There haven’t been many dramatic or even comedic TV series about Word War II, save for HBO’s excellent miniseries “Band of Brothers” (2001) and “The Pacific” (2010), the all but forgotten ABC series “The Gallant Men” (1962), which director Robert Altman helped mold, “The Rat Patrol” (1966) and the ’60s silliness of “Hogan’s Heroes” and “McHale’s Navy.”
But television’s longest-running regular network series set in WWII was “Combat!” (1962-’66), and it was also the best that TV has ever offered on the subject, regardless of production values that fell short of the Tom Hanks/Steven Spielberg-produced HBO offerings.
Created by Robert Pirosh, who wrote the story for the 1962 war classic “Hell Is For Heroes,” starring Steve McQueen, “Combat!” starred Vic Morrow as Sgt. “Chip” Saunders and Rick Jason as 2nd Lt. Gil Hanley, who led the U.S. Army’s King Company, of the 361st Infantry Regiment, across France toward Paris in the months following D-Day.
“Combat!: The Complete Series,” from RJL Entertainment, is a 40-disc box set that presents all 152 episodes of the show in all of its explosive glory, complete with an impressive battalion of guest stars that includes Lee Marvin, Charlies Bronson, James Coburn, Roddy McDowell, Theodore Bikel, Robert Duvall, Mickey Rooney, Warren Oates, Harry Dean Stanton, Leonard Nimoy, and teen idols of the days such as Frankie Avalon and Bobby Rydell.
In fact, there’s a gripping show in the third season called “The Duel,” where Sgt. Saunders takes on a German tank all by himself while Rydell’s character spends almost the entire hour trying to change a tire on their truck, which is bogged down in mud.
Originally, the dark and handsome Jason was intended as the lead, but the rugged and dour-looking Morrow quickly became the television audience favorite as the no-nonsense sergeant who led the platoon into the thick of the action every week.
The story leapt into action immediately at the opening of every episode and continued with almost non-stop firepower throughout, the show was guided by such talented directors as the aforementioned Altman, Richard Donner, Burt Kennedy and Morrow himself, and the camera work was movie-quality, black and white in the first four seasons, color in the final fifth round, when ABC and CBS finally gained the right to do color broadcasting, which had been held by NBC since the beginning of color TV in the early ’50s.
“Combat!” still holds up today as an exciting, well-crafted war action entertainment for those who enjoy the genre — but minus the graphic gore of such modern-day epics as “Saving Private Ryan” — and the box set is definitely worth its high-caliber price tag ($229 srp) if you’re feeling generous toward your favorite war movie buff during the holidays.
- Gene Triplett