Combat!, a one-hour WWII drama series on television, followed a frontline American infantry squad as they battled their way across Europe. With mud-splattered realism, the show offered character studies of men striving to maintain their own humanity in the midst of a world torn by war.
Season 2 is easily my favorite season of Combat!, with all the others sort of lumped behind in order of how I like them (I did manage to rank them at one point; the list is in one of my notebooks, but it’s like ranking the characters – almost impossible). By the second year of the show, all the actors were comfortable with their characters (and although it was Conlan Carter’s first year, aside from a guest stint in Season 1, he fit in perfectly with the rest of the squad). This is the season of the large ensemble episodes with, I believe, eight entire episodes that feature the entire cast of regulars (although Hanley usually just shows up for a few minutes), and not just one, but two two-part episodes. Billy and Littlejohn’s comedic conversations were a thing of the past by this season, but their friendship was still just as strong, as shown in the gutwrenching episode “Glow Against The Sky” (more on that later). Billy really came into his own in Season 2 (which, again, I’ll discuss later), and that was bittersweet to see since his second year on Combat! was his last. (One of the few complaints I have about the show.)
Main characters: By the time you’re finished Season 2, it’s kind of impossible not to at least respect Saunders. (Although, really, that should be the case by the end of Season 1.) He’s the same as ever, but he goes through a lot more in this season (I’m particularly thinking of “The Long Way Home”) and you really do have to admire his tenacity, the way he looks out for his men, and his ability to Get The Job Done even while in the middle of some very tough personal matters (“Mail Call”). I’m sure Saunders won’t ever be my favorite character, but at the moment he’s definitely #2.
Hanley isn’t around as much in Season 2 as he is in the previous season, but you still see enough of him, in both ensemble and character-centric episodes. Still, the camera isn’t fully centered on him anymore (instead of the show being led by dual characters – Hanley and Saunders – the lead part has mostly gone to Vic Morrow/Saunders along with the squad as a whole), and won’t really be until Season 4 in “Hills Are For Heroes”. At least he stays in the cast, unlike Tom Lowell (Billy). As I mentioned earlier, Billy becomes more than just a comic relief character (although he did have serious moments in Season 1), particularly in “Bridgehead”, and although I miss his and Littlejohn’s scenes, it’s great to see him really become part of the squad. Yes, he’s young, but he’s experienced and more mature than some [older] non-regulars I can think of. Billy’s one of my favorite characters, and I think that his character would have worked well in the other seasons too, despite what some fans might think.
Kirby has grown out of his role as an Annoying Jerk, for the most part, without losing any of his attitude or talent for creative complaining. If you’d told me wayyyy back when I started watching Combat! in October (seven months ago – HOW IS THAT POSSIBLE???) that Kirby would be one of my very favorite characters, I’d have said that you were crazy, because the first episode I watched was “Forgotten Front” and he doesn’t get much more obnoxious than that. But now I like him almost as much as Doc (and Saunders…and Billy…and…). Caje doesn’t go through any major trauma in Season 2 (thank goodness), and he’s the same steady, dependable soldier. And Littlejohn a whole new amount of depth with his roles in “Bridgehead” and “Glow Against The Sky”, which is awesome, since I have great liking for him and most episodes tend to not throw any good parts his way.
(Note: That thing I said about Caje not going through any major trauma this season? I just remembered that that’s not true. What about the time that he had the threat of slow, torturous death hanging over his head in “The Long Way Home”? Uggggggh.)
And then there’s Doc. My favorite character of all the characters I love, in anything. (And I had to wait a whole season to find out about him.) (Not.) (Because I skipped ahead and watched “The Long Way Home” and various other episodes from Season 2 before finishing Season 1.) In his very first year on Combat!, Conlan Carter received an Emmy nomination for his outstanding work in “The Hostages” (it truly was outstanding), which is not to be sneezed at. Along with that episode, he also has super roles in several others (more so than any other season, which is probably part of why I enjoy Season 2 so much), and that naturally makes me very happy.
Minor characters: There aren’t as many great, likable minor characters in Season 2 as there is in Season 1 (at least, that’s my personal opinion), but there are still several interesting ones, especially villains. I do like the trio of girls in “The Party”, Cooper in “Masquerade”, and most of the British soldiers in “What Are The Bugles Blowin’ For?” (though not the captain). There are several notable guest stars in Season 2: Richard Basehart, as the despicable Col. Steiner in “The Long Way Home” (I really hate that guy), Nick Adams , who plays the rather annoying Heller in “Bridgehead”, James Best (who passed away just two days ago) as Trenton in “Mail Call”, and, of course, James Coburn portraying the cold-blooded infiltrator Kanger in “Masquerade”. (I probably forgot someone important. Feel free to let me know in the comments.) One thing I’ll say for most characters in Combat! is that no matter how annoying or evil they sometimes turn out to be, at least they feel like real people. Not stereotypes or cliches. And so many of the guest stars on the show did fantastic jobs – my hat’s off to all of them.
Favorite/Least Favorite episodes: There are verrrry few episodes in Season 2 that I don’t have at least a small amount of liking for, but I’ll list them anyway (be aware that my opinions on some of these episodes could change in the future, because I’ve seen them only once and there’ve been several times I’ve liked episodes better the second time around). “Ambush”, “Doughboy”, “A Distant Drum”, “Infant of Prague”, “Thunder From the Hill”, and “Weep No More” (which is, in my opinion, one of the worst episodes in the entire show).
And now for all my favorites, which I’ll take the time to list instead of doing a paragraph thingy because there’s just so many of them.
- “The Long Way Home” – POW stories (preferably set in WWII) are some of my favorites (The Great Escape, Stalag 17…) things to watch/read about, and this two-part episode is an amazing addition to the series. The whole cast shines, the plot is clever, and there’s a fiendish villain. I’d almost say you could watch this one as a self-contained movie.
- “Bridgehead” – Why wasn’t Caje in this one? That’s pretty much my only complaint. It was neat to see Nick Adams again (although I must say that I infinitely prefer him as Homer in Hell Is For Heroes), and Billy and Doc, two of my very favorite characters, get some great moments. Everyone does, really. And Kirby firing his BAR with just one good arm? Go Kirby!
- “Masquerade” – Go here to read all my thoughts on this great episode.
- “The Little Jewel” – I love squad episodes. Combat! just wouldn’t be the same without them. There are plenty of good things about this episode, squad interaction (among themselves and with Bijou) being a big part of it. I’d say that if you combined this episode with “The Volunteer”, you’d pretty much have the plot for The Counterattack, which is one of the only Combat! novelizations. (Although not a very good one.)
- “Glow Against the Sky” – Sort of like “Survival” in that it really hurts to see another character hurting. Or, in this case, a whole bunch of characters: Billy, physically, and the rest of the squad, emotionally. After filming one particularly hard scene (I’m not sure which), Tom Lowell received applause from everyone on the set, which he completely and totally deserved. Dick Peabody’s and Vic Morrow’s acting was right up there too – it’s a fantastic episode all around.
- “The Party” – This episode comes directly after “Glow Against the Sky”, which is good, because everyone needs a little cheering up after that one. Billy, Caje, and Kirby spot three beautiful French girls in a little town they (the guys) are currently stuck in, and hilariousness ensues as they try to get a date. This episode is worth watching just for the Hanley/Kirby scene near the beginning.
- “What Are The Bugles Blowin’ For?” – A slightly different type of plot, with our guys having to cooperate with some Britishers. It’s a little slow in places, but there are several fine moments throughout both parts (it’s a two-parter and a squad story to boot), and it’s a great episode for Doc fans, since he gets to do quite a bit. Good, solid entertainment.
- “The Pillbox” – Finally, a great Hanley focus episode in Season 2! Stark (Warren Oates) drives me nuts (as does Albert Paulson’s character), but the whole thing is still good enough to hold up after multiple viewings. (At least that’s been my experience.) I believe this is Vic Morrow’s first directing stint, and he does a great job (as usual) in getting the absolute best out of Rick Jason and making some great directorial choices.
- “The Hostages” – Hmmmm…I wonder why this is one of my favorites. I dunno. Maybe it’s Conlan Carter’s fantastic acting. Or that this is THE Doc-focus episode (“Cry For Help” was good too, but not as good), and he does all sorts of amazing, heroic things. Or how about practically everything in this episode? “The Long Way Home” was the first episode I saw that had Doc in the cast of regulars, but “The Hostages” was the one that really put him at the top of the ‘favorite characters’ list.
- “Eyes of the Hunter” – Just like “Next In Command” is my personal favorite episode in Season 1, this one is my personal favorite for Season 2. I can’t really explain why – it just is. Another squad episode, although neither Doc nor Hanley appear for more than a few minutes. The plot is rather intriguing. Billy and Caje get captured (it’s always interesting when one or more characters gets captured). Kirby delivers some great lines. If it’s not a stand-out episode, than it’s at the very least a satisfactory one.
- “Mail Call” – Oh, how I love this episode. For one, it’s the only squad episode where each character gets good scenes/lines (at least it’s the only one as far as I can remember), including Hanley (well, duh). And the whole story is so wonderful and amazing and emotional, even if Trenton is about as annoying as a slow Internet connection. A couple of scenes near the end always makes me tear up just a little bit, and it’s episodes like these that make me wonder how anyone can dislike Saunders. (There are such people. I live with them, so I should know.)
- “The Glory Among Men” – Some of the symbolism gets heavy-handed, but this is still a great episode. (Again, it’s probably my Doc fan self talking.) A simple but effective story line, excellent acting from everyone, and good direction from Vic Morrow. And Fletcher Fist gets a cameo, so let’s have a party for that, shall we?
Overall: As I mentioned earlier, this is my favorite season. Nearly every episode stands out, in one way or another, and there are so many that leave me with a satisfied – and yet not satisfied – feeling. Meaning: I’m satisfied because it was such a good episode, but not satisfied because I don’t want the experience to end. *sigh* I guess that’s what the ‘Play all’ feature is for. Anyway, I believe that Season 2 showcases the peak of Combat! (I know, I know. It’s only the second year, but still.), because while the next three seasons have great episodes sprinkled throughout, Season 2 is really the only consistently great one. Sure, there are a few misses here and there, but the hits far outweigh them. What are your thoughts?
P.S. Am I the only one who’s consistently confused by Combat! episode titles? I have a sense that they’re literary (as in, quotes from obscure books, poems, etc.), but some of them really make no sense, especially in the context of the episode. “No Trumpets, No Drums”, anyone?