient in his Southern ways. Something of a Mother Hen. And not opposed to picking up a rifle should the need arise.
The mission(s): Advance element for Allied infantry and armor for the most part. Though, throughout the series’ five seasons. Missions became more specialized and dangerous. Several behind enemy lines. Many with the assistance of a replacement, specialist or chance encounter. Read, special guest star(s).
The best episode for the core of the squad. Call sign: “White Rook” would be around mid-point during the show’s first season of 32 B&W episodes. The event that brought most of them together with their first taste of combat.
A Day in June (Season 1, Episode 11)
Told mostly in flashback during a long duration rain storm that gives the squad a respite. And a chance to pull together a pool on which day they’ll enter France, Bringing back memories of another pool with an $800.00 pay off as to when the balloon would finally go up on D-Day. And the pool’s winner, overweight, kind of Sad Sack Pvt. Braddock (Recurring character and scam artist, Shecky Greene).
The squad. First of King Company. Rareky mentioned, 361st Infantry. Pre Kirby and Littlejohn, is bivouacked somewhere outside London. Knowing that something big is about to happen. And many of them aware that they may not see a future sunrise. Edgy. Antsy. Restricted to first company, then barracks areas. And anxious for “the word”, Sgts. Hanley and Saunders are vying for the same woman. Each looking for an edge over the other, to spend time with attractive, blonde Hazel. As restrictions close in. Hanley indirectly orders Saunders for Guard Duty. Tech Sgts. still outrank three striped Buck Sergeants.
Saunders takes it in stride and naps afterwards as the Company Commander tells the squad to basically “Saddle Up!” and assemble outside in half an hour. The CO takes Hanley aside and goes over their orders to back up Rangers around Pont Du Hoc. Then advance to a farmhouse and support paratroopers defending their rally point. Sounds easy enough. Once everyone gets through obstacles, manned gun emplacements and a good-sized chunk of Germany infantry doing their best to stop them.
The squad is next seen on a cargo ship. Slowed to making way and draped with nets for the troops to climb down into waiting Higgins boats. The PA system whoops. Orders are given and the first steps begin. Slowed by scared and anxious Pvt. Beecham (Young Harry Dean Stanton). Who starts losing his grip. Panics and falls between the ship and the boat, Hurt just badly enough to avoid the landing as the LCVP moves out.
The Germans are waiting. Tossing out 88 mm artillery rounds as Allied war ships respond. The gate drops and King Company moves out. Held up by Braddock. Who discovers that loops are not your friend when important business awaits. Stripping off his jacket, pack, ammo and rations to join the fray. Wading ashore and low crawling across the beach under wicked, well-directed fire. Soldiers advance and drop. One of them, a long time friend of Cage’s.(Oddly nicknamed “Caddie” in this episode). Cage panics and runs. Only to stumble and be found by a French family with Resistance ties and loaded for bear.
Hanley, Saunders and most of the squad get off the beach and establish a route through the rocky lee shore. Find the farmhouse occupied. And the paratroopers taken prisoner. Backed up by multiple MG-42s and an early Panzer tank. The two Sergeants discuss options as Cage/Caddie returns with the family. Lewis machine guns and a picnic baskets full of wine and Molotov Cocktails.
Tactics are hashed out and launchers attached to an M-1s. Whose grenades will supply artillery support. But the major problem is the tank. And how to keep it busily distracted during the upcoming events. Hanley, the French father and a Lewis Gun will flank on one side. Cage/Caddie, the comely French daughter and another Lewis Gun will occupy the other. While Saunders goes up the middle with the Molotov Cocktails.Backed up by Braddock and his rifle grenades,
Not a great plan. But, you work with what you’ve got. A grenade is launched. Shots are fired and Germans drop, react and the paratroopers spring into action. The battle is brief and one-sided. As Saunders advances. Followed comically by Braddock’s launched, whistling rifle grenades, The tank starts rolling and Saunders gets behind and tosses the burning Molotov Cocktails onto its deck above its engine, Stopping it as the soldiers mop up and the Germans surrender.
One of the best executed flashback episodes of 1960s and later television. Glitches, missing characters and all. Working well and frugally within a limited budget and superbly edited stock footage to give an idea of the size of the invading Allied forces. Offset by the competition between Hanley, who had seen no action prior to The Main Event. And Saunders’ tough cockiness and “Been There. Done That” attitude. With ribbons and a Purple Heart to back it up. Both Sergeants unwilling to bend to the other. Then discovering that they make a pretty good team under fire.
The soldiers are just that. Soldiers. With names and little to no back story. Save for Pvt. Braddock. The hapless, fumble fingered winner of the lottery, For comic relief occasionally taken to ridiculous extremes. Shecky Greene’s Braddock more than fills the bill.
Direction by Boris Sagal, who will helm the majority of the series episodes. Is concise, compact and makes the most of the series’ 48 minutes per episode. With masterful Cinematography and Editing from Philip Lathrop and Ralph E. Winters. Art and Set Direction and Decoration by George Davis and Otto Siegel excels. In the barracks. And in using sound stages to fill in for sections of the rock faces of Normandy.
Music by Leonard Rosenman and a full orchestra is exactly what one would desire and expect to heighten tension and occasionally enhance levity. Martial in nature at times, but works extremely well! Extremely high marks and Kudos to the many unsung heroes of the Special Effects and Pyrotechnics Departments. For their old school dust sprouting, gravel spitting squibs and explosions. So remarkably refreshing from the contemporary, penny-pinching flashy sparkles and post production CGI flashes easily dwarfed by fifty year old technology. And for Sound Director, Frank Milton to nearly copyright the unique Doppler freight train sound of enemy and Allied artillery rounds in flight!
The second slot is filled quite deftly with the minutiae, effect and aftermath of enemy ambush that begins effectively and is quickly turned on its ear. Not by artillery or mortars. But by a line G.I. who sees an opportunity and quickly executes a plan.
The Medal (Season 1: Episode 14)
As sometimes happens in war. Both sides can find themselves far ahead of logistics, resupply and mail. Which is where we find the squad on one side a valley and cemetery. And the Germans on the other. Holding what they have. Yet, resisting the urge to send out patrols and let the Americans come to them. Their rolling hills, deep foliage and superb use of camouflage in hiding a large number of men, machine gun nests. And a tank!
Word comes down from Higher for the enhanced squad to leave the protection of thick, low stone walls. And advance and probe. Lt. Hanley and Sgt. Saunders discuss dispersal of men as the camera cuts to Pvts. D’Amato (Married, with a son, Joseph Campanella) and Wharton (Constantly griping and scheming, Frank Gorshin) shooting the breeze as a runner passes down the word.
The squad moves at a decent interval and the German tank’s cannon roars. Followed quickly by MG-42s and many bolt-action Kar 98s unloading. Hanley and the squad seeks cover and protection with their heads down. Awaiting a lull to return fire and obviously outgunned, Retreat.
Heads are counted. The radio man and his talking box are down. A runner is sent back with newly acquired Intelligence, And Wharton and D;Amato are stuck in a foxhole without a lot of options. D’Amato sees one and explains while Wharton prefers to sit this one out. D’Amato low crawls into a arching ditch that keeps him and Wharton, far behind and below the grassy horizon.
D’Amato finds a good firing position and shoots the German tank Commander. Then rushes the tank and drops a grenade through to open TC hatch. Grabbing the completely wrong Browning M-2 .50 caliber machine gun and cutting as many Germans down as possible before being shot off the tank. Wharton leaves the ditch. Checks on D’Amato and runs the heavy machine gun dry as Hanley, Saunders and the squad moves forward and mops up.
Unknown and unseen by all is a platoon of Germans led by an officer who takes everything in before retreating for a counter attack. Both sides return to their previous lines. And Hanley mentions a Memo from Command regarding acknowledgement of acts of bravery and superior performance. And nineteen dead Germans certainly qualifies. Hanley wants to write-up Wharton for a Silver Star, But Saunders isn’t so sure.
Certainly respecting acts of bravery. Though, not so keen on choosing one soldier over another, Wharton is debriefed on what happened. As Wharton sees an opportunity that could go either way as D’Amato gains consciousness. And dies before much of anything could be said. And Wharton begins to tell the tale. Substituting D’Amato’s acts for his own. Hanley is satisfied, but would be more so if there were other witnesses.
Enter the German officer. Captured during a failed counter attack on a nearby railway station and adjoining town, Infantry Lieutenant Kohrs (Edward Knight, Even more devious and cunning than Wharton). Who sees an edge to be exploited in agreeing that Wharton is a hero.
The walls start closing in. And Wharton knows it. As Hanley orders Sgt. Saunders and Wharton to escort the prisoner to Division Headquarters on the other side of the pocked and bombed out town. Shadows in alleyways and walls reveal a German night counter attack. Which send Saunders, Wharton and the German officer indoors. While Saunders watches and cooks up a plan. Wharton will guard Lt. Korhs while Saunders takes a look around and creates a distraction to flush out larger numbers of Germans.
Lt. Kohrs starts running his mouth as soon as Saunders leaves. Revealing the advantages of letting him go while keeping their “little secret”. Wharton doesn’t want to hear it. The two argue. Loudly enough for Saunders to hear on the return leg of his recce. Enough to be a witness, himself. Unless Wharton comes clean. Saunders re enters the bombed out building. Lt. Kohrs runs for it. Wharton shoots Kohrs in the back. Which brings some Germans close.
A fire fight ensues. Saunders and other soldiers find targets, Saunders drops one, but not before a rifle fires and a sign falls on Saunders and he falls into a tangle of barbed wire, Wharton intervenes. Slows the enemy advance long enough to start cutting Saunders loose from the tangled, bleeding mess.A German tosses a grenade, Wharton tries to pitch it back, but is too slow. The grenade goes off and wrecks Wharton’s right arm, Wharton returns to his task. Senses an enemy approaching. Grabs Saunders and his Thompson and cuts the enemy down…
I’ll leave it right here for Spoilers’ sake.
For those of you who think of Frank Gorshin only as The Riddler from ABC’s campy ‘Batman’ five years later. This episode may open your eyes towards the actors notable dramatic chops. Playing a man in turmoil at the loss of his friend. And the possibility of taking advantage of his heroic death for personal means. Scoring just as highly as Hanley and Saunders in the drama department, but given the opportunity to take it farther. Closing himself inwardly and against earlier character once his decision is taken. Yet, trying not to tip his hand around his higher-ups.
It’s a great exposition of “Push Me~Pull You” well up to the task.
Outside of one glaring error within the episode’s beginning, Writing by Richard Maibaum is well within parameters, Direction by Paul Stanley is smooth. With no places to lag. While the proper decorum between Lt. Hanley and Sgt. Saunders remains intact. The two disagree on many topics, but work within those areas without raising their voices. And the idea of going to a first name basis is never even considered, let alone broached, As it should be.
Cinematography by Robert Hauser. Who has a gift for shadows. Tree cast in daylight and razor sharp at night attains high marks. Editing by Richard L. Van Enger moves the story along nicely. As Philip Barber and H. Web Arrowsmith perform miracles with MGM back lots. Transforming a few into a tired town caught between different occupiers. With just the right amount of dusty despair and disrepair. While Leonard Roseman’s orchestra leans toward bitter-sweet violins, Brass and percussion have their times to heighten suspense and dread.
Which brings us to about the only episode that offers any glimpses into the past of Sgt. Chip Saunders. One that begins in the final minutes of a losing fire fight. With the squad holed up in a ground level room of a shot up domicile. Outnumbered, low on ammunition and without communications. Waning ammunition is spread out, fired. And weapons destroyed before Lt. Hanley finds a table-cloth and surrenders.
The squad have their wrists tied. Put on a drag line and pulled behind a tank to the German command post. An abandoned farm-house and stable. Secured to different posts and side rails of a hay-rick. One German takes Pvt, Billy Nelson’s (Tom Lowell) boots to replace hobnails with a split sole, As an artillery barrage starts hitting close in. Giving the squad an opportunity to rush the German guards and escape. Save for Sgt. Saunders who’s tied too deftly to the slowly burning rick. Deftly introducing a lesson in:
Survival (Season 1: Episode 23)
Hanley, Cage, Nelson and Littlejohn make a break outside the stable and plunge into a nearby stream as the remaining few Germans try to re-organize. Leaving the stable with smoke pouring out its wide open doors. Until Sgt. Saunders wanders out. Glassy eyed, staring, hands badly burned as he walks into the stream, directionless. Going wherever his boots lead.
While upstream, Hanley does a head count and stops Billy from going back. Checking his bare feet and advising Pvt.Nelson to wrap them in his field jacket until suitable substitutes can be found, Caje offer his jacket and a belt as ideas are ideas are offered and rejected. If Saunders is alive, which no one doubts. He’ll catch up. Other priorities, like food and weapons and hopefully, boots are more important.
The squad heads off and follows the stream and terrain to an apple orchard. Where what is needed is eaten, taken and stored for later. As Hanley follows a hunch and back tracks to a German supply dump glanced on the way to the farm. Pacing his men until night falls. As Sgt. Saunders follows far behind. Occasionally losing consciousness and tumbling down hills. Then coming to and finding mud at the stream’s edge to balm his burned hands and wrists. Straddling a floating tree while soaking. Before passing out. Falling forward and setting his makeshift craft down stream. Hanging in the shadows as Hanley and the squad glides past
The supply dump is found and scouted by Caje. Moving like a cat and taking advantage of the ground’s dips, trees and terrain as he slowly circles and does a head count of guards. Reports back to Hanley as a plan is cobbled together. The two guards are dispatched quietly with makeshift garottes and its two closest tents raided for essentials. Rifles, ammo, rations and Billy finds a pair of boots.
Distance is made quickly before posting guards and catching some sleep. As Sgt. Saunders stumbles into the apple orchard with the rising sun and tries to knock down. Then will an apple to drop.Dejected, Saunders wanders on to the site of a recent battle. The ground deeply pocked by exploded shells and a dead German officer lying supine against a fallen tree. Weaving on the edge of shock, hypothermia, dehydration, having his bells righteously rung, and delirium Sgt, Saunders think the officer is his younger brother, Joey. where hints of the enigmatic NCO’s past are revealed. As Saunders picks the German up in his arms and wanders back towards allied lines moments after Lt. Hanley and the squad are picked by an Army convoy.
One of the great hooks of this series was that Its two stars, Jason and Morrow shared and alternated top billing. With no one overwhelming the other. And in this episode. That ethos is writ large. With Hanley and the squad going one direction. And Saunders wandering through another.
Though, when the camera focuses on Mr. Morrow, he makes that time his. Venturing into areas of his pain and delirium few would or could. And surprising while succeeding. It’s not pretty, or perhaps, cogent. But it’s there!
Backed by a violin heavy orchestra, whose violin play at heart-strings under Music Director, George Bassman; as Saunders helplessly circles tree in the orchard, And Robert Altman (MASH, McCabe & Mrs. Miller) adding a deft, gentle touch very early in his career. High marks also to Editor, James Moore for his work, post production.
Mr. Jason delivers as the calm, collected and wise leader of his weaponless squad. Even without a map or compass. He knows enough to move away from the sound of gunfire and towards friendly lines.
Cinematography by Robert Hauser shows Mr. Altman’s familiarity with back lighting and Sun aureoles in daylight. And clever use of shadows and their merging into larger shadows in a few key scenes. Art Direction and Set Decoration in the enemy camps are stand outs. Courtesy of Mr. Barber and Arrowsmith in an episode shot mostly on location.
Notes: With the advent of technology and social media. The episodes of this series are available and accessible on DVD and You Tube. And though the series ran for five seasons. The first three, in B&W always worked better. And had more magic than when the series went to color.
‘Combat!’ was also an available Testing Ground for then, young talent. Ranging from James Caan and Robert Duvall. Sal Mineo, Robert Blake, George Segal, Robert Culp, William Smith, Beau Bridges, Telly Savalas, William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy. To James Coburn and Lee Marvin.