A Quick Review
Combat! ran for five strong seasons, a total of 152 episodes, all of which aired on Tuesday nights from 7:30 pm to 8:30 pm on ABC. Each episode ran for a maximum of 52 minutes and ran against shows like “Gunsmoke” or the “Red Skelton Show”. The first four seasons were in B&W with the fifth and final season in color (1967). Perhaps there is one prominent reason for this show’s continued success at that time. Vic Morrow had been heard to proudly boast that the story lines are not about men AT war, but about men IN war. I tend to agree.
When you think about WWII historically, the Germans surrendered to the Allied Forces just 11 months after D-Day; yet, this series ran for five years. Sure was a long war. According to various trivia sources, Saunders was wounded 40 times, Kirby 37 times and Hanley 36 times. (Audie Murphy, America’s most decorated military man, was officially wounded three times, the last time the day before he was bestowed the Medal of Honor.).
Filming and Locations
Filming was arduous. They shot six full days – 14 hours a day – for a week’s one hour episode. When they were shooting outside, cloud cover may have come in after they started shooting a scene in sunlight, necessitating a re-shoot from the beginning. There was a “no shave” rule in effect once shooting started. Once in awhile, even though the “combat” action for a TV episode was over in a day, it took a week to film. The beard growth was noticeable, especially on Caje. In the initial season, the actors reminisced that for some time, they didn’t even have chairs to sit on in between takes. Vic Morrow put an end to that by “striking” until chairs were provided.
While filming for a couple of episodes took place in Loire, France, most were shot on location at the famous MGM Hollywood’s historic backlots or out in southern California’s less traveled areas like Cucamonga or Thousand Oaks (now pretty much Westlake Village and covered with condos). In addition, a lot of filming over all five seasons took place in Franklin Canyon, smack dab in in the hills between Sunset Blvd. in Hollywood and Ventura Blvd. in Studio City. Today, it is still accessible by the public but some of it is now a nature preserve. As a bit of trivia, it is rumored you can still find spent cartridges from some of the firefights. Many of the landmarks seen in the episodes also remain, like the reservoirs and waterways, culverts, prominent trees and a short overpass.
One interesting thing in some of the overview shots taken of the SoCal terrain was that you could clearly see the haze due to the heavy smog of that time. In addition, if your hearing is good and you know which scenes to watch, you can hear the sound of jets roaring overhead. The Nazis were far advanced in their jet technology, you know. 🙂
One other location was in snow covered Squaw Valley for a couple of rare winter episodes, one starring Mickey Rooney in “Silver Service”. It was possibly produced to reflect on the costly Battle of the Bulge although the Combat! episodes never made it out of France. There was so much footage taken over five tough days that they were used for a couple of episodes. In the other winter setting episode which utilized the Squaw Valley footage (“Mountain Man”), Caje (Pierre Jalbert) shows off his Olympic skill by skiing down the mountain to escape from Nazis (below). In true life, he broke his leg as a teen just before the Olympics, ending his chance to ski for Canada. It is reported he had a very good chance for a medal.
By the way, the “Nazi” chasing Caje down the hill was Bob Beattie, the coach for the US Olympic ski team at that time.
In a funny moment and during the planning stages to show off his skiing abilities, Pierre quipped, “There are no mountains in Normandy, pal.”
Innovative Movie Camera Work
Much of the true combat footage taken during WWII by the Marines were with smaller movie cameras being hand-held under fire by brave Marine camera men; many were killed. It is reported the production crew had wanted to portray the lives of the soldier while in combat and to honor these WWII cameramen by imitating the camera “unsteadiness” being hand-held…with nervous courage.
In this pursuit, the technical achievement by the film crews of Combat! was the innovation and perfection of hand-held cinematography with movie film. Such mastery was incredible for an art form that just started a few short years earlier. They perfected the usage of an Arriflex-35BL movie camera being hand held by a camera man following the action on foot, yielding the “shaky” look. While the camera is mounted on a very large cinematography tripod head here, the camera and film were similar to this:
In essence, this was the beginning of the “Hero” video camera so commonly in use today 50 years later by people like yourselves. In the end, the footage for Combat! honored these brave camera WWII men and added to the realism to the TV screen with their up close and “shaky” look.
One incredibly imaginative bit of hand-held footage was in “Hills Are For Heroes”, a two-part story and masterpiece directed by Vic Morrow himself. In a critical “death scene”, instead of simply filming a key actor crumpling onto the dirt battlefield, they tried something unheard of in the early 1960’s: they secured a 35mm Arriflex hand-held movie camera to the cameraman’s head. These cameras were not the light, compact digital ones we use today; these were bulky, heavy and had 35mm film spools as well. They used something like a huge, thick rubber band and secured the Arriflex to the cameraman’s head. Then, he stood where actor was shot, fell to the ground while looking through the eye piece then rolling down the hill, filming all the time. At the end of the sequence, the now “dead” soldier (cameraman) continued to film and perfectly captured the coming of his now distraught buddy trying to come to his aid. Incidentally, the cameraman got a cut over his eye for his efforts.
The innovative footage can be seen here, a clip from “Hills Are For Heroes”. It was artistically done in slo-mo:
The Guest Stars
As ABC was really struggling at this time, Combat! was a shot in their arm being in the “Top Ten” shows. Due to its popularity, movie and TV stars of the day clamored to get a part in Combat! According to an interview of Pierre Jalbert (Caje) after the show went off the air, he said, “Who wouldn’t want to play soldier for the week?” Some were least expected; some noted folks had cameos like Warren Spahn, the Cy Young Award winning pitcher (below). He played a non-speaking role as a German soldier in Season 2, Episode 8. By the way, he was a decorated WWII soldier having earned a Purple Heart. He loved the show and was a fan.
Indeed, the list of famous guest stars was long. Some guest starred more than once. They included:
- Robert Duvall
- Leonard Nimoy (His role was as a translator in both episodes.)
- Eddie Albert
- James Whitmore (Played a Nazi officer while killing three GI’s, disguised as a Catholic father.)
- James Coburn
- Charles Bronson (He played a demolition expert confronted with either not doing his duty or blowing up priceless marble statues and artwork.)
- Sal Mineo
- Lee Marvin
- Neville Brand (I understand he was awarded the Silver Star, a Purple Heart and the Combat Infantry Badge in Europe during WWII.)
- Ted Knight
- Frankie Avalon
- Mickey Rooney
- Roddy McDowell
- Tom Skeritt
- Fernando Lamas
- Dennis Weaver
…and the list goes on. Not to be a spoiler, but some of these famous guest stars are “killed” in their episodes.
Some screenshots of the stars:
According to a story by Dick Peabody (Little John), he mentioned that some of these stars were there just for the money and exposure while a few were there to enjoy the work and “become one of the gang”. One of the best, he said, was Fernando Lamas. He would bring along his beautiful and famous wife, Esther Williams, and they would “recuperate” together from the day’s shooting in their trailer which he brought along. He said Esther Williams was the ultimate host, providing fine wine and appetizers for the regulars in attendance. He also mentioned Robert Duvall and Dennis Weaver detached themselves from the regulars and weren’t much fun at all. Unbelievably, Duvall guest starred in three episodes.
Fascinating trivia about the weapons, episodes and what happened to the regulars in real life come in Part 3.
Part 1 can be found here.
Part 3 can be found here.
Part 4 and Conclusion can be found here.