You learn a lot about living from stories where lives are on the line.
Combat! was a weekly television series about a platoon in World War II. Not exactly kid viewing, but I watched the show every week. Yes, it was a show about war and there was killing, but it focused on the characters and stories of heroism and human frailty. These weren’t glossy, chest-beating, gung-ho stories; this was realistic and often gut wrenching drama.
Each week, the story focused on either Lt. Hanley or Sgt. Saunders, sometimes both. There was fighting in each episode, there is in war, and soldiers in the series died, some that you came to know. These were stories of internal and psychological conflict, from the perspective of the front line soldiers on different sides of a war.
We think of World War II as a war in black & white, of very elderly old men, mostly gone now, and John Wayne movies. It was the war that forever changed the world. It wasn’t just fought by professional soldiers, most were boys and men who were shoe clerks, insurance agents, mechanics and students. None of them knew anything about war, and most didn’t yet know much about life.
Combat! was written, produced and acted in by many men who served in WWII. Combat! aired on 20 years after America’s entrance in the war. Their stories were still fresh, and although the episodes were fictionalized, the drama was not.
An episode that I just finished watching centered on Saunders accompanying another squad on a reconnaissance mission. Saunders and the other sergeant disliked each other. They reached their objective, but in the process lost all of their men. The other sergeant was captured and was being interrogated by German officers. He was able to convey German troop information to Saunders, who was hidden. Shooting broke out and the other sergeant gave himself up so Saunders could escape and get back to camp. Saunders was told his information was not needed, the Allies broke the German code and learned what they needed. Saunders was incensed that he was being brushed-off. He made them listen, as Saunders again told of the other sergeant’s sacrifice. Saunders learned the other sergeant had once been an officer, but was going to be discharged, instead he gave up his commission, reduced to sergeant in rank, in order to stay in the Army and lead men. Saunders and the other sergeant clearly clashed, but developed a respect for each other. Combat! often had bittersweet stories, men battling their own demons as much as the Germans.
The series was set in France after D-Day, as the Germans were in retreat, but you couldn’t tell it by the stories. Over five seasons, 152 episodes were filmed, the last 25 were filmed in color. For me, the black and white episodes were amazingly effective, showing the grit and grime of Army life on the line. Actual war footage was sometimes included, artillery or planes, but mostly you got a group of men working their way on the fields of France or going building to building in a small village.
Combat! served as a training ground for writers and directors who would move on to feature film. Robert Altman (MASH, The Player) served as a writer, director and producer during the first season. Others who passed through the series were Burt Kennedy (The War Wagon, Support Your Local Sheriff). Ted Post (Magnum Force), Richard Donner (Superman, Lethal Weapon) and Tom Gries (Will Penny, The Ray Patrol), all would direct Combat! episodes early in their careers.
In addition to Saunders (Vic Morrow) and Hanley (Rick Jason), the core members of the squad were Littlejohn (Dick Peabody) Caje (Pierre Jalbert) and Kirby (Jack Hogan). Doc was played by Steven Rogers in season one and Conlan Carter in season two. Other characters filtered in and out, most just for an episode, but several for nearly a season. Comedian Shecky Greene played Private Braddock during the first season. New members of the squad were either killed in battle or became a focus of an episode. Often, these soldiers brought a problem or became a key piece of the drama, usually putting the squad in danger or performing an act of redemption.
Most episodes are about a mission, although some focus on an unexpected event. For example, in season one, Hanley passes through a French town under bombardment. He meets a British nurse who’s bomb disposal former fiancé takes an instant dislike to Hanley. Later, a bomb has fallen on a church where Hanley has taken refuge, the bomb doesn’t explode, but traps Hanley. The bomb disposal officer must defuse it before Hanley can be rescued. Unfortunately, the bomb disposal officer is burned-out and is barely up to the task. He and Hanley engage in some very deep and agonizing conversation while he struggles to disarm three different fuses, and then his own. Written and directed by Robert Altman.
Another Altman directed episode concerned an injured Saunders, his hands blackened and burned, as the result of a fire while captured. Saunders and his squad were captured at the same time, but during an attack, the others make it safely away. While Saunder’s squad tries to make it back their lines, Saunders, alone and out of his mind, and unable to use his hands, also tries to find the Allies.
(Below, l to r) Saunders collapses after placing cool mud on his burned hands; Saunders failing to reach an apple; Saunders carrying the dead German who he believes is his brother Joey; Saunders reaches help, but relives his brother’s death.