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Sunday, September 30, 2012


During the initial TV run of the World War II drama series "Combat!" (1962-67) I couldn't get into it because it was too grown-up.  During its syndicated reruns, I was going through my "pacifist" phase and couldn't stand to watch anything war-related unless it was blatantly, even stridently anti-war.  Now, however, I'm blazing my way through Image Entertainment's 5-disc DVD set COMBAT! FAN FAVORITES 50th ANNIVERSARY like Patton making a beeline to Berlin.

Without a doubt, this is some of the best stuff ever done for series television.  Gritty, realistic (as far as I know, anyway), and unflinchingly adult, the adventures of Sgt. Saunders (Vic Morrow), Lt. Hanley (Rick Jason), and their battle-weary squad of American infantry veterans in post-Normandy Europe puts us right in the middle of all the action and lets us share some of the emotional and existential turmoil that haunts these soldiers every perilous step of the way.

No flag-waving here--these are simply stories about hot, tired, and, most of all, scared soldiers doing a grueling job and trying to stay alive on the front lines.  The streetwise Kirby (Jack Hogan), Lousiana bayou denizen Caje (Pierre Jalbert), gentle giant Littlejohn (Dick Peabody), and compassionate medic Doc (Conlan Carter) wade into the fray with guns blazing yet struggle to retain their humanity, always coming across as three-dimensional human beings and never simple action figures.

Moral quandaries and crises of the soul get just as much play in these well-written stories as gunfights and explosions.  The dialogue snaps, crackles, and pops, and so do the performances.  Method actor Morrow is terrific as the gruff but sensitive Sgt. Saunders, who always does the right thing no matter how painful it may be, and doesn't hesitate, when necessary, to bark out a speech such as the following: "Kirby, I'm only gonna say this once, and I'll say it to all of you.  Keep your mouths shut, your heads down, and your ears open.  Follow my orders and don't ask why.  Is that clear?" 

Saunders sometimes questions orders himself, but his commanding officer Lt. Hanley is equally terse: "Because we were told to."  Rick Jason's seldom-seen character may seem like weak stuff at first, but his depth comes through in less flamboyant but equally dramatic sequences such as in the flashback episode "A Day in June" which, on a TV budget and with generous amounts of stock footage, depicts the D-Day landing at Normandy.  Jason also gets to show his stuff in "The Enemy", a tense two-man conflict between him and a cunning German demolitions expert played by Robert Duvall.  (Anna Lee guest stars as a nun.)

These taut, riveting dramas are punctuated by explosive battle sequences blazing with some of the most thundrous and thrilling action ever filmed for television, often of feature film quality but without the big-money effects.  The beautiful black-and-white photography sometimes approximates the texture of a Joe Kubert-drawn war comic, and many episodes boast skillful direction by the likes of Robert Altman, Ted Post, Bernard McEveety, and Burt Kennedy.  (Morrow himself directs three titles in this set.)  Editing and other production elements are also first-rate.

A two part episode, "Hills Are for Heroes", holds its own with "Saving Private Ryan" or "Band of Brothers" for fierce non-stop battle action that's realistic, harrowing, and emotionally devastating.  Written by "Star Trek: The Original Series" veteran Gene L. Coon and directed by Morrow, it's the story of the squad's seemingly doomed effort to capture a hilltop bunker that's practically impregnable. 

Mutiny looms as the body count rises, with Kirby and the others threatening to disobey the relentless orders that a heartbroken Lt. Hanley is forced to convey from the top.  The awful burden of command is depicted in scenes of almost unbearable intensity, with Hanley privately lamenting to Saunders that the brass "with their maps and their lines...forget they're talking about flesh and blood...and men who die when bullets hit them."
Attack after harrowing attack is doomed to bloody failure as Vic Morrow's sometimes impressionistic direction puts us right in the middle of the action (the handheld camerawork of the series is outstanding for its time), even capturing the POV of a dying soldier whose world has just been shot out from under him. 

If you took the first twenty minutes of "Saving Private Ryan" and extended the sequence to feature length (albeit on a much smaller scale), you'd have something approximating "Hills Are for Heroes."  In my opinion this incredible two-part episode, taken as a whole, constitutes one of the finest low-budget war films ever made.  By any standard, it's absolutely phenomenal television.

Each of the five discs in this DVD set follows a specific theme illustrated by four well-chosen episodes.  The first three themes are "Espionage", "New Replacements", and "The Squad", followed by "The Best of Hanley" and "The Best of Saunders."  "Espionage" begins the set with James Coburn as a German spy pretending to be an American G.I. in "Masquerade."  James Whitmore portrays a German officer trapped into impersonating a priest in "The Cassock", an episode that achieves a genuine kind of dramatic fascination when one of Saunders' men prevails upon the faux priest to hear his confession. 

"New Replacements" tells the stories of raw recruits--some fearful, some arrogant, and some just pitifully out of place--who, for better or worse, become attached to Saunders' squad.  Among the guest stars are John Cassavetes ("S.I.W."), Nick Adams, John Considine, Tab Hunter, and Buck Taylor.  "The Squad" shows us the day to day struggles, heartbreaks, and occasional victories experienced by the men under Saunders' command, with Lee Marvin giving his usual hardbitten performance as an abrasively uncompromising demolitions expert in "The Leader." 

"The Best of Saunders" begins with the Robert Altman-directed "Survival", probably my least favorite episode in the bunch, and steadily improves with the aid of some great stories and guest stars such as Rip Torn ("A Gift of Hope") and James Caan as a young German officer ("Anatomy of a Patrol").  "The Best of Hanley" contains some of the set's finest episodes with "A Day in June", "The Enemy", and "Hills Are for Heroes" parts 1 and 2.  Guest stars include Harry Dean Stanton, Sheckey Greene, a blink-and-you'll-miss-him Tom Skerritt (unbilled), and the aformentioned Robert Duvall and Anna Lee.

Other episodes not previously mentioned are "The Little Jewel", "The Long Walk", "Bridgehead", "Bridge at Chalons", "The Glory Among Men", "Rear Echelon Commandos", "The Celebrity", "The First Day", and "The Little Carousel."

The DVD set from Image Entertainment is in full frame (1.33:1) with Dolby Digital mono sound.  No subtitles or closed-captioning.  No bonus features.  Picture quality looks great to me, but my copy seemed to have a problem with occasionally jittery-sounding audio, particularly in the background music.  Not a dealbreaker for me, but audiophiles may want to give the set a test-drive before buying.

Perfect for Veteran's Day or any other day, COMBAT! FAN FAVORITES 50th ANNIVERSARY is solid entertainment all the way.  If you're into war movies or you just like first-rate, hard-hitting action and drama, television rarely gets any better than this. 

Buy it at


Jeff Flugel said...

Thanks a bunch for the run-down on the contents of this set...couldn't find this info anywhere else. Nice job!

porfle said...

Glad you found it useful. Thanks for reading!