Unless you watched Combat! during its original 1962-1967 run, you might not know just how popular and influential the program was. For young fans, we got tie-in board games and bubblegum cards. Some older teens, as one Vietnam vet told me, were so inspired by the show to the point they volunteered for the army. I remember my Dad, A World War II vet, watching one episode where the troops had to recapture a hil they had already taken once before, and said that is just what happens in war. This sort of multi-generational appeal is what led to the show being the longest running World War II series of them all and remains impressive and watchable over 40 years after its ABC run.
Set in France after D-Day, Combat! was very different from other World War II TV series of the era. On one hand, we had the silliness of Hogan’s Heroes and McHale’s Navy. On the other, we had the stylized action-adventures of The Rat Patrol and Six O’Clock High. In a league of its own, Combat! was aptly titled as considerable time was spent with the American soldiers engaged in machine gun fire fights and explosions while the soundtrack was filled with the martial horns and drums of the rousing Leonard Rosenman score. Combat! was also distinguished by its grim and realistic stories that frequently had only the most minimal of dialogue, and that often being only quick orders from Sgt. Saunders to his unit while they were on the move.
As it happened, most of the recurring cast were themselves military vets. This included Rick Jason who “starred” as platoon leader Second Lieutenant Gil Hanley. While he shared top billing with Vic Morrow, who played Sergeant “Chip” Saunders, I never understood how Jason got that much credit. In the main, Combat! was method actor Vic Morrow’s show. The camera savvy Morrow had far more screen time than anyone else (except his own stunt double) as the resourceful and rock-steady leader of small units often including PFC William G. Kirby (Jack Hogan), PFC “Littlejohn” (Dick Peabody), PFC “Caje” LeMay (Pierre Jalbert), and “Doc” (Conlan Carter, who was nominated for an Emmy for his role.)
The producers and directors of the series (including Robert Altman, whose work on the show included 10 defining episodes) went the extra mile for establishing credibility and realism. Then and now, viewers see motion picture quality photography as in the long shots very unlike most network television of the period. They had military advisors on hand to look over scripts and maps. The cast couldn’t shave during the five day shoots to help the “beard continuity.” Except for occasional dialogue, for the most part when the “Krauts” or “Gerrys” spoke, they did so in German. Actor Robert Winston Mercy, who wrote one script and played a number of German officers, told me the uniforms were so precisely recreated with correct pipings and insignias that he would cause a stir among Jewish cafeteria workers when he strode in wearing his costume during lunch breaks.
The 25 episodes of the fifth and final season of Combat!, the only one broadcast in color, maintained the high-quality of the show so well established in the first four years. One major change was a move from MGM studios to CBS which meant, among other matters, a new sound crew and different props. Further, in this season the color was especially memorable as most viewers were accustomed to seeing World War II in black-and-white like the newsreels of the war years. However, using color resulted in a variety of production problems such as the lack of usable stock footage. But the show wasn’t simply spectacular explosion fests, although most episodes opened and closed with violent skirmishes believably orchestrated by the special effects crew. (The busy stunt men played Germans in the morning, changed uniforms, and shot at themselves as Americans in the afternoon.) Character studies included green recruits being integrated into the ranks, Saunders dealing with criminal misfits, and quarrels among men pushed to their limits. In one episode, a blinded Saunders is tricked by a German Chaplin into thinking he’s a British major.
The fifth season of Combat! was previously released on DVD in two box sets in 2005, and apparently all the extras from those releases are recycled in the new package. The commentary tracks are uneven, the best being an edited discussion among a number of cast and crew members reflecting on the pluses and minuses of the switch from MGM to CBS Studios. In the end, this new box set is the one I’d give any viewer whether or not they remember the show or are experiencing it for the first time. Yes, I know there are those who like the B&W years much better and I understand their views. Still, the fifth season of Combat! is high-quality television, no matter what you compare it to.