This reviewer was keenly interested in checking out the 1966-68 series The Rat Patrol, if only because it was the creation of Tom Gries, an interesting talent who died in 1977 when he was only 55 years old. He had directed episodes of two of the best '60s series, East Side/West Side and The Defenders, and went on to helm the ambitious Westerns Will Penny (1968) and Breakheart Pass (1975), as well as the famous TV movie of Helter Skelter (1976). The Rat Patrol was moderately successful, but no great claim to Gries' resume.
The series, about an elite commando force fighting the Germans in the Tunisian Desert during World War II, is well-produced but intellectually vacuous, with cardboard characters conducting singularly bloodless but always successful raids. The end result is comparable to watching kids playing with G.I.Joes in the sandbox. Indeed, squad leader Sergeant Sam Troy (Christopher George), Brit Sergeant Jack Moffitt (Gary Raymond), Privates Hitchcock (Lawrence B. Casey) and Pettigrew (Justin Tarr) really do look like G.I. Joes (minus that 5 o'clock shadow on later models) and are nearly as inexpressive. They are distinguishable only as types, by their accents and/or hats. Hitchcock's character, for instance, is pretty limited to the fact that he chews gum all the time, has wire-rimmed glasses, and wears a Confederate Army's artillery kepi.
Each week offers a new raid: indeed, episodes always include the word "raid" in the title: "The Kill or Be Killed Raid," "Take Me to Your Leader Raid," the politically incorrect "Holy War Raid," "The Deadly Double Raid" and, one particularly clever week, "Mask-a-Raid." The happy-go-lucky group, never weary or anxious or battle-fatigued, daringly pulls off some crazy scheme in each frantic episode: often this involves driving right into a German outpost and spectacularly blowing it up while our heroes beat a hasty retreat across the sand dunes. They seem to kill lots of Germans, but they're almost never even injured, and there's no blood anywhere. In many episodes Sam & Co. don't even let the audience in on what there plans are; this being a half-hour show, there's little time to see any actual planning that goes into their raids. The lopsided victories, week-after-week, shatter any credibility, resulting in a show ultimately no more realistic than Hogan's Heroes.
Conversely, the show is well-produced and mildly interesting in other ways. It's probably best remembered not for any of its heroes but rather its recurring villain, Capt. Hans Dietrich, played by actor Hans Gudegast, who'd soon change (in 1969) his name to Eric Braeden. Braeden's intellectual German and the cat-and-mouse games he plays with the heroes give the show its only real glimmer of interest. Early on anyway, the series does earn points for allowing the Germans to speak German when they talk to one another. Besides Braeden, a few genuine German actors appeared on the series, including Wolfgang Preiss, though never as many as they might have. Mostly though, familiar character actors like Ed Asner obviously struggle through pages of German dialogue.
The series was filmed on location in Spain, partly because of its desert plain, but mainly to keep costs down while gaining access to military hardware leftover from big-budget Hollywood productions like Battle of the Bulge (1965) and others. Visually the show is imaginatively shot, with striking camera angles, elaborate helicopter shots and impressive stunt work and on-set special effects.
Video & Audio
At least The Rat Patrol looks good, excellent in fact. The image is clean and sharp with little damage, though the color on most shows looks tweaked, as it strongly favors browns and yellows. Episodes are complete and not time-compressed. They're spread over four single-sided discs, with eight shows per disc. The okay mono sound is accompanied by optional English subtitles. There are no Extra Features.
With the war in Vietnam escalating at an alarming rate during 1966-68, when The Rat Patrol first aired, a show as unrealistic and historically outrageous as this, particularly after the relative realism of predecessors like Combat!, must have seemed like a real anachronism even then. Today the show is nice to look at, but as its episode titles suggest, once you've seen one, you've seen 'em all.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf - The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune and Taschen's forthcoming Cinema Nippon. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.