7,260 minutes, B&W and color. $299.99.
TV’s longest-running World War II drama (1962–67) was really a collection of complex 50-minute movies. Salted with battle sequences, they follow a squad’s travails from D-Day on—a gritty ground-eye view of men trying to salvage their humanity and survive. Melodrama, comedy, and satire come into play as Lieutenant Hanley (Rick Jason) and Sergeant Saunders (Vic Morrow) lead their men toward Paris.
Under orders, Hanley keeps sending or leading Saunders and his squad on incessant patrols though they’re dead on their feet and always shorthanded; replacements are grease monkeys or cook’s helpers who are fodder, and everybody knows it. The relentlessness hollows anti-hero Saunders out: at times, you can see the tombstones in his eyes.
Most of the first 32 episodes are very good indeed, thanks to taut scripts and canny direction by Robert Altman and Burt Kennedy, and guest stars like Alberto Salmi, Keenan Wynn, and Albert Paulsen. Altman’s camerawork takes breathtakingly odd perspectives; Kennedy’s style recalls his Westerns—spare, personal, intense. Executive producer Selig J. Seligman was a lawyer at Nuremburg. Series developer Robert Pirosh copped an Oscar for writing Battleground: his hard-edged realism is often reflected in the plots.
“Forgotten Front” raises a moral dilemma: whether to kill a problematic German deserter (Paulsen). The ironic twists of “Cat and Mouse” underline war’s bloody waste. In “The Graveyard,” Hanley orders his squad to dig in… in a cemetery, so gallows humor crackles: “This is one hole I thought somebody else’d dig for me.”
Altman’s “The Prisoner” is a proto-M*A*S*H outing that stars goldbrick Private Braddock (Shecky Greene) as Hanley’s runner. Sent to regiment HQ, he’s tapped to chauffer Colonel Pike (Wynn) around the front. Midget-racecar fanatic Pike commandeers the steering wheel; the madcap ride eventually flips the duo’s jeep. A German patrol snags Braddock, who’s wearing Pike’s helmet and overcoat. Mix-ups and double-crosses multiply, leading to a POW exchange that, Pike laughs, “is weirder than anything since the Civil War.”
Later episodes inevitably get uneven, though there are gems throughout. The digitally compressed DVDs—a mild annoyance—include commentary. The resolution could stand improvement. But this TV series, shot on MGM back lots when color TVs were rare, remains exceptional.
Gene Santoro is the reviews editor for World War II and American History magazines, and covers pop culture for the New York Daily News. His latest books are Highway 61 Revisited and Myself When I Am Real: The Life and Music of Charles Mingus.