A few years ago, I posted (here) about 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?
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.
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.