Sunday, October 2, 2022

The 60th Anniversary of Combat!

It was 60 years ago today, on October 2 1962, that the TV series Combat! debuted on ABC. That season saw the beginning of a cycle of shows set during World War II, so that Combat! was among the first shows in the Sixties set during the Second World War. It proved to be successful, receiving moderately good ratings during its network run and lasting five seasons. It would also receive a good deal of critical acclaim.

Combat! followed American solders belonging to the second platoon of K Company, which was part of 361st Regiment, as they made their way through Nazi Germany following D-Day.2nd.  Lt. Gil Hanley (Rick Jason) was the commander of the second platoon, In the pilot he was a Technical Sergeant when the 361st Regiment landed on Omaha Beach on D-Day. He was promoted to second lieutenant when the platoon's original lieutenant was killed. Sgt. Chip Saunders (Vic Morrow) was the squad leader, and close friends with Lt. Hanley. With the show from the beginning to its end were various men in the squad: Private "Caje" LeMay (Pierre Jalbert); Private William Kirby (Jack Hogan); and Private "Littlejohn" (Dick Peabody). Their original medic was Doc Walton (Steven Rogers), who disappeared without explanation after the first season. He was replaced by Doc (Conlan Carter), whose full name was never given. He remained with the show for the rest of its run. Private Billy Nelson (Tom Lowell) and Private Braddock (played by comedian Shecky Greene) were only on the show in its first season.

The Fifties saw a start of a prolonged cycle towards World War II that would last into the Seventies. It should then come as no surprise that the 1962/1963 season saw the start of a cycle towards TV shows about World War II with three different shows set during World War II debuting that season. The Gallant Men debuted only a few days after Combat! and centred on American soldiers fighting in Italy during the Second World War. It only lasted one season. More successful was McHaley's Navy, a sitcom centred on the crew of a PT boat based in the South Pacific. It ran for four seasons. It would be the success of Combat! that would lead to other World War II dramas, including 12 O'Clock High, The Wackiest Ship in the Army, and The Rat Patrol.

Combat! was created by screenwriter Robert Pirosh. He had collaborated with George Seaton on the classic Marx Brothers movies A Night at the Opera (1935) and A Day at the Races (1937). He also contributed to the musical comedy Song of the Islands (1942), the comedy Rings on Her Fingers (1942), and the classic I Married a Witch (1942). During World War II he served with the 320th Regiment, 35th Infantry Division as a Master Sergeant. He served in both the Ardennes and Rhineland campaigns. It was perhaps because of his service during World War II that following the war his focus shifted from comedies to more serious works. In 1949 his screenplay for the movie Battleground won the Academy Award for Best Story and Screenplay. He would revisit World War II with the movies Go for Broke! (1951) and  Hell is for Heroes (1962). Robert Pirosh's World War II movies are noted for their realism, and for portraying soldiers as vulnerable human beings rather than cardboard heroes.

It was not long after he finished Hell is for Heroes that Robert Pirosh approached producer Selig Seligman with the idea for a television series to be called Men in Combat that follow a squad of soldiers from D-Day to the liberation of Paris. Like his movies, Men in Combat would offer a realistic depiction of war and would feature soldiers who were often vulnerable and sometimes even questioned what they were asked to do. Selig Seligman would become the show's executive producer.

ABC approved a pilot for the prospective series. The pilot, "A Day in June," was shot in December 1961. By that time  the prospective new show was being referred to as Combat Platoon in the press. It was in April that ABC announced it had picked up the new show, now titled Combat!.

Unfortunately, Robert Pirosh would not remain with the show he created. Neither of the show's two leads, Rick Jason and Vic Morrow, particularly cared for Mr. Pirosh's pilot. Vic Morrow disliked it so much that he actually considered leaving the show before it had even begun. It following the shooting of the pilot and ABC picking up Combat! that executive producer Selig Seligman fired Robert Pirosh as the show's producer and replaced him with Robert Blees. A few other changes were also made, including dropping some of the characters.

Combat! debuted to largely positive reviews. Combat! also did relatively well in the ratings. While it did not make the top thirty shows for the year in its first two seasons, in its third season it was the 10th highest rated show for the year. Combat! never did quite so well again, but it would run for another two years.

Much of the success of Combat! was perhaps its emphasis on realism. Before the series began filming, executive producer Selig Seligman actually had the cast go through a week of basic training at the Army's Infantry Training Center at Fort Ord in northern California. Selig Seligman made a request to the United States Army that they assign a technical advisor to Combat!. Preferably, Mr. Seligman wanted someone who had be at D-Day. The Army Maj. Homer Jones as the show's technical advisor. He had served with the 82nd Airborne's 508th Parachute Infantry and was a veteran of D-Day. Great care was taken to sure that every American and German uniform featured on the show was accurate to the era. For the most part whenever German soldiers spoke to each other, it was in German.

Beyond the accuracy with which Combat! portrayed World War II, Combat! was not so much an action show as it was a show that examined the human condition through the lens of World War II. The soldiers on the show were portrayed as human beings, subject to human frailties and sometimes wrestling with questions regarding morals and ethics.  The debut episode, "Forgotten Front," had the squad having to interrogate a German soldier who was already questioning his own loyalties. "The Celebrity" involved a professional baseball player turned soldier who freezes during combat. In "The Wounded Don't Cry," Sgt. Saunders finds himself in an uneasy alliance with a German soldier as they must travel to get plasma for a German field hospital in a French village. In point of view, Sgt. Saunders faced court martial.

In addition to quality writing, Combat! also benefited from superior direction. Before the show began filming, Robert Altman, who would later establish a name for himself in feature films, was hired to direct every other episode of the first season. Ted Post, another veteran television director who would go onto feature films, also directed several episodes. Burt Kennedy, who had already written several Westerns and would establish himself as a director in the genre, also directed many episodes of Combat!. It also benefited from both good cinematography and good editing. Robert B. Hauser, the director of photography on Combat! during its first season, was nominated for the Emmy Award for Outstanding Achievement in Cinematography for Television. William Mace was nominated for the American Cinema Editors Award for Best Edited Television Program for the episode "Escape to Nowhere."

The success of Combat! did lead to some merchandising. In 1963 Ideal Toy Company produced a Combat! board game. In 1964 Whitman Publishing produced a young adult novel titled Combat! The Counterattack by Francis M. Davis. There were also three tie-in novels written by Harold Cain and published by Lancer Publishing. The three novels (Combat! in 1963, Combat!: Men Not Heroes also in 1963,  and Combat!: No Rest for Heroes in 1965) were not particularly loyal to the TV series.

After five seasons on the air, ABC cancelled Combat! in the spring of 1967. While Combat! would no longer air on the network, that would not mean that ABC would be without an hour-long, World War II drama for the 1967-1968 season. Garrison's Gorillas was also produced by Selig Seligman's Selmur Productions. In fact, the unaired pilot of Garrison's Gorillas was aired as an episode of Combat!, with Lt. Hanley introducing a group of commandos. If Garrison's Gorillas had not sold, the pilot could then air as an episode of Combat!. As it turned out, Garrison's Gorillas would not see the success that Combat! had. It ran for only one season.

Following its network run, Combat! entered syndication. It proved to be successful, not only in the United States, but as far afield as Australia, Brazil, Canada, Greece, Peru, South Korea, and yet other countries. Over the years it has aired on such television venues as Encore Action and MeTV. Since 2020 it has aired on the Heroes & Icons channel.

Lasting five seasons, Combat! was American television's longest running World War II drama. As mentioned earlier, it was largely the success of Combat! that led to a cycle of World War II shows (both comedies and dramas) during the Sixties. Had Combat!not been a success, it is very possible that 12 O'Clock High, The Wackiest Ship in the Army, The Rat Patrol, and Garrison's Gorillas might never had made it to the air. Combat! has also been cited as an influence by both director Steven Spielberg and actor/director Tom Hanks, and the show even had an impact on Steven Spielberg's movie Saving Private Ryan (1998). At a time when escapism was in fashion on television, Combat! offered an authentic look at World War II and emphasis on its characters. Unlike other TV shows and movies of the era, it certainly did not romanticize the war. Sixty years after its debut, Combat! stands as an extraordinary achievement on television.

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