If you've been hanging around my blog for a while, you will know that my favorite TV show of all time is Combat!, a 1960s show about American soldiers in WWII. This has been my favorite show for more than two decades. I even co-run a fansite for it called fruit-salad.com and write fanfic for it.
I also have a great love of prison-escape stories. From The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas to The Great Escape (1963) and beyond, a good prison-escape story gets to me basically every time.
So it's no surprise that one of my absolute favorite eps of Combat! is "The Long Way Home," in which all but one of the regular characters get captured by German soldiers and have to escape. Combat! has three two-part episodes, and while "Hills are for Heroes" is magnificent, and "What are the Bugles Blowin' For?" is interesting, "The Long Way Home" hits every single note just right, from the writing (screenplay by Edward J. Lakso) to the direction (Ted Post at the helm) to the acting.
Sgt. Saunders (Vic Morrow) and his squad of regular characters, plus a couple of ENGs (Expendable New Guys), are out on patrol when they get captured by the dreaded Waffen SS. If you know much about WWII, you've probably heard of the SS. They were the meanest and the cruelest -- the Waffen branch was attached to the military and in charge of charming things like interrogation. Regular Wermacht soldiers were generally scared of the SS.
Saunders and his men get marched to a prison camp that's really a French farm that's been taken over by Captain Steiner (Richard Basehart).
The barn is now enclosed with barbed wire, while the SS officers are living in the farm house. (In reality, they built this whole set in Franklin Canyon, out in California. Most of the ep is filmed in Franklin, as are a lot of other Combat! eps.)
At the camp, Saunders and his men meet some more American prisoners, Sgt. Akers (Simon Oakland) and a few men from his squad. Akers and his men are dispirited, to put it mildly. Steiner has totally broken their will -- they have given up any hope of ever getting out of the prison camp and are just waiting for their turn to die.
This is not the way Saunders lives his life. In fact, he gets pretty disgusted with Akers and his whole "I gave up and you should too" outlook.
Saunders is going to escape, and he's going to get his men out of there too, and from the moment he's captured, he's looking for the right time to make that happen.
He exudes a calm, chilling wrath toward his captors, which Vic Morrow portrays brilliantly. He morphs into basically a hoodlum, sometimes flipping his collar up, always glaring and staring at his enemies, skulking around with a "you can't make me if I don't want to" swagger.
You expect him to whip out a switchblade at any moment, ala Morrow's role in Blackboard Jungle (1955). Now, Morrow swaggers a lot as it is -- it's one of the things I love about his portrayal of Saunders. But he pours on the attitude extra thick for this episode, with delightful results.
But this episode isn't just the Hoodlum Saunders Show. Saunders also shows off his compassionate side throughout.
One of the ENGs, Gates (Woodrow Parfrey), is obviously not a tough guy. Saunders doesn't fault him for this, but is kind to him instead, even slinging Gates' arm over his shoulders and helping him walk. Although this sergeant holds himself and others to a very high standard throughout the series, he has a lot of compassion for those he deems weak or helpless. Often, by being kind to them, he gives them the chance to find they're stronger than they thought.
This is a major theme in "The Long Way Home." Saunders expects everyone to do their best, but he accepts that some people's best is different than his own.
This is why he has little patience with Sgt. Akers -- Akers clearly was once a competent sergeant just like Saunders, but he has allowed himself to be broken down by Steiner's interrogations. Instead of staying strong for the men under him, he's done his best to convince them to play along with the Krauts, and Saunders has no time for that sort of nonsense.
But this isn't just the Heroic Saunders Show either. Actually, this episode lets EVERYONE shine. Because it's a two-parter, it has ample time to give everyone some character development. Everyone also seems to be determined to look as attractive as possible, and if you'd like to know more about just how delectable they are, you could always read my Scuttlebutt review of this ep, which definitely goes more in-depth about such things.
I went into this thinking he was going to cave in and give the Krauts information as soon as they separated him from Saunders. Or maybe he'd undermine Saunders' escape attempts somehow. Instead, by the end of it, I had become a Kirby fan. Because he absolutely steps up to the challenge of enduring capture and interrogation. He turns his feisty, anti-authority attitude to good use, mouthing off to his captors and using his loudness to distract them at times so others can work on the escape plan.
Caje (Pierre Jalbert) has a more poignant character arc in this episode. Steiner sentences him to death for striking a German soldier, and he lives for much of the ep with that threat hanging over his head. Besides the mental torture of not knowing when they're going to execute him, he faces physical torture as well, but never gives up.
Littlejohn (Dick Peabody) has his time in the spotlight as well, putting his hands-on knowledge of practical things like electricity to good use.
Billy Nelson (Tom Lowell) gets a really heroic job -- he alone escapes from the camp early on and tries to get back to American lines to get help and inform them that there are SS troops collecting prisoners. He makes it back eventually.
This gives Lt. Hanley (Rick Jason) some great scenes being Concerned and Commanding. He's great at being those.
Doc (Conlan Carter) has some lovely moments as well. He defies Steiner's intimidation attempts, ministers to wounded and broken prisoners, and generally is as supportive and wonderful as ever.
Steiner's favorite trick is to intimidate soldiers, threaten them, and then dump them back in their prison compound to fret. It obviously worked brilliantly on Sgt. Akers and his men, but Saunders refuses to cooperate.
He simply WON'T worry about what Steiner will do next, but spends all his energy and thinking power on escape. Steiner thinks this is amusing and fruitless, but the truth is... Saunders is one of the series' stars and Steiner is just the Bad Guy of the Day, so we all know who is going to be victorious here.
Although Vic Morrow and Rick Jason shared top billing for all five seasons of the show, already by season two, Morrow was starring in more and more of the episodes. This is just fine with me, since Saunders is my favorite fictional character of all time. While Jason did get a lot of excellent episodes too, it seems that the lion's share of the best ones went to Morrow. Including this one.
This has been my contribution to the 4th Annual Favourite TV Show Episode Blogathon hosted by A Shroud of Thoughts. Click here to for the official blogathon post with links to everyone's contributions.