Probably one of the best TV shows I’ve ever watched – and one that still holds up today – is Combat!
Premiering on ABC in 1962, they churned out 152 episodes over the course of five seasons. The show follows the grim slog through France shortly after D-Day, told from the viewpoint of two leading men. Rick Jason plays the hauntingly moody, vaguely shell-shocked Lieutenant Gil Hanley, and Vic Morrow plays the gritty, conflicted Sergeant “Chip” Saunders. Combat! doesn’t get distracted with love stories or side adventures – this is front line horror as shocking and exciting as Saving Private Ryan or Band of Brothers.
But that’s not the only aspect that makes this show stand out and remain gripping for this jaded viewer in 2017. What’s amazing about Combat! is the storytelling and the way they did it. The episodes aren’t linked. We have the same folks in the platoon, yes, but each episode is a standalone adventure. A first time watcher can pick any episode at random and just dive in. You don’t need to know the background – this is a platoon of soldiers fighting the Nazis in France. Period. There are no big emotional arcs, no character studies, not even any sort of interaction or tension between the leads. It’s a show about soldiers doing their job in the often off-the-chain days in 1944 Europe. Occasionally a storyline gets shoehorned in, mainly to try and introduce a woman every once in a while, but even then the show doesn’t pull any punches.
Take season 4, episode 27, “Gitty.” Vic Morrow and his team are sent to a deserted town to try and spot the location of a mobile Nazi railgun. Their job is simple – spot the location when the gun fires and call in an artillery strike, then bug the fuck out.
In the town they find a lone German soldier, kill him in a brief struggle, and then stumble across his daughter. He’d been fleeing the war and heading for the American lines…maybe. The audience is actually left to figure this out for themselves because the GI’s don’t give a shit and the daughter has been kept in the dark as well.
Gitty is about 12 years old, played by Andrea Darvi (a frequent guest star on the show usually playing a dirty refugee girl). Darvi’s presence is eerie with her wide, dark eyes and the sharp delivery of her dialogue. You never quite feel comfortable with her. There’s this electric feel of danger throughout the episode, even when she’s crying and the soldiers try to comfort her. Like at any moment she could turn Nazi and start taking people out.
The episode ends with half the team wounded by German snipers and Gitty walking off into the ruined, apocalyptic town after the big final battle. The medic goes to get her but a severely wounded Vic Morrow grabs his arm and chokes out: “Let her go.”
Gitty won’t come back. She walked off to her death. Nor will the soldiers worry about her or revisit this incident. This was just a day in the war. Gitty was a child, yes, but she’s just another casualty. They’ve seen many dead children, and they’re not going to talk about that. It’s going to sit in their hearts forever. But tomorrow will be a new mission, a new threat. And as time goes on, both Vic Morrow and Rick Jason survey the battlefields, and the soldiers under their command, with an increasing detachedness. They’re looking at dead men. They may soon be dead men themselves.
The show is, basically, 152 standalone WWII movies. Wildly unique in television, the leading men are rarely together. Instead, many episodes trade off. This week it’s Vic Morrow working his way through a street-by-street battle. Next week Rick Jason may take to the skies to recon another part of the battlefield and crash land behind enemy lines with a wounded pilot and little ammo. Also unique is that there are no subtitles when actors are speaking in a different language. The Germans all speak German, the French all speak French, and our viewpoint is from the soldiers who can barely speak French and don’t know German at all. Yet we’re treated to lengthy scenes, especially for the Germans, that give us a glimpse of the other side of the action. The audience is left to figure out what’s happening based on context – and this is always surprisingly easy because the overall writing of the episodes is guiding us along. You know these Germans are hunting Rick Jason. They’re angry because the French villagers are uncooperative. They’re going to start executing French villagers to prove a point… And Rick Jason isn’t going to be a hero running out to save them. He’s going to take the chance to get away, back to the Allied lines, casting a haunted look over his shoulder at people he knows are doomed either way. This is war.
The history major in me has always appreciated Combat! because it’s the only time, until Tarantino took on Inglourious Basterds, that the uniforms are correct. Like, OCD-correct. Everything from uniforms to terrain and troop movements are painstakingly researched. Most of the cast and crew fought in WWII, and they combined their own knowledge with a legion of military experts and advisors who weighed in on every map, every uniform button, even the type of chocolate and candy carried by the soldiers. You simply won’t find a more realistic WWII drama on film or TV. The actors were nearly forced to stay in character for the whole series, with the production crew obsessed with the continuity of things like stubble growth and wounds. The budget for each episode was extraordinary – almost the equivalent of a million dollars an episode in 2017 money. This shows up not only in the sets, but in the film quality. Even the stock footage feels new and interesting and almost seamlessly inserted into the show.
I rewatch Combat! every once in a while. Late night insomnia or bored rainy days. There’s no sense or order to the airings, of course. The show pops up on the deep-track cable channels that feel like old UHF channels with their local ads and homemade infomercials and strange technical glitches. But, no matter the distractions, or my mood, or the time of day, I am always captivated, sucked in again and again by every episode.