They’ve been called The Greatest Generation, and who are we to argue the point? Sitting here writing reviews from my comfortable seat in a state-of-the-art home theater, I’m in no position to lay claim to the title. They fought in the bloodiest conflict in modern human history. Over 20 million were killed. That’s a staggering number. If you’re like me, it’s not even real. I can honestly say that those facts have never really reached home.
World War II has been a favorite topic for Hollywood films since before the war itself ended. There have been some truly remarkable efforts and some equally remarkable disasters. Many of these films have been long forgotten. Heck, many of them deserve to be forgotten. There have also been television shows set in or around the war as well. Hogan’s Heroes was able to find humor in a German POW camp. But it was the exploits of Company K from the series Combat that led the television charge when it came to gritty realism and compelling World War II drama.
It is the longest running World War II drama in television history. It ran for five seasons from 1962 to 1967 for 157 episodes. The first four seasons were in black and white, while the final season ran in color. That final color season likely had more than a little bit to do with the show’s exit from the airwaves. It was still running strong in the ratings, but costs had risen quite a bit due to the increased production costs of color and the salary demands of the show’s star Vic Morrow. He knew he had the producers in a tight spot and exploited it for 10 grand an episode, which was unheard of in 1967. It is very probable that Combat would have lasted longer without these cost increases. Color also took away some of the authentic gritty nature of the series. Not only were printing costs higher, but the uniforms and props had to undergo changes to accommodate the color broadcasts. It’s much the same way that high definition required modern shows to add better detail to their props and sets.
The series followed Company K from the moment they landed at Normandy on D-Day. The unit was commanded by Lieutenant Hanley, played by Rick Jason. His second was Sergeant Saunders, played by Vic Morrow. Together they led the unit from battle to battle during the liberation of France. Some of the regulars in the unit included Little John, played by Dick Peabody. Peabody was a huge man with a distinctive deep voice. Jack Hogan played Kirby. Kirby was the screw-up of the unit. He was a good fighting man, but he was the guy who always complained or had one hare-brained scheme after another. He would often get on Saunders’ last nerve. Still, he would go to the ends of the Earth for him, as he would any of the men under his command. Pierre Jalbert played Caje (Caddy in the pilot). Caje was one of the most useful members of the unit. He was Cajun and spoke fluent French. This would come in handy quite a bit with the local French population. Steven Rogers would play Doc, the unit’s medic, for most of the first year, replaced by Conlan Carter for the remainder of the series run. The first few episodes also featured legendary stand-up comedian Shecky Greene as Braddock. He supplied the comic relief. Unfortunately, Greene was making so much green doing his Vegas show that he was losing money filming the series. He left after only eight memorable episodes. Other notable cast members who did not appear for the entire series were Tom Lowell as the naive but eager Billy, William Harlow as Davis, Michael Masters as Burns, and Paul Busch who played a German opponent in over 30 episodes.
Actual World War II footage was integrated quite well into the show. This allowed for large artillery barrages and the kind of battle footage that just would not have been possible on a 1960’s television budget. It was so much remarkable that the footage was used. What is truly amazing is how well some of it appears seamlessly in the action. Of course, that wasn’t always the case. It depended on how good the footage itself was at the source and also how often the same footage was used. Unfortunately, the unit came under fire by the same assortment of tanks and artillery time and time again throughout the show’s run.
When they weren’t using actual footage, the show did a very good job on locations and sets. For the first four years the show had access to the vast resources of MGM studios. That meant incredible stages where massive sets could be constructed. It also meant the use of an expansive back lot that featured in hundreds of classic films. The result of these elements was a television show that looked as authentic and real as anything seen on the small screen before or since. Explosions were as real as it gets. No computers to animate the action in the 1960’s. The actors would be up close and personal with the carefully-timed explosions. In all five years there was never anything more than a minor injury to cast or stunt people. In an interview included in the set, Vic Morrow talks about those dangers. It would be eerily prophetic. Morrow would be killed during the filming of a segment of Twilight Zone: The Movie when a helicopter stunt went tragically wrong, killing both Morrow and two children.
All of these elements together would be meaningless except for the strong stable of directors who populated the Combat landscape. The show’s original look can be credited to Robert Altman, who directed most of the show’s earliest episodes. No doubt his experiences here paid off later when he took on the M*A*S*H film. Other prolific directors of the series included Superman’s Richard Donner, the recently deceased Ted Post, MacGyver’s Michael Caffey, and even Vic Morrow himself who directed seven episodes. The series had an eye for directing talent that maintained a five-year history of high quality cinematography that was even more rare at that time.
More than anything else, Combat never let the bells and whistles of these great sets and battle scenes take the focus away from the men themselves. These were human interest stories as much as they were war tales. The camera was often close and intimate with the characters. You could see the sweat. Morrow in particular proved himself to be an outstanding actor, and he never had a better place to showcase those efforts than he did in Combat. In spite of the name, the series was never afraid to move the action away from the fighting and tell a personal story. Morrow and Jason both got solo efforts that found them separated from their units and in emotional situations. Often they’d be captured by the enemy and need to pull off an escape. Sometimes their jobs were to interact with the desperate French people who had suffered as much as they had during the occupation. No matter what the story, there was always time to explore the relationship between these “band of brothers” throughout the conflict. The human toll never escaped the Combat cameras. Many World War II vets at the time found the show helped them to finally talk to their families about their wartime experiences, something many had been reluctant to do for twenty years previous.
Credit a strong writing staff that included Star Trek’s Gene Coon and Richard Matheson under a pen name. Matheson and Morrow would eventually hook up again on the ill-fated segment that cost Morrow his life.
The series was eventually replaced by the short-lived Garrison’s Gorillas. The shame of it is that the pilot for that show was filmed alternately as a Combat episode with that cast. The writing was on the wall. ABC was trying to keep the show and get rid of the high-priced salaries along the way. I’m sure the deteriorating relationship with Morrow was a huge factor. The gambit did not pay off, and both shows disappeared in 1967.
Vic Morrow should have had a promising career as both an actor and a director. Unfortunately, he had a reputation from the salary dispute, and while his directing was superb, he achieved these ends without a care toward schedules or budgets. By the time the series ended, Morrow had gone through a bitter divorce and his career never did take off. The promising talent spent most of the next few years in television shows and movies, usually as just a guest. He had a rather public bout with the bottle and had sunk to near-obscurity by the end of the 1970’s. It was his excellent turn as a bigot in Twilight Zone: The Movie that was promising to give his career the resurgence it needed. The tragic accident put a sharp exclamation point on a tragic life and career. Yet even with all of this, Combat still stands as a monumental role and should prove to define him in a better light with the release of these DVD’s.
The set is an impressive one, to be sure. You get all 152 episodes in five cases that represent each of the five seasons. There are 40 discs total. Each season carries a few extras that include photo galleries and short half-hour behind-the-scenes features. One of the best and simplest extras I’ve encountered is a collection of text features called Oddities & Bloopers. You get some very interesting tidbits on most episodes from Jo Davidsmeyer who wrote a companion book for the series. She even participates in the many audio commentaries. You also get folks like Richard Donner, Ted Post and surviving cast members and guest stars. The folks at RLJ had the fans in mind when they put this thing together.
With recent films like Saving Private Ryan, Hollywood has found new and improved ways to bring us the experience of combat situations. Combat doesn’t have these modern technological advantages, but I can’t help but think that the show has done just as good a job of bringing me closer to the human experience. I’ve never been to war, so I will never really know for sure. It’s been 40 years since Combat left the first-run airwaves, but it’s time to assemble the unit again. “All right, saddle up. We’re going out again.”