MGM and 20th Century-Fox have released The Rat Patrol: The Complete Second Season, a three-disc, 26 episode collection of the final season of the briefly popular WWII combat series. Running only a half-hour long each, these noisy, surprisingly violent little WWII action/adventure stories play rather like those old Rover Boys novels: plenty of action, and little if any complexity. Repetitious perhaps after watching episode after episode (which may be an unfair way to view them, considering they were meant to be seen once a week), you have to admit that The Rat Patrol: The Complete Second Season episodes are professionally done, with a big-screen look to the action that's indicative of the 1960s glossier TV production values.
Set in the WWII North African desert, where Hitler's elite Afrika Korps prowl the sand dunes, The Rat Patrol consists of an unattached, four-man Allied fighting unit led by stalwart American Army officer Sergeant Sam Troy (Christopher George). Second-in-command is Sergeant Jack Moffitt (Gary Raymond), a British demolitions expert. And American Privates Mark Hitchcock (Lawrence Casey) and Tully Pettigrew (Justin Tarr) round out the team. Racing around the desert combat zones in Jeeps outfitted with .50mm machine guns, the "Rat Patrol" are relatively autonomous in their selection of, and discretion in executing, commando operations, because they belong to no regular unit. Their frequent nemesis is Captain Hauptman Hans Dietrich (Hans Gudegast, later known as Eric Braeden for you Colossus: The Forbin Project, Escape from the Planet of the Apes, and of course, The Young and the Restless fans out there), a cold, calculating Afrika Korps C.O. of a heavily armored, mobilized German unit. Playing cat and mouse games amidst the searing arid expanses, Sgt. Troy and Capt. Dietrich match wits week after week as they battle for supremacy in the African wasteland.
The Rat Patrol premiered in September of 1966 on perennially third-placed network ABC. Playing Monday nights at 8:30PM, featuring ABC's mish-mash selection of fading (Peyton Place) or marginal (The Big Valley, Felony Squad, The Iron Horse) series, The Rat Patrol turned out to be one of the few bright spots in ABC's dismal 1966 performance, ranking 23rd for the year (tied with CBS' Petticoat Junction), thus being only one of five ABC series to make it into the Nielsen Top Thirty (along with Bewitched, The Lawrence Welk Show, The ABC Sunday Night Movie, and The F.B.I.). The fact that The Rat Patrol aired directly opposite CBS' The Lucy Show, the third-highest rated show for the year, only made its performance seem that much more impressive. Expectations were high from executives that this trim little successor to ABC's earlier WWII hit Combat would continue its successful ranking.
Unfortunately, ratings faded for The Rat Patrol in this 1967-1968 season. It's always tough to ascertain why a series suddenly drops off in the ratings; so many variables are at work. The Rat Patrol didn't face any tougher competition this year than it had the previous season. It still ran directly against The Lucy Show on CBS, while over on NBC, it now faced the second half hour of The Man From U.N.C.L.E., a once wildly popular show that was quickly winding down. It's possible that the direct kids' appeal of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. took a bite out of The Rat Patrol's numbers, considering the fact that The Rat Patrol's simplified, almost cartoonish "mow 'em down" production largely appealed to young boys and their fathers. But I suspect a certain number of viewers tired of the show, forcing ABC to cancel the relatively expensive series.
It's not that The Rat Patrol: The Complete Second Season is any worse or better than Season One, and that's just the point: it's exactly the same. There's absolutely no growth in either the characterizations or in the emotional or intellectual content of the episodes. Now, I'm not demanding that The Rat Patrol be as complex or as "truthful" as a comparable series like Combat. The Rat Patrol can be just as simplistic as it likes, as long as it's entertaining and competently done. Even if The Rat Patrol's goals are set much lower, meeting them still gets a nod from me. But I imagine enough viewers noted the fact that watching Season Two of The Rat Patrol was almost like watching reruns of Season One, and decided maybe they should check out The Man from U.N.C.L.E. one more time, or see what crazy Lucy was up to that week.
As for the actual episodes this season on The Rat Patrol, they're quite straightforward little combat vignettes. The half-hour format doesn't allow for a whole lot of exposition or shadings to the characterizations, so we're treated to plenty of gunplay, nicely mounted in the Spanish deserts where the series was filmed. I had forgotten how relatively violent The Rat Patrol was, with frequent knifings and machine gun blasts interspersed with more creative ways of killing people (a sling-shot bullet to the head stands out in memory) - all of course presented quite bloodlessly to satisfy the network censors. In fact, that might also have been a factor in ABC's decision to cancel the program; quite a few advocacy groups were gearing up in the mid-to-late 60s, expressing concern over the levels of violence depicted in network TV shows. And certainly it didn't help matters that so many viewers were experiencing the real-life violence of Vietnam footage televised on their local and national news each night.
A case could probably be made that the comic-strip violence of The Rat Patrol violated in some way the sensibilities of the viewing audience who had real-life wars to worry about each night. But I think perhaps The Rat Patrol's relative innocence (no blood, no major characters getting killed, no grinding boredom often associated with military life, and impossibly perfect commando raids, always flawlessly executed) didn't offend viewers so much as it eventually bored them. Each individual episode of The Rat Patrol is more than competently produced and directed, and they're enjoyable, too; it's rather like reading a Sgt. Rock comic book - but without the social commentary. However, there's so little lateral movement for the characters or for the situations in The Rat Patrol that eventually, they all tend to blend together. So it's a tough call for The Rat Patrol: The Complete Second Season; the total effect is less than the sum of its competent parts.
Here are the 26, one-half hour episodes of The Rat Patrol: The Complete Second Season; as described on their slimcases:
The Truce at Aburah Raid
The Rat Patrol agrees to a temporary truce with German forces in order to rescue a young Arab girl who has fallen down a well.
The David and Goliath Raid
The Patrol must get medical aid to a severely wounded Tully, and it appears that Dietrich is the only one who can provide it.
The Trial By Fire Raid
Troy is captured while trying to destroy a German ammunition train. The rest of the Patrol attempts a diversion to set their leader free.
The Darers Go First Raid
The Rat Patrol captures a German tank and decides to utilize it by blowing up an ammunition dump inside a German fort.
The Love Thine Enemy Raid
Troy must decide whether to take a German nurse to a field hospital in order to save her life or continue with his mission.
The Darkest Raid
Moffitt takes the place of a captured German captain in order to pick up a cache of "confiscated" diamonds.
The Death Do Us Part Raid
The Rat Patrol must rescue a captured Arab boy who has some vital information for the Allied forces.
The Do-Re-Mi Raid
When USO entertainer Mickey Roberts is captured, the Rat Patrol is assigned to help him escape, but Roberts has other plans.
The Kingdom Come Raid
On a mission to deliver secret anti-aircraft shells, Hitchcock is wounded and left for dead by a fellow survivor of a German ambush.
The Hide and Go Seek Raid
The Patrol must rescue the kidnapped son of an Allied general whom the Germans plan to exchange for one of their generals in Allied hands.
The Violent Truce Raid
Moffitt is facing a court martial - and the only person who can clear him of the charges is Dietrich.
The Life for a Life Raid
The Rat Patrol, a pregnant Arab woman, and a French Resistance fighter are trapped in the cellar of a mosque by Dietrich's men.
The Fifth Wheel Raid
The British believe an officer has defected to the Germans, but the man's aide insists it's not true and forces the Patrol to take him on a rescue mission.
The Two if By Sea Raid
The Rat Patrol fakes Moffitt's death in order to feed false information to the Germans and destroy one of their Tiger tank convoys.
The Street Urchin Raid
Soon after Troy hides some top-secret photographs of vital German installations, the photos are stolen by a young street urchin.
The Pipeline to Disaster Raid
The Rat Patrol rescues a British general from behind enemy lines while on a mission to destroy a German oil pipeline.
The Boomerang Raid
On a mission to convey Allied information, Troy becomes suspicious of his contact when he's reluctant to ambush some German soldiers.
The Fatal Reunion Raid
It's shades of Casablanca when Moffitt's old flame, a French Resistance fighter, joins the Patrol in the attempted rescue of her husband.
The Decoy Raid
Moffitt is betrayed into German hands by a Vichy official in exchange for a Swiss nurse and her lifesaving typhus vaccine.
The Touch and Go Raid
After Dietrich captures the Rat Patrol, he and his men take their place in guarding an Allied munitions dump.
The Field of Death Raid
The Germans capture Troy's brother and use him as bait to trap the Rat Patrol.
The Double Jeopardy Raid
The arrival of a team of teenage guerrilla fighters spells double trouble for the Rat Patrol.
The Hickory Dickory Dock Raid
On the eve of a dangerous mission, Moffitt receives word that his younger brother has been killed by a German bomb in London.
The Tug of War Raid
Dietrich captures Troy and a French Resistance fighter and sentences them to hang for refusing to answer his questions.
The Never Say Die Raid
Troy and Hitchcock are captured by a German colonel who turns them over to a sadistic underling for torture.
The Kill at Koorlea Raid
The Rat Patrol is accompanied by a crack British sniper on a mission to assassinate a brutal German general.
The Rat Patrol: The Complete Second Season looks quite amazing, actually; as good as feature films released that year, with solid, rich colors and a bright, vibrant picture. The full frame transfers are excellent, with just a very small, slight tendency to go a little orangey or yellow with some of the prints, which may come from the original source materials.
The Dolby Digital English mono mix accurately represents the original broadcast presentation. Close-captioning is available, as are English and Spanish subtitles.
There are no extras for The Rat Patrol: The Complete Second Season.
Clean, efficient, professional, and totally devoid of originality or passion, The Rat Patrol: The Complete Second Season still delivers the comic-book WWII goods for action fans who don't want to waste time thinking about it, anyway. It may seem repetitious, but you have to hand it to The Rat Patrol: The Complete Second Season: each episode is competently executed for maximum action and excitement. I recommend The Rat Patrol: The Complete Second Season.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published film and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.