Two thousand four has not been a good year for Disney. They practically gave away the year's best-reviewed, most profitable film, and on DVD have disappointed legions of longtime Disney fans with no-frills, annoyingly full-frame editions of some of their most popular live action movies. Worse, Disney's apparent contempt for their customers had spread like a virus to other companies. MGM unfairly faced a storm of criticism for distributing Disney-owned titles with greatly inferior masters -- masters provided by Disney. And now this digital plague has spread to Image, the company distributing the Disney-owned television series Combat! (1962-67).
Video & Audio
As most fans of the weekly war drama already know, for Combat! -- Season One -- Campaign One, Disney provided Image with inexcusably poor masters, time-compressed syndication versions, designed to run in modern-day one-hour time slots. In its original form the show ran, give or take, 52 minutes without the commercials, but on DVD episodes average running times of 46-47 1/2 minutes. One episode in this collection runs 49:48, but that's an exception; some barely run over 46 minutes. The effect of all this artificially induced speed-up isn't exactly Keystone Kops, but no doubt distracting to those more familiar with the show. (The Japanese DVDs, obscenely expensive at around $300 for the same number of episodes, apparently use the same masters.)
The far bigger issue is that all 16 shows in this set look awful, like second-generation videotapes. The image is extremely soft with much ghosting and completely lacking in definition. Blacks come out tepid gray and some scenes are so dark that, frankly, they're hard to make out. Video "wrinkles" and other artifacting appear in most every headache-inducing episode. There are pre-recorded VHS tapes marketed in EP format that look far better than these DVDs. There's simply no excuse for this, particularly in an age when far lesser shows like The Persuaders! and Here's Lucy practically jump of the screen with their clarity. Combat! fans wanting to collect all five seasons are being asked to plunk down a whopping $400 for the entire run, based on the suggested retail price of the first two sets. For that kind of money, consumers are entitled to something that looks better than what they themselves could tape off broadcast television with a 20-year-old VCR.
Adding insult to injury, this reviewer had enormous difficulties playing Disc One, which jammed on two different players (a Sony and a CyberHome) beginning with the episode "Just for the Record," and continued jamming intermittently all the way through the special features. It's no surprise that, on most of the discs, when one hits the stop button, the screen defaults to title cards that look like they've been fed through a cable scrambler.
The legacy of Combat! is two-fold. In retrospect, the show proved a training ground for a wide range of talent, many of whom went on to bigger and sometimes better things. Directors Robert Altman, Richard Donner, Burt Kennedy, Tom Gries all got big breaks on the show, which had scripts by the likes of Richard Matheson, Richard Maibaum, Robert Pirosh, and others.
The show was obviously fueled by the early-'60s fascination with all things military. Soldier-themed toys and comic books where all the rage with children then, and World War II veterans, by then in their early forties, ate up big screen recreations of famous battles: The Longest Day (1962), The Battle of the Bulge (1965), Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970), etc.
Combat!, though, struck a chord. As an episodic, weekly series produced on a television budget (about $125,000 per episode), shows were usually confined to the adventures of a single infantry squad, whose small-scale missions took them all over Europe in the months following D-Day. In telling its stories from the point-of-view of the ordinary foot soldier, audiences around the world embraced its universally recognizable characters and themes.
The program was of the sort popular well into the 1970s that alternated its leads from week-to-week. One week's show would focus on Lt. Gil Hanley (Rick Jason), the next on Sgt. Chip Saunders (Vic Morrow). As the series progressed, Morrow became more popular and the show's emotional center, while Jason, with his perpetual Lee Van Cleef-type sneer and erudite features (he always reminded me of Laurence Harvey), gradually faded to second-lead status. Others in the squad include Cajun Caje (Pierre Jalbert), wide-eyed medic Doc (Steven Rogers), dangerously impulsive Pvt. Kirby (Jack Hogan), and standard comic relief Braddock (Shecky Greene).
Combat!'s first season is mostly very impressive. One of its greatest achievements is that while virtually the entire show was shot on MGM's backlot in Culver City, art directors Carl Anderson, Philip Barber, George W. Davis, Addison Hehr, and Merrill Pye use that studio's assets to create a convincingly European look to the show's varied sets, a look far removed from, say, An American in Paris. It's interesting to compare this with the filmed-on-location The Longest Day, made at about the same time; one is really hard-pressed to tell the difference between the France locations in that film and the studio backlot footage seen in these early shows. Even the pilot, "A Day in June," which dares to dramatize the epic Invasion of Normandy, succeeds in capturing the history-making battle from its limited vantage point. (This episode was directed by Boris Sagal, making it-- as one colleague has pointed out -- the only show in TV history where both its director and star were killed by whirling helicopter blades.)
And the sets aren't just believably European; they're also imaginative and serve the scripts to a degree quite rare in series television. "Forgotten Front," one the best Altman-directed shows, is set in a dye works, a vividly realized multi-level set, which Altman uses to good effect. The script, by Richard Matheson writing under the name Logan Swanson, has Saunders' squad making an unwanted prisoner of a deserting German soldier (an excellent Albert Paulsen). When the prisoner becomes a liability, Saunders must decide whether to take him along or shoot him. The episode pulls no punches -- almost -- and grapples with the kind of moral issues that would be Combat!'s bread and butter.
This and most of the first season shows are grim if not graphic. They're practically bloodless but occasionally quite intense and, according to many veterans, were among the most realistic depictions of platoon life up to that time. Adding to the realism is that most episodes have characters speaking their native languages, dialogue which passes without subtitles. A few shows, such as "Just for the Record," drop this device, but most are quite realistic and natural in this regard.
Altman, an Air Force veteran, also directed "Cat and Mouse." This excellent show finds Saunders paired with a reckless, overbearing regular army foot soldier (Albert Salmi). As the sole survivors of a perilous information-gathering mission, they find themselves trapped in an old mill, another excellent set. Like many of the show's regular directors, Altman makes good use of hand-held cameras shooting from low angles, generally limiting shots to the American soldiers' point-of-view. The ironic, cynical episode, which Altman also wrote and produced, is full of wonderful details (a cat that lives in the mill, aware of the Americans' presence, is adopted by the German soldiers) and rich characterizations.
Sadly, Vic Morrow's senseless death during production of John Landis's segment of Twilight Zone: The Movie, and Jason's October 2000 suicide preclude what might have been more complete set of extras. The primary supplement is a 23-minute Memories of Combat!, featuring interviews with, among others: directors Richard Donner, Michael Caffey, Sutton Roley, and Ted Post; regulars Pierre Jalbert and Tom Lowell; guest stars Ben Cooper and Eric Braeden; and Jo Davidsmeyer, author of the book Combat! A Viewer's Companion to the WWII TV Series.
Watching the documentary, one begins to wonder if perhaps these DVDs are more a labor of love by some Combat! fans rather than a major label release. The documentary is informative and nostalgic, but crudely produced. The lighting of the participants is erratic and some are badly miked. The same holds true of the Audio Commentaries. "Cat and Mouse" features separate tracks with director Robert Altman and (then) First Assistant Director Michael Caffey. Caffey's audio is fine but Altman sounds like his commentary was recorded in a phone booth. Altman doesn't talk for long stretches, suggesting it might have been wiser to cut the two tracks into one. Another commentary track features first season regular Lowell on "The Celebrity."
Also included is a Photo Gallery, but even this is botched. The gallery includes some great, full-color snapshots, but many are marred by extreme digital artifacting, poor framing, and roving copyright notices. Each episode comes with Notes, Oddities and Bloopers, excerpted from Davidsmeyer's book and fannish but informative website.
Combat! is a good show poorly served on DVD. Hardcore fans will buy it anyway; they're pretty much stuck. More casual fans and those unfamiliar but curious about the show might want to rent it for the extras and watch an episode or two, but the series in its present form cannot be recommended for purchase.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Los Angeles and Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf -- The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune. His new book, Cinema Nippon will be published by Taschen in 2005.