1960s’ #36: ‘Combat!’

Every Saturday, The Savvy Screener’s Boomer Box is counting down “The 50 Greatest Television Episodes of the 1960s,” in reverse chronological order, as researched and written by Todd M. Pence. (This series ran originally in the Classic 1960’s TV Facebook group.)

#36: Combat!: ‘Hills are for Heroes’

IMDb’s list of “Top 50 War TV Shows,” based on user popularity, somehow doesn’t include the series that has to at least be in contention for consideration as the best dramatic war-themed television show of all time: Combat! (It comes in at #61.)

Following the adventures of a platoon of American soldiers in German-occupied France during the deciding days of World War II, the ABC series unflinchingly and without any gloss whatsoever presented the war as it actually was for the soldiers who fought in it. Its realism, accuracy, grittiness, and lack of condescension to viewers may have been equaled by other television series, but never surpassed.

Combat! lived up to its title by depicting wartime combat in brutally graphic verisimilitude, with all the hellish chaos it entailed. Other war-themed programs either had their battle action take place wholly off-camera, or else offered aseptic, watered-down battle scenes which seemed like play-acting in comparison to Combat! Watching the show today allows modern viewers to appreciate what the members of the greatest generation who fought in that conflict had to undergo.

The series co-stars were Rick Jason and Vic Morrow as commanders of the platoon. While the series continually offered up outstanding performances (both from the leads and guest stars), superlative scripts and top-notch direction and production values, its finest hour (well, two hours really) came with the Morrow-directed two-part episode “Hills are for Heroes,” airing March 1 and 8, 1966.

Combat!, Hills are for Heroes

The platoon is given the mission to secure desperately needed territory by taking out a pair of German stronghold bunkers placed in a strategic position on top of a hill. However, the soldiers find their task to be insurmountable as German sharpshooters take a heavy toll on their numbers. Plan after plan to attack the strongholds fail, and the unit suffers heavier casualties each time.

Periodically retreating to their own bunker to revise strategy, the soldiers begin to despair at the grim futility of their assignment. Meanwhile, Jason’s character Lt. Hanley is becoming more and more taut by repeated pressure from the top brass, who stress the imperative of taking the hill, while at the same time balking at offering needed assistance. When the men finally and gruelingly complete their bloody task at the conclusion of the epic, they find a cruel irony in store for them.

“Hills are for Heroes” is as good as any war movie made during the period. And it does not make for light viewing.

You can stream both parts of “Hills are for Heroes” on Uncle Earl’s Classic TV Channel. For more Combat!, the series runs over the air Saturdays at 9 pm ET on Heroes & Icons.

(Source for images: Uncle Earl’s Classic TV Channel)

About Todd M. Pence

Todd M Pence has been an amateur historian and scholar of American television for the past 35 years. “The 50 Greatest Television Episodes of the 1960” is the product of decades of research, not just in active viewing but in extensive combing of newspaper and magazine archives to read the original reviews of programs at the time they aired. He has also reached out to fellow television researchers to get their opinions. Pence maintains that the decade of the 1960's constituted the zenith of American primetime television drama, and that we will probably never see its like again. His purpose in compiling this list was to preserve this history and to spotlight many exceptional programs which have been forgotten and consigned to the dustbin of history. Pence holds a BA in Journalism from West Virginia University and has worked for the past 20 years in the Fairfax (Virginia) County Public School system

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