Written by Evan Braun
The Rat Patrol completely took me by surprise, mostly by virtue of the fact that I had no idea what I was in for. Before watching even one episode, I was already underestimating it in my head, imagining a program only slightly more serious than Hogan’s Heroes and confusing the title with the stupendously unrelated Rat Pack.
Boy, was I wrong. This series is tough-as-nails. The first episode of the second season opens with an action sequence that, in 1966, may have been comparable with Spielberg’s opening salvo in Saving Private Ryan. Tanks ramming each other in the desert, massive explosions, soldiers falling left and right, stuntmen hurling themselves from moving vehicles into rocky crevices … even the Arab civilians are in on the action.
It’s a whirlwind of activity, making it at times hard to follow, but when you do it’s absolutely worth it. The show centers around a 4-man elite team of combat specialists in North Africa during the Second World War. Composed of three Americans and a British commando, they’re known as the Rat Patrol, and they operate with the careful subtlety of a charging elephant.
The show features Christopher George as the unit’s leader, Sergeant Sam Troy. While he leads the group through one intense action sequence after another, sadly he lacks any real leadership where it often counts the most: dramatic performance. Indeed, the acting is a pathetic show of American campiness at its very worst. As a result of this serious deficiency, it’s probably just as well that in any given episode of 30 minutes, each castmember may only get a line or two of dialogue. Every time a character opens his mouth and speaks is two or three seconds that the producers could have rather spent on an explosion of some kind. This is almost excusable since the actors can run and jump and fall down with the best of them.
One of my main gripes is common to this period of television, and filmmaking in general: Everyone looks and sounds like Americans, especially the Germans. From time to time, they’ll say something in German, reminding us of their true loyalties, but unless you’re keeping your eye out for the tell-tale Nazi swastika, you’ll be easily confused. The Arab background characters all look and sound like Americans, too, which seems to be a serious problem. The fact that everybody is dressed in the same sand-coloured fatigues doesn’t make distinguishing people any easier.
While I wasn’t enjoying the show for realism, I simply couldn’t ignore the way in which these characters seem to effortless walk away from gunshot wounds. In an early scene, Sergeant Troy gets hit by a machine gun (a shot that would easily have killed at least a half-dozen Germans), but somehow manages to limp away with nothing but a bit of red dye schmutzing his pant leg.
Being a child of the 60s, Rat Patrol was lauded as being one of the first full-colour major studio television productions. Unfortunately, Technicolour aside, the colour palette is dismally limited. Every scene takes place in the desert with miles and miles of grayish-brown sand stretching in every direction. The tanks are also brown. So are the uniforms. And the faces. Even the sky is more gray than blue. The only real relief is the bright, ever-present bursts of red flame and occasional appearance of the Nazi flag.
There’s a lot of noticable film grain. And I mean a lot.
The soundtrack is mono. It’s a real shame that MGM didn’t go to the trouble of re-mixing it, because there’s an enormous amount of potential here. With this much action, the show could easily have my sound system working overtime. Instead, nothing really stands out, leading to a soundtrack that’s as muddy and bland as the scenery.
There’s not a single special feature on this 3-disc set. Seeing as it’s hardly even rebroadcast in syndication and there appears to be virtually no fans, this doesn’t surprise me.
Despite its detractors, which are numerous, the show has a raw appeal. It’s hard to stop an episode in the middle, because the action tends to pull you along. There’s hardly a dull moment on The Rat Patrol. Too bad the producers didn’t put more effort into remastering the technicial aspects of the series; it could have become a real classic.