The television series Combat! remains the longest running war show to this day, some 46 years after its original prime time broadcast. The program aired on the ABC network from 1962 to 1967, and is currently being shown on MeTV. Image Entertainment have just released Combat!: The Complete Fourth Season as an eight-DVD set, and it is excellent.
The stars of the show are Vic Morrow as Sgt. “Chip” Saunders and Rick Jason as Second Lt. Gil Hanley. Combat! is a fictionalized account of American soldiers fighting their way out of France during World War II. What makes the show so good even all these years later, is the powerful storytelling. There is a no-holds-barred element to this series, and it does not shy away from controversial topics.
The fourth season was broadcast during the 1965 – 1966 season, with a total of 31 episodes. Notable guest stars include John Cassavetes, Jack Lord, Dennis Weaver, Fernando Lamas, Sal Mineo, Claude Akins, Keenan Wynn, and Dwayne Hickman, among others. All-star guest directors include Richard Donner and Robert Altman.
There are some great stories in this season, but I was particularly impressed with the two-part “Hills Are for Heroes,” written by Gene L. Coon. Great storytelling comes from great writers, and Coon was one of the best in the business at the time. He penned scripts for some of the biggest shows of the day, including Wagon Train and Bonanza. Coon may be best remembered for his work on Star Trek though, as he wrote some of the best stories of the original series, including “Space Seed.”
“Hills Are for Heroes” feels like a movie rather than a two-part television show. We begin with Lt. Hanley being ordered to take a hill. This strategic spot is being defended by Germans soldiers, in two concrete bunkers. Even after Saunders is wounded, Hanley is told to complete the mission, with no artillery support. A tank finally arrives, but is only able to take out one of the bunkers before being disabled. They finally take the second bunker, but there has been a horrific loss of life in the process. In the end, the troops are flabbergasted to hear the order from HQ commanding them to retreat. It is a gut-wrenching denouement to the mission, and shows the utter futility of war. “Hills Are for Heroes” is a miniature example of what made Combat! such a memorable series. For all of the gung-ho action and gritty realism, it is a show with a conscience. Coon had served in World War II, and wrote from experience.
I understand that the fifth season is due to be released shortly from Image, and am very much looking forward to it. I have not seen a bad episode of this series yet though, and of the four seasons I have seen, this fourth year may well be the finest. Combat! deserves its place as the longest running war series of all, as I have never seen anything quite like it since. Combat! was one of the most intelligent programs of its era, and a truly outstanding effort on all fronts.