Friday, February 10, 2012

Combat!: “The Volunteer” (TV Classics)

By Nicholas Stix
Tuesday, July 19, 2005
Men’s News Daily
Update: Video appended on Wednesday, May 1, 2019, 7:01 p.m.

[See also, at WEJB/NSU:

“‘NUTS!’: Jihadis Don’t Get It, but Neither Do ‘Americans.’”]

Combat! Opening Theme by Leonard Rosenman: All Five Seasons

Thanks so much to FrightNight7387, for putting together this video!

Originally aired, January 22, 1963
(Warning: Spoilers Abound!)

I saw an extraordinary episode tonight of the classic World War II TV series Combat! (1962-1967), entitled “The Volunteer.” It was about a 13-year-old – or as he emphasizes, “13-and-a-half-year-old” French orphan, "Gilbert Barole" (Serge Prieur), who wants to fight the Germans (The “Bosh,” as the French called them.)

The men of King Company have just liberated the boy’s town (for the moment, anyway), been kissed by French girls, and enjoyed an orgiastic welcome. The boy, who doesn’t speak a word of English, offers his services, but is blown off by the company CO, “Lt. Gil Hanley” (Rick Jason). But he is not to be denied, and so he marches off after les Americaine, with his dead father’s rifle, and a sack containing a bottle of wine, and a crust of bread, as proviant.

The camera cuts between the boots, large, thick legs and uniform pants of the American GIs and the boots, skinny little legs, and short pants of the boy, as he marches a discreet distance behind them. And as the camera cuts back and forth, the music alternates, as well. The boy is given his own wistful theme, which is played on a variety of instruments, but most frequently, the harmonica. The boy's theme reminded me of the themes Aaron Copland composed to express the fantasy world of the young boy that is the protagonist of the movie The Red Pony, based on a collection of Steinbeck stories. (Though I’ve never seen the movie, I’ve listened to the music many times.)

Seeing the GIs take a break, the boy takes a nap, not realizing, since he doesn’t understand English, that they are about to pull out. When he wakes up, they are long gone, and he runs around in a panic. When he catches up to them, Lt. Hanley has just had his right arm shot up in a mortar attack. "Sgt. Chip Saunders" (Vic Morrow) gets Lt. Hanley to agree to go back to the boy’s village, accompanied by the boy. The boy is very excited – Hanley doesn’t know that the one French-speaking member of the unit, Franco-American “Caje” (pronounced “cage”; Pierre Jalbert), has told the boy that he has been appointed company “adjutant.”

On the way back, the boy saves Hanley’s life, or at least his freedom. The boy tries his best for a time to support the wounded, 6’4” man, but Hanley eventually collapses. The boy camouflages him with branches, and then sees a German patrol approaching. The boy runs in the opposite direction, to take the Germans away from Hanley and to escape, but they catch the boy. One tall German soldier takes the boy’s wine, drinks a slug, and starts to walk away with the bottle, but a shorter, burlier, older soldier grabs him by the arm, takes the bottle back, and gives it back to the boy. The German fumbles with language – he knows only a little French, and the boy knows no German. He shows the boy a photograph of his own 13-year-old boy – who, like the French boy’s family, is dead. The soldier gives the boy a small, aluminum-foil wrapped piece of chocolate, saying “Ein Juenger soll Tschokolade haben jede Woche.” (“A boy should have chocolate every week.” Most episodes of Combat! seamlessly wove at least two, and frequently three languages – English, French, and German – into the story. The third of the series’ 152 episodes, “Lost Sheep, Shepherd,” used the above three languages, plus Latin.)

After the German's acts of kindness, I thought of my mother's favorite adage, “No good deed goes unpunished.”

The Germans let the boy go, and they continue on their way.

The boy gets back to Hanley, who is now able to march, if weakly. The boy gets him to his little house, where he hides him under the bed, just as the Germans enter the town. Hanley gives the boy a message to take back to Saunders, but he has trouble making himself understood.

On the way back to the Americans, the boy sees the Germans set up four machine gun nests inside of building windows.

He gets back to the GIs, and is eventually able to explain what he saw. Returning to the town, the boy shows the members of Hanley’s company where the nests are. Meanwhile, sensing a chance at some action against “Bosh,” the boy goes back to his house.

When, using hand grenades, the GIs clear out a machine gun nest in a building, the boy is at his own window with a rifle (how did he get his rifle back? or is it Hanley’s?), just as a German soldier runs out of the building. The boy aims, shoots, and kills the German! All the other surviving Germans surrender.

The boy comes out and looks at the dead man’s face. It was the kind-hearted German with the dead son. The distraught boy takes the man’s wallet out of his shirt pocket, takes another look at the boy in the picture (a little girl is also in the picture, but the soldier never explained who she was), puts it back, and taking the tinfoil-wrapped piece of chocolate out of his own pocket, puts it back in the dead man’s pocket.

Since the boy shot the man around the corner from where the GIs are rounding up the German prisoners, the Americans know nothing of the boy’s feat. (When he shouts to them that he killed a German, they don't believe him, and don't check up on him.) As they pull out, Saunders salutes the boy from afar. Caje tells Saunders that the boy is no longer interested in fighting, though he doesn’t know what happened to dull his appetite for blood.

In a grim denouement, Caje and Saunders march away from the town.

Caje: He’ll get over it.

Saunders: We all do.
This episode could certainly be seen as an anti-war story, but that’s alright. Some of the best war stories ever written were anti-war stories. Think, All Quiet on the Western Front. What makes so many anti-war stories bad (e.g., Platoon) also makes many pro-war stories bad – being weighed down with propaganda. Though “The Volunteer” may certainly have sprung from propagandistic impulses—it was, after all, produced and directed by Robert AltmanGene Levitt’s story, as told, is not weighed down with politics. It’s a poignant gem.

Combat! airs Tuesday nights at 7,8, and 11 p.m. and 2 a.m. on the cable channel, American Life. It originally aired on ABC during my childhood, but I saw it at most once or twice, and then caught a couple of reruns that were shown at midnight or so, around 1975. And yet, I have known the show's theme music most of my life. The show had one of the great TV themes, a variation on “When Johnny Comes Marching Home,” by Leonard Rosenman. Although it got little respect in terms of Emmy nominations, it was one of the finest dramas in TV history, with excellent writing, directing, and acting. And it had authenticity.

I’ve seen about a dozen episodes so far on American Life, spanning all five of the series' seasons, the first four of which were in black-and-white. Almost all were excellent, and none was less than good; “The Volunteer” was the best so far.

A lot of conservatives complained about Saving Sgt. Ryan, when that movie was released in 1998. Yes, this or that small matter was factually wrong. Yes, Spielberg was turning WWII into a humanitarian war. But you know what? A lot of those complaints were political cheap shots. The fact of the matter is, that a conservative director (could any have been found) would likely not have made a more realistic movie. And the reason for that is history.

Just about everyone involved in the making of Combat! was a World War II combat veteran. Actually, according to Jo Davidsmeyer, the most eloquent and knowledgeable writer about the show, the show’s problem was a lack of infantrymen. Although its creator, Robert Pirosh (1910-1989), who before the war had been a successful Hollywood screenwriter, had been a master sergeant who, during the Battle of the Bulge fought in the legendary Battle of Bastogne, for some strange reason, the crew was heavy with pilots, including Robert Altman (Navy).

Vic Morrow (1929-1982), who started out as second banana, and in the second season was made the show's star, was the rare cast member who had never seen combat. Born in 1929, he had enlisted in the Navy in 1946. (The blonde-haired, blue-eyed Morrow had the looks of an Aryan poster boy, but according to Loraine Wingham, was in fact a Bronx Jew!) Morrow was the father of actress Jennifer Jason Leigh.

[Correction, February 10, 2012: As far as I can determine, Morrow never supplanted Jason as the series star. Rather, they alternated as star from episode to episode. Apparently, in recent years, I happened to see Jason first, and then episodes starring Morrow. As a child, the few episodes I saw all starred Morrow. Note that Jason was also a Jew.]

Jo Davidsmeyer wrote of series creator Robert Pirosh, who had been a successful Hollywood screenwriter specializing in comedies before the war,

During the war, Pirosh rose to the rank of Master Sergeant serving with the 320th Regiment, 35th Division. He saw action during both the Ardennes and Rhineland campaigns and was awarded the Bronze Star. During the Battle of the Bulge, Pirosh led a patrol into Bastogne to lend support to the beleaguered defenders. Profoundly affected by these experiences, Pirosh spent much of his later career paying tribute to the frontline infantry soldier.

Pirosh won an Academy Award for his original story and screenplay to Battleground (1949), starring Van Johnson. Battleground chronicled the siege of Bastogne, telling the story from the point of view of the ordinary G.I. It became the biggest box office hit of 1949. Two years later, Pirosh was again nominated by the Academy for best story and screen play for Go for Broke, which he also directed. Go For Broke is the true story of the American-born Japanese who served heroically as U.S. infantrymen in the 442nd Regimental Combat Team in World War II.

Pirosh again paid tribute to the infantry in the feature film Hell Is for Heroes, which he wrote, produced, and directed. But conflicts arose between Pirosh and his star [former Marine—N.S.], Steve McQueen. Pirosh walked away from the film before it was finished. Later that year, he approached Selmur Productions with the idea for a series about frontline infantry soldiers.
When Hollywood directors made war movies after the victories in Europe and Japan, they had their pick of movie stars who had been in uniform, and in some cases were decorated war heroes (think Army Air Force pilot James Stewart, who started out as an enlisted man, and rose to the rank of major by war’s end). But now, when a Hollywood director shoots a World War II movie, he is unlikely to have a single cast or crew member who is a veteran of ANY war, or who even has peacetime military service under his belt. As a result, retired military officers like Dale Dye have made small fortunes as technical advisors on war pictures.

You can compare my analysis of “The Volunteer” to that of Jo Davidsmeyer. I made a point of only reading Davidsmeyer’s analysis after writing my own. I don’t hold a candle to her – but then no one else does, either.

Davidsmeyer has written a viewer’s companion book about Combat!, and the series is now available on DVD. (I have no connection to Davidsmeyer.)

Combat!: Opening and Closing Themes

Thanks to vn504874!


Anonymous said...

"Combat" was a favorite of mine. Rick Jason got top billing becasue when the show began, Jason was somewhat higher in the industry than Vic Morrow.

David In TN

jeigheff said...

Believe it or not, "The Volunteer" can seen on Youtube! Your description of the episode was spot-on. I couldn't help but like the fatherly German soldier who tried to befriend the French boy.