Friday, March 27, 2015

"The Walking Wounded" -- My Favorite "Combat!" Episode

Compassion and anger.  Those are two aspects of my favorite fictional character ever that make me so fond of him.  He has boundless compassion for those in need, and bottomless anger toward injustice and wrongdoing of any sort.  His name is Sergeant Saunders, and he was played by Vic Morrow for five seasons on Combat! (1962-67), a show that followed American soldiers through exciting escapades and moral dilemmas after the D-Day invasion in June of 1944.  My favorite character, my favorite TV show... and today, a look at my favorite episode, "The Walking Wounded," which showcases his compassion and anger in abundance.



A few years ago, I posted (hereabout how I became a fan of Combat! at the age of 14, how "The Walking Wounded" was the first episode I ever saw, and why it resonated so much with me, both then and now.  Today, I'm writing this post as part of the Favorite TV Show Episode Blogathon hosted by A Shroud of Thoughts, and I'd like to spend it walking you through the story so you get a taste of what Combat! is all about.  And don't worry, I'll also touch on the episode's themes and why it's so dear to my heart.  



It all begins with barbed wire.  First, a shot of tangled wire against the sky, then an anonymous hand cutting through the wire, making a path.


Once there's a path, that anonymous soldier crawls through, and others follow.  Only then do we see that these are our friends, the squad we know so well already even though this is only season 1.  They push through the barbed wire and start heading up a hill.

(Vic Morrow as Sgt. Saunders with the camo helmet,
Dick Peabody as Littlejohn with his bayonet in front of his face,
and Pierre Jalbert as Caje with the beret tucked into his shoulder strap.)

They must be expecting some pretty fierce trouble, because they've got their bayonets fixed, which they almost never do on this show.  Oh, they use those knives all the time, to knife Kraut soldiers or dig holes or whatever.  But they very rarely use them as bayonets.  They get to the top of the hill, find a machine gun emplacement... and it's totally empty.  Abandoned, packs and gear scattered all over.  Lieutenant Hanley (Rick Jason) is with the squad too, and he and Saunders are exchanging remarks about the ease of this mission when a shot rings out, and Saunders falls down, rolls all the way down that hill they'd just climbed, and lands in the barbed wire.

(Rick Jason as Lt. Hanley checking the wounded Saunders)

Hanley skitters down the hill after him, yells for a medic, and that's the end of the opening teaser -- we have no idea where Saunders has been shot, or how badly.


As soon as we come back from the commercial break and opening credits, we discover that Saunders hasn't been hurt that badly at all.  In fact, he's walking along a road, limping a little, but mostly just being his usual sauntering self.


Turns out he's been shot in the leg, and it must have been a through-and-through above the knee, judging by the fact that his pant leg is slit open on both sides and he has a little bandage tied around it just above the knee.  He sits down by the road to get a stone out of his boot, and what should to his wondering eyes should appear but a convoy of trucks heading straight for him.  Maybe he can hitch a ride to the aid station instead of limping along in the heat and dirt.  Most of the trucks pass him up, but an ambulance at the rear of the convoy stops, and he hops in the back.


Here we meet our guest stars of the day.  First up is Gary Merrill, playing Captain August, an Army surgeon.  You might know him from movies like All About Eve (1950), Twelve O'Clock High (1949), or Where the Sidewalk Ends (1950), or his myriad TV show appearances in the '60s and '70s.  Capt. August is accompanying an unconscious, wounded man to a field hospital.


Also in the back of the ambulance, we find Geraldine Brooks as Lt. Ann Hunter, the good doctor's nurse and girlfriend.


Now, Saunders didn't realize at first that there was a woman in the truck.  When he sees her, he does the cutest double-take.


Not only that, but he is momentarily at a loss for words.  Sgt. Saunders is never, ever, ever at a loss for words, my friends.  It does not happen.  He always has words, and they're always the right words, for whatever the situation.  But here, he completely loses his train of thought.  It seems that just the idea of there being an American woman right there in the ambulance, so close to enemy lines, so close to him, causes his brain to stop working for a moment.  He's a guy, so I guess it's understandable.


Oh, and here's the wounded guy.  This is about the most we ever see of him.  Just some dirty dude on a stretcher.  I don't think we ever even learn his name.


Right, so the truck gets to Orre, the town where Saunders was told there was an aid station.  Someone has helpfully stenciled the town name on the side of a building so I know precisely how to spell it.


Saunders limp-saunters over to the aid station, opens the door, and there's really no reason to include this picture except that I love it whenever this man (or pretty much any man) leans on something (more on that sort of thing here, in my "Scuttlebutt" review).  Mmmmmmm.


Anyway, so much for the aid station.  Complete disaster area, totally deserted.  (Also, what a nice full-length shot of Saunders' Thompson machine gun.)


Okay, it's not totally deserted -- there's a dog.  Saunders takes the dog with him, and they go looking for people.  But before they find any, the Krauts shell the town.



As my 7-year-old Sam loves to say, BOOM!


Saunders finds that same ambulance when the shelling stops.  The motor is running, the wounded guy is still in the back, and no one else is around.  And the episode's moral dilemma finally kicks in.  Saunders and the dog get in the ambulance and discover it's totally still driveable, so off they go.


At the edge of town, who do they find?  Why the doctor and his nurse and the ambulance driver (Stephen Joyce, dude standing behind the nurse).  All looking properly chagrined and ashamed.


Saunders favors them with some of his best Angry Glares and growls at them to get in the back of the truck.  Hell hath no fury like a Saunders filled with righteous indignation.


Eventually, they stop the truck, I forget why, and Saunders gets out for a smoke and some more attractive leaning, this time on a tree.


The captain gets out and tries to explain to Saunders how surely it's reasonable to try to save three people by abandoning one wounded guy who's going to die anyway, according to the doctor's assessment.  Saunders can't possibly blame them for that, can he?


Ha!  Little does he know.  Compassion and anger, my friends.  Saunders tells the good doctor that if he was that guy lying on the cot, he wouldn't want to be abandoned just because some medical know-it-all says he hasn't got a chance.  (Actually, though, if that was Saunders in there, he'd be telling everyone, "Leave me.  Leave me!  Get out while you can!  Don't worry about me!  Go on!  I'll be fine!"  But shh, we'll not argue with him when he's in one of these moods.)

So Saunders is going to take that wounded guy not to their original destination, but to another American field hospital that's much closer.  The only trouble is, to get to that closer place, they'll have to run right along German-occupied territory.  Saunders decides it's worth the risk, and tells everyone else they can either come along or take a hike.


Now, remember -- he's a sergeant.  Just a lowly buck sergeant at that.  He's just told a captain and a lieutenant to take a hike, refused to follow the captain's orders to go to their original -- safer -- destination, and been generally insubordinate and sassy.


The ambulance driver thinks Saunders will get thrown in the stockade for this.  Saunders doesn't think the captain will prefer charges, because the captain would have to admit he'd abandoned a wounded man under his care, but still... fist bump for my brave and stubborn sergeant, risking his stripes for a stranger.


That night, it rains, and the ambulance gets stuck in the mud.


Happily, it gets stuck in the mud right next to a spacious, dry, deserted barn.  Saunders checks it to be sure it's clear, then tells everyone to come in.


They move the wounded guy in too, aren't they nice?


Lt. Hunter tries to convince the captain to operate on the wounded guy, but he's pouting and won't do it.


Saunders has taken up residence up in the hay loft, where he's got a window with a good view of the road.  He takes off his soaking wet jacket and lets the puppy snuggle under it (yeah, we've still got that puppy), and we're treated to the rare sight of Saunders in his shirt sleeves.  Lt. Hunter brings him some coffee, and then sits down and pours out her troubles.  I don't know why she thinks he's going to be sympathetic -- he's done nothing but yell at her and the captain since he picked them back up, but I guess he must exude compassion, even when he's angry.  She tells him all about how the captain used to be a brilliant surgeon and do all these miraculous surgeries under the worst possible conditions.  But he lost so many patients because they were just too far gone by the time he got to them, so he started playing God and deciding who would live and who would die, who was worth operating on and who wasn't.


Next morning, a Kraut squad comes along and pushes the ambulance out of the mud.


To thank them for their trouble, Saunders kills them all from his vantage point at the window.  This is war, this is what happens -- you shoot before you're shot.  After all, some Kraut shot him unawares at the beginning of the episode.  Still, the doctor and nurse and driver are all kind of shocked and appalled that he guns them down so coldly.

So everyone piles back into the ambulance, and Saunders drives them to safety, right through a bombardment and other obstacles.


Next thing we know, Saunders is being discharged from the evac hospital, he has a quick chat with Capt. August and Lt. Hunter so we know there are no hard feelings, and the lovely nurse confides in Saunders that the good doctor saved that wounded guy's life and is back to being a hot-shot surgeon.  Good old Saunders has fixed everyone's problems yet again.


Saunders leaves the hospital and closes the door, and for a moment he stands still at the top of these steps.  I'm not sure how Vic Morrow does it, but with zero words, he conveys Saunders' sudden loneliness, his disconnection from all the world in that moment.  He's alone, he looks vulnerable and a little lost.  He has no one to take care of, no one to worry about, it's just him.  Who is he, this Sergeant Saunders, when he's undefined by people around him?  It's a beautiful, poignant little scene -- he walks slowly down the steps and out into the deserted street.  He says a wordless farewell to the ambulance that carried him and his charges so far.

Then the driver shows up, and Saunders gives him the puppy, and then whaddaya know?  Here comes a truck thing full of our guys!  Lt. Hanley and all of First Squad, appearing out of nowhere to pick up Saunders and take him home.  Saunders grins (something he almost never does) and joins them, lonely no more.


He's back with his makeshift family, the men he takes care of and who take care of him.  He's where he belongs, all's right with the world, and thus endeth my favorite Combat! episode.

If you want to watch it yourself, the entire series is out on DVD. and you can find this full episode (and many/all of the others) on YouTube.



Don't forget to check out the whole blogathon for lots more posts on all sorts of classic TV shows!  There'll be at least one more post about Combat!, written by my blogging friend Eva.

16 comments:

  1. Wow, your favorite episode out of all of Combat?!?!?! I can tell how much you love it!! ;)

    And....it definitely seems to tie together so many of your favorite themes. I love how you brought together the compassion and the anger at the beginning -- and then the "getting back together with his make-shift family" at the end. :)

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    1. Yes. You'd think that would be difficult to decide on, but it's so not. My first and second episodes are very easy for me to go, "I LOVE THIS ONE!" Rounding out the top ten is a bit harder (and more fluid).

      And yes, it has so many of my themes. The series as a whole has the "found family" thing, and there are quite a few episodes that explore sibling relationships good and bad. Saunders is the ultimate Protector, and will do anything to take care of another person (especially a physically weaker person), but he has anger issues (you know I love my angry guys) and... he's been part of my life for 20 years, so it's hard to tell anymore whether I love Saunders because of certain personality traits, or if I'm drawn to those traits because Saunders has them.

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  2. Don't you just love Burt Kennedy episodes? :)

    I loved this post - it made me want to re-watch TWW, so I might set aside an afternoon sometime soon to do just that. It seems we had the same idea for how to approach our respective posts for the blogathon: a detailed summary, chock-full of screenshots and personal asides. (All the screenshots are lovely, by the way.)

    Thanks for giving my blog a mention. :) My post should be going live soon, as I just need to do one final read-through to make sure it's ready for public consumption.

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    1. Burt Kennedy for the win!!!! He's definitely tops in my book.

      Oooh, I hope you do find time to rewatch this one! It's so meaty.

      And that's funny that we took the same approach. I'm looking forward to reading your post!

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  3. That "Combat!" DVD set would work better with your commentary. Excellent!

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    1. Now there would be a dream job! Thanks :-)

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  4. Have you ever watched 'Ride Lonesome' (1959)? It's a Western, and the script was written by Burt Kennedy. I've only watched a couple of Westerns, so I don't know how it measures up against other entries in the genre, but it was pretty interesting. Pernell Roberts, James Best (who plays, among other things, Trenton in "Mail Call"), and James Coburn (in his film debut). I believe the whole thing is available for free on Youtube. :)

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    1. You know, I never have, but it's been on my radar for a long time, due to Burt Kennedy and the cast. I had no idea it was on YouTube! I'll definitely try to find time to see it before it disappears from there.

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    2. Just finished re-watching "The Walking Wounded" (third time I've seen it, I believe), and it was even more fantastic than I remembered. A new favorite episode, for sure, and Saunders has now moved up to second favorite character (how I rank the characters tends to change a lot based on what episodes I've seen recently). The whole thing is so very, very amazing.

      By the way, the 'dirty dude on a stretcher's character's name is John Lee. Lt. Hunter mentions it when Saunders first gets on the ambulance. :)

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    3. Yay! Glad you really dug your third viewing :-) And I know how that ranking thing goes -- Saunders is always my #1, and Kirby is generally #2, and then after that, it all shifts around depending on my mood and what I'm watching.

      Thanks for the name! I kind of thought they'd mentioned it, but didn't note it when I was watching.

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  5. Such a good episode, and such a you episode! This definitely put me in the mood to put an ep or two on. Almost feel like there's a story idea lurking after reading this too. Hm.

    And I love Ride Lonesome! It's one of my favorite Randolph Scott westerns. Hits lots of sweet spot map things for me. And I adore Pernell Roberts and James Coburn in it. It was filmed in and around Lone Pine, so my parents and I watched it together the last time I was up there, and they told me where to find the sand dune area, which I want to go visit next time.

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    1. It's definitely a ME ep, isn't it? All that helpfulness and niceness and practicality.

      Now I really want to watch "Ride Lonesome." Hmmm. Maybe this week. And that's cool that it was filmed in Lone Pine! I'm sure I won't recognize anything, but it'll be fun knowing I was at least in the area.

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  6. I have always loved Combat! It is truly one of the great shows of the Sixties. And Sgt. Saunders was always my favourite character. It is easy to understand why Vic Morrow was nominated for an Emmy for the role! "The Walking Wounded" is one of those episodes that stands out in my mind when it comes to Combat! I can remember it much more clearly than I can many other episodes of other shows. It's surprising that it, and other episodes of Combat! were not nominated for any Emmys or WGA awards. It is a very well written episode!

    Thank you so much for contributing to the blogathon!

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    1. Always great to meet another Combat! fan! Not to mention a Saunders fan :-) The only real mystery is why Vic wasn't nominated more often, because his acting on that show (and really, the acting by many of the major characters) is way above par for plain old TV.

      Thanks for hosting the blogathon! It's been fun reading through other peoples' posts :-)

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  7. Main characters of series so frequently find themselves listening to guest stars' life stories, don't they? It's a useful device. But I can understand it with Saunders; perhaps people feel a bit compelled to explain things as thoroughly as possible to someone who mostly glares at them. :)

    I'll have to add this to my list of episodes to watch...

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    1. You made me chuckle aloud :-) I think maybe you're right -- it's his glaring that make people feel the need to explain themselves to Saunders. Hee. Probably part of it, anyway.

      Do watch this one! It's excellent.

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