It’s hard to fathom now, but the WWII action-drama “Combat!” aired during family hours on ABC between 1962 and 1967. That is, whole families sat down together to watch this realistic one-hour series, which, though filmed in California at various locations, looked as if it could have been shot somewhere in France. But it was a different time and atmosphere, certainly. As the late Studs Terkel explained, WWII was “The Good War” because it was the last romanticized war that produced heroes and a nation that completely galvanized behind the war effort. It was an era that gave birth to G.I. Joe figures and saw boys playing war games in neighborhoods, where one side was the Allies and the other side was the Axis—sometimes Germans, sometimes Japanese. So yes, families watched together, and no one was concerned with the amount of battle violence their children saw.
Now, of course, the show will appeal to fans of serious TV drama and people who enjoy war movies. Given the mock-ups and sets, everything in “Combat!” still looks surprisingly realistic. In one scene a guy leaned up against a rock wall just a little too hard with his rifle and I saw slight movement, but otherwise the illusion of real battle holds true. The original actors were required to attend real Army Boot camp, and most of them had already served in WWII.
“Combat!” followed one squad, led by Sgt. Saunders (Vic Morrow) from D-Day until a year later in a platoon that was headed by Lt. Hanley (Rick Jason). Regulars in the squad included Caje (Pierre Jalbert), Kirby (Jack Hogan), Littlejohn (Dick Peabody), and Doc (Conlan Carter), but others shuttled in and out, with some pretty big-name guest stars seeing action. This season, for example, William Bryant becomes a regular, and “M*A*S*H” fans will delight in seeing Wayne Rogers as a squad member.
“Combat!” had finished as high as Number 10 in the Nielsens its third season, and this year producers hoped to reward fans and spark new interest by filming and broadcasting in color for the first time. Shows that made the leap to color drew attention to the fact, because it was a big deal back then. So each title card from Season 5 read, “Combat! in Color.”
However, even color wasn’t enough to earn the show another season. The fifth is it’s last, and you’d have to think that the Vietnam War might have had something to do with it, as the public’s feeling about war began to change. Also, for what turned out to be its final season, “Combat!” went up against some pretty tough competition: an African adventure show (“Daktari”) that placed Number 14 the previous season, and the campy “Girl from U.N.C.L.E.” spy romp featuring a mini-skirted Stephanie Powers. “Daktari” won the time slot and bumped “Combat!” off the air.
For fans, that was unfortunate, because the show really looked spectacular in color, and color filming inspired producers to return to the show’s roots and feature more battle scenes and explosions than the anthology-style dramatic episodes that seemed closer to what we’d see on shows like “Route 66.”
The first episode alone looks as if Jerry Bruckheimer had something to do with it, there are so many grand explosions as the squad shoots up a fuel dump just outside a bunker they need to take out in order to save lives. Other episodes feature a renewed emphasis on battle scenes as well, though there’s still the mixture of episodes that highlight drama one time, action another, or sometimes the strange or comic.
You don’t know what you’re getting in this set, though, because there’s no episode guide—only screen menus for each disc.
Twenty-five episodes are included on eight single-sided discs. Here’s a listing of the Season 5 episodes:
“The Gun.” The squad is supposed to destroy an anti-tank gun, but end up using it against the enemy instead.
“The Losers.” This time the mission is to destroy a bridge, but in lieu of replacements Saunders adds G.I.s who were in the brig awaiting courts-martial. Bill Bixby is a guest star.
“Ollie Joe.” Two new soldiers absorbed into the unit pose opposite problems: one is a goldbrick, the other is reckless and borderline psychotic.
“The Brothers.” Two brothers who head the local underground have totally different personalities.
“The Chapel at Able-Five.” Saunders is temporarily blinded and conned by a German chaplain who pretends to be English.
“A Child’s Game.” The squad tries to coax a unit of teens to surrender.
“The Letter.” Saunders gets a letter from his younger brother saying he’s enlisted, and that affects the way he treats a new, young soldier on the squad.
“Headcount.” The squad has to escort a group of prisoners who heavily outnumber them.
“Decision.” One of the squad members’ secrets comes out during a mission to blow a radio station.
“The Outsider.” All but one of the squad can’t stand the new man, a “hillbilly” from Virginia.
“Conflict.” A morale problem threatens the unit after continuous patrols in the rain start to fray nerves.
“Gulliver.” Littlejohn is wounded and found by a group of children, who try to profit off of him.
“The Bankroll.” A soldier who owes Kirby money dogs it in combat.
“Cry for Help.” Hanley’s squad captures a German medic en route to trying to destroy an observation post.
“The Furlough.” In the weakest episode (and least likely), Saunders goes to England to hand-deliver a killed soldier’s bequest to the director of an orphanage.
“Entombed.” The squad is charged with rescuing French resistance fighters, but a mine cave-in complicates matters.
“Gadjo.” In one of the bizarre episodes the squad encounters a group of gypsies.
“Anniversary.” A resistance fighter cracks up and starts indiscriminately firing at both sides.
“Encounter.” James MacArthur (“Hawaii Five-O”) guest stars in this story of a reporter who shadows the squad.
“The Gantlet.” Saunders is captured and tries to escape.
“The Masquers.” German infiltrators in costume attack and soon it’s tough to tell who’s on who’s side.
“A Little Jazz.” The squad finds a stranded jazz combo.
“Nightmare on the Red Ball Run.” Kirby and Littlejohn end up helping to drive for an ammo convoy.
“Jonah.” The new replacement thinks he’s as jinx responsible for the deaths of anyone who comes in contact with him.
“The Partisan.” This time Caje is captured and a deserter comes to the rescue.
“Combat!” episodes are presented in the original 1.33:1 aspect ratio, and this season it’s in color. Often older series that used color stock look grainy and faded, but not this show. “Combat!” looks terrific in color, with natural-looking skin tones and colors and
The audio is an undistinguished Dolby Digital Mono, but it’s an assertive Mono with a surprisingly rich-sounding timbre. Explosions and gunfire sound spot-on accurate, with German “burp” guns having a totally different sound than the American “tommy” guns, for example.
As with previous season releases, there aren’t a whole lot of bonus features—just a few photo galleries, several commentaries, and “oddities and bloopers” that are really printed trivia. Interesting, though, because many of the entries come from a book on “Combat!” and reveal filming locations and other notes.
“Combat!” is a terrific dramatic series, one that seems realistic enough, but is more devoted to depicting personal dramas than statements about conflict. This season, the series’ only one in color, there’s a renewed emphasis on battle scenes and encounters with colorful characters that help showcase the more expensive film stock.