combat! episode review/analysis: “masquerade”

{This post is part of A Shroud of Thoughts’ Favorite TV Show Episode Blogathon.}

Ah, “Masquerade”.  One of my top five favorite Combat! episodes, and for good reason.  Episodes that feature German infiltrators are always tense and interesting (“The Long Walk”, “Mockingbird”…), and “Masquerade” is no exception.  Added to all the tension is some great dialogue, excellent acting (both regulars and non-regulars), and a rather famous guest star, which makes for a top-notch episode.  There are so many things I could write about it, maybe focusing on one or two specific parts or talking about the subtle symbolism in various scenes, but I’ve decided to take a different route.  There are too many good things about “Masquerade” to just discuss a few specifics so I’ll be giving you all a very long, very detailed plot synopsis, interspersed with my own opinions and observations. (WARNING: This post will be rife with spoilers, so if you haven’t seen this episode yet, continue at your own risk.)

Oh, and remember what I said about ‘a rather famous guest star’?  Well, he’s probably the main reason I love this episode so much.

Because it’s JAMES COBURN.  And I’ll be talking about him quite a bit throughout the post.

*muffled fangirl screams*

Yessssss.

Anyway.  On to the post.

Our story starts out on a dusty road, flanked on either side by shady trees.  The Squad is trudging down that road, all tired and and disheveled, when a jeep drives up.  Driving the jeep is an American corporal, sitting shotgun is a German colonel, and in the back seat, the officer in charge – a lieutenant.  I’m going to take a break from my scintillating narrative here to point how all the guys on the road (with the exception of Saunders) start thumbing for a ride as soon as the jeep drives up.  It’s one of those blink-and-you’ll-miss-it bits of humour.  Saunders & Co. learn that the lieutenant and corporal are anxious to get to Battalion and drop off the colonel – he’s an important prisoner with information that HQ needs.  Saunders directs them to King Company’s CP, and the jeep drives off.  And then…

Lieutenant Comstock: *says something in German that I’m not even going to try to spell out here*
Corporal Kanger: “English!  From now on we speak only English!” (said in a German accent, I might add)

Slam to black.

The antagonism between Comstock and Kanger is shown right from their very first scene (“All right, corporal.”  “…Yes, sir.”).  Theirs is a tense relationship, lacking in trust, which is kind of a crucial element, considering the type of mission they’re on.  Comstock keeps making mistakes, mainly because he’s just not infiltrator material, mistakes that eventually lead to his death.  But that comes later.  So, after the opening credits, we come back to Comstock, Kanger, and the German colonel.  The jeep has halted long enough for all the infantry on the road earlier to catch up with it, so Kanger gives one of his charming smiles (honestly, how can a smile be both disturbing and disarming at the same time?) and heads down what I assume is the wrong road because everyone else takes the other one at the fork.  A few moments later, an explosion is heard.  Our Guys turn and run toward the direction of the explosion and find the jeep on its side, its occupants flung to the ground a few feet away.

Kanger’s resourcefulness and quick thinking never fail to surprise and amaze me.  Of course, in his worry about the colonel (who’s hurt quite badly), he forgets about his lieutenant momentarily, but when he does get over to Comstock, he repeats his (fake) name and Comstock’s name, in English, so that he won’t lapse into German once he wakes up.  And it works – quite brilliantly, I might add.  So far, there haven’t been any real slip-ups.  (So far.)  They load the colonel onto a stretcher (to Kirby’s disgust…”They always ride.”) and set off for the CP.

Once there, Comstock paces nervously back and forth (in a delightful contrast to Hanley, who’s relaxedly leaning back against a wall, and Kanger who’s calm, cool, and collected as usual) while a doctor examines the colonel.  Hanley suggests that Kanger and Comstock get themselves ‘some java’ and the look on Comstock’s face is priceless.  He half turns and looks back at Kanger with a “Help me because I have no idea what java is” expression on his face.  Kanger, of course, smooths things over with a “No coffee for me, lieutenant.  If you’d like some, I’ll be glad to stick it out here.”  I’m telling you, Comstock doesn’t know the first thing about infiltrating.  He’s so stilted and and, well, fake with his discussion of baseball and how he’s so unsure with using slang terms like “cup of java” or “a real tough joe” (unlike Kanger, who kind of overdoes it with all his slang).  It’s no wonder Saunders get suspicious.  You’d have to be blind and deaf not to know there was something a least a little odd about Comstock.

So, the doctor comes out and says that the colonel will probably be fine, but he can’t be moved for a few hours.  Which doesn’t sit well with Kanger, but he hides his anger/disappointment quite well.  Comstock comes back with Saunders (I love Hanley’s little wave to Saunders as he drives off in the doctor’s jeep) and Kanger joins a poker game that Kirby, Littlejohn, and a couple other random guys have going.  All is going well until Kanger pulls out a bill stained with blood and everyone deserts the game.  Comstock and Kanger go in to see the colonel and Saunders gets suspicious all over again, especially when Comstock demonstrates an uncommon grasp of the German language. (Also, the tension between the two infiltrators rises another notch when Comstock turns down Saunders’ somewhat backhanded offer to let them take off for Battalion right then and there.  Kanger is only interested in the success of the mission, but Comstock doesn’t want to see the colonel die.)

They go off for a quick meal (which Kanger eats in a thoroughly unappetizing manner), and here’s where you really start getting a sense of just how cold and brutal and ruthless Kanger really is.  James Coburn really knows how to play mean, unscrupulous characters, and he plays them quite often – which makes those few wonderful good guy roles all the more awesome to watch. (I tend to get rather attached to those roles, too, particularly Henshaw and Britt.)

Comstock: “You’re inhuman.  A machine!  A machine with a certain facility for American words and no more.”
Kanger:  “You know, lieutenant, you may be right.  Maybe the group leaders thought of me that way – inhuman.  Let me tell you something about us inhumans.  We all have one thing in common: an instinct for survival.  Now one more slip lieutenant, and I may have to kill you.  Just so this animal can survive.”

Caje comes running up, sounding the alarm – Germans have slipped into the village.  Everyone grabs their gear, including Kanger and Comstock, and makes for the far end of town, almost immediately becoming engaged in a huge firefight.  Kanger has no compunctions about shooting Germans, throwing grenades into windows after them, etc., etc., but Comstock sure does.  At one point, he has a clear line of fire at a couple of soldiers, but freezes up, refusing to shoot.  Kanger gets on his case right away, and you know, you just know that the resentment and anger that has been simmering under the surface of Kanger’s outer calm is just about to explode.  And explode it does, after Comstock responds when Kanger calls out to him in German – the fatal, last mistake.  Kanger shoots Comstock in cold blood.

Ugh.  “Masquerade” was the first thing I saw James Coburn in, and therefore it will always be…not special, I suppose, but unique to me, and sometimes I wish he wouldn’t play easy-to-hate characters so often.

(And that was totally unrelated to the episode analysis, I know.  Sorry.)

Hanley comes back and he and Saunders discover Kanger kneeling over Comstock’s body, in a rather convincing manner.  He doesn’t really overdo things there.  Anyway, there’s a couple scenes which show that Saunders’ suspicions continue to rise, and then Saunders finally acts on those suspicions and hunts up Hanley in the CP headquarters.  Only, Hanley doesn’t really believe all of Saunders’ ‘little reasons’ and actually brushes him off a couple of times.  A bit out of character, in my mind, but he does act on those suspicions later, so I can’t really complain too much.  And their conversation includes one of my favorite Hanley lines in the entire show, one that makes me grin (if not laugh) every time I hear him say it.

Saunders: “What about the way they’re trying to get this wounded colonel back to Battalion?  They scream at every delay.”
Hanley: “They want to get him back alive.”
Saunders: “Lieutenant, it just doesn’t add up.  A four hour delay?  Now, I talked to Lieutenant Comstock before he was killed, and I don’t know what it is, Lieutenant, but there’s something strange about him.”
Hanley: “A lot of second lieutenants are strange.”

The way he says it and the expression on his face – it’s priceless!

And then Cooper, a medic, pulls into the courtyard and there’s a bunch of cheering ’cause he’s everyone’s favorite ambulance driver (and one of my favorite incidental characters).  He’s been sent to take the German colonel to Battalion, but when he and Kanger enter Hanley’s little HQ, they’re met with the news that the colonel will have to wait because Hanley put through a call to Battalion and he’s waiting for a reply.  Kanger is frustrated and furious but, again, he manages to hide it.  Cooper settles down beside Doc, who’s watching over the colonel.  I know I haven’t mentioned Doc yet…he doesn’t do much in this episode, but he and Cooper do have a nice little exchange.  Always makes me smile. (I always imagine Doc and Cooper to be good friends.  The fact that they’re both Southern medics miiiiight have something to do with that notion.)

Cooper: “How you doin’, Doc?”
Doc: “All right.  How’re you doing, Doc?”
Cooper: “Oh, all right.”

Saunders then wanders (purposefully wanders) over to Kanger, and starts questioning him then and there, and not very subtly either.  And he’s right – Kanger’s story just doesn’t add up.  First he agrees with Saunders about how tough it was waiting for D-Day (and how his company…?  Squad?  Platoon?) kept being shuffled around to a bunch of different camps in Britain, and then he says he came over to France later as a replacement.  Weird.  And highly suspicious. (I love how Saunders has his Thompson pointed at Kanger throughout their conversation.)  Even Hanley starts to pick up on the fact that this guy might not be What He Seems.  But when the call comes through from Battalion, he lets Kanger go.  Both Kanger and Comstock were listed on the roster of the 594th.

But Saunders still thinks Kanger is an infiltrator. (And after that lame excuse for a cover story, who wouldn’t?)

After that, things start to happen very fast, especially considering the slow burn of tension and suspense that reigned for the first three-fourths or so of the episode.  Triumphant at last, Kanger leaves with Cooper and the colonel.  Hanley informs Saunders the squad has been ordered to pull out and, as an addendum, that Kanger and Comstock were reported MIA three days ago. (The vicious way Saunders slams that door when he finds out…ouch.)  Saunders is sent ahead to Battalion because he can identify Kanger on sight (my question is: Why couldn’t the rest of the squad have gone with him?  It would’ve been safer, and they all could have recognized Kanger on sight too, if the need arose.) and also because he can make a thorough report on how the infiltrators work.

Everything goes even more downhill after that.  The camera briefly cuts to Kanger when the colonel dies and Kanger calls Cooper around back to check him (the colonel).  And then he STRANGLES Cooper.  Whyyyyyyy? (Also, it’s rather frightening to think of what would’ve happened if Doc had been the one driving, as he jokingly suggested.)  Saunders discovers that the road to Battalion is out, and the MP at the the roadblock tells Saunders that an ambulance tried to go cross-country and ended up breaking a wheel.  When he gets to the ambulance, he finds Cooper’s body wearing Kanger’s tags.  So, naturally, Saunders goes after Kanger, despite the MP’s protestations that “there’s Krauts moving up on that flank!” (Since when has that ever stopped Saunders?)

Kanger shoots Saunders (in the leg, I believe) and then goes off on a long spiel about how all Americans are suckers, Germans are not, and how, because he’s a good soldier, he’s going to turn Saunders over to a German patrol he’d spotted instead of killing him.  How nice.  And then Kanger, who’s ordinarily so cautious and smart, pulls the Stupid Bad Guy move of completely ignoring Saunders while he hails the German patrol.  This allows Saunders to pull a grenade off the dead body of a GI next to him and throw it at the patrol, which ultimately leads to Kanger’s death as one of the dying Germans shoots him in the back.  Kanger tumbles down the hill, landing right in the middle of all the dead Germans.  Coincidence?  I think not.

Saunders crawls along the ground (for once, a leg wound has him down) until he comes across a couple of American sentries.  He tells them he’s wounded, he can’t make it any further, that he’s an American, but instead of being the suckers that Kanger said all Americans were, they question him about where he’s from in the States and so on.  When Saunders goes all quiet (because he’s exhausted and in pain, you know), they come out and help him up.  The first time I watched “Masquerade” and Saunders whispered “Suckers…” right at the end, I didn’t understand why he said that.  But now I do.

A few final remarks:

  • As a point of interest, “Masquerade” was originally entitled “Operation Grief”.  I’m glad they changed the title, as I think “Masquerade” fits the theme of the episode much better.  
  • I’m also glad that James Coburn got a great guest star role, especially since I feel like other favorite guests (Charles Bronson, most notably) were somewhat wasted in the roles they got.  Kanger is more than a one-note villain and Coburn plays him with a chilling combination of creepy and casual that’s fascinating to watch.  Even if he was rather stupid at the end. (And I’ve never understood why he didn’t just let Cooper drive on to Battalion instead of strangling him.)  
  • And, based on what I could pick up from the one-sided conversation Kanger has with the German patrol near the end, he’s an SS sergeant.  I kind of wish we’d have learned what his real name was too.

And to end this post: A quote that just about sums up the whole episode in a nice little package.

“The best laid plans of mice and men often go awry.” ~Robert Burns

Indeed.

Eva

P.S. You can watch “Masquerade” here, on Youtube.

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25 thoughts on “combat! episode review/analysis: “masquerade”

  1. Another great review of Combat! Eva. Have you seen all 5 seasons yet? I would be interested to hear of what other episodes impressed you.

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    • I’ve seen all of Seasons 1 through 4 and there are only about ten episodes left from Season 5 that I haven’t seen yet. I’m reviewing each season individually on this blog and I’m also considering a blog post about my top five favorite episodes. I’m glad you enjoyed this post. 🙂

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      • I sure do enjoy the posts, especially the depth you go into with Combat! You certainly write with a wisdom well beyond your years! In my teens and early 20s I wouldn’t of had a clue how to write so interestingly and well thought out as you do.

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  2. Great review! This is one of my favorite episodes. I’m a big James Coburn fan, and he is so great in this. I don’t see him as the bad guy though. I tend to reverse my perspective when I watch this episode. I mean, if Kanger were American, and the squad German, he’s exactly who I’d want to send in to infiltrate things. I love how quick thinking he is throughout. Spies can’t afford compassion. Comstock, on the other hand… that guy is a liability to any team!!

    Between you and Hamlette, I’m now REALLY in the mood for some eps!!

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    • I often reverse the situations in my head too (in fact, the fan-fiction I’m writing right now is based on a reversed-situation premise) and you’re right – Kanger would be a top choice for an infiltrator on any side. He’s one of my favorite Coburn roles.

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  3. I’ve always loved Combat! It was always one of the best written, best directed shows of the Sixties. “Masquerade” has always stood out in my mind because of James Coburn. Before he became a film star he made a number of guest appearances on TV shows, and this was one of his best!

    Thank you for participating in the blogathon!

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  4. Great review – and happy to see so many (all?) of these are on YouTube, as I’ve been meaning to give this series a try for years. To echo the commenter above, I’m also a big James Coburn fan – not watching this feels like a massive oversight.

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    • Yep, all the episodes are available on Youtube, which is very convenient for all the fans. And if you’re a Coburn fan, you HAVE to watch this episode – he’s fantastic in it. (But isn’t he always?)

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  5. It was actually “Operation Greif”, not grief, after a real German infiltration effort instigated by the Waffen SS during the Battle of the Bulge that Hitler himself thought up. It was successful and we all can only imagine how frightening and demoralizing it was for the allied soldiers who were fooled. Greif means “griffin” after the mythological creature. What a great review of one of my all time favorite Combat! episodes. James Coburn is also one of my favorites. I first saw him in In Like Flint at the movies at a birthday party when I was a child. Thanks for the fun!

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  6. Coburn is up there with Lee Marvin as one of my favorite actors to watch play things mean and nasty. (No coincidence at all: they’re also two of my favorite C! guest stars.) They’re fascinating to watch. Man, this episode is just sooooooooo good — all those great scenes with Saunders and Kanger circling each other, like two hungry but cautious sharks. Wonderful stuff.

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    • I really need to watch “Bridge At Chalons” again. I remember not liking it a lot the first time I saw it (a few months ago), but I’ve heard a ton of good things about Lee Marvin since then, so I figure I should give the episode (and him) another try. 🙂

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      • Ahh. By the time I saw “Bridge at Chalons” the first time, I’d already seen Lee Marvin in several westerns and war movies, particularly as the cruel bad guy in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. So I was beyond excited to see him pop up on C! and spent the whole episode expecting him to turn out to be a spy or something. When he didn’t, I was quite surprised, and then his final scene made me just love him to bits.

        I remember a story one of the cast members told about Lee Marvin. He was a hard, hard drinker, but he could hold his liquor like nobody’s business. One night after filming wrapped, a bunch of The Guys went to a bar with Marvin, and drank until the wee hours. The next morning, they were all feeling pretty sorry for themselves, and then Marvin walked on set like nothing had happened and filmed the whole day with his usual gusto.

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      • Combat! has been my introduction to many a famous actor (or, if not the very first time I saw them in a role, the very first time I *liked* them), which is nice. I’m thinking about writing a post that lists my favorite guest stars that appeared on C! – I’m always very proud of the show when I think about how many great actors guest starred. 🙂 Elisabeth really doesn’t feel like watching BaC, but I’ve watched several Hanley-centric episodes with her lately, so I believe she owes me one. (*wink*)

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  7. That fact Lee Marvin was a frontline WWII veteran adds a dimension to his performance in ‘Bridge at Chalons’ that’s hard to put into words

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  8. Quick trivia note: I just saw this episode, and for a quick second I thought I caught a glimpse of Rocky Marciano, the famous, undefeated heavyweight boxer from the ’50s. I convinced myself that it was actually the medic, Cooper, who had just arrived in the same scene, and who bore a strong resemblance to the boxer. Turns out I was right; I just read up on Marciano and found that he indeed had a small, uncredited part in “Masquerade”. So Coburn wasn’t the only celebrity getting screen time in this episode.

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