Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Off Kilter TV: Where Horror Rears Its Ugly Head on Family Television
(TV is predictable with its formulaic structure and stories. But once in a while an episode will sneak by that breaks that formula--this I call Off Kilter TV).

COMBAT!: Cry in the Ruins Season Three, Episode Twenty Seven
Reviewed by Anthony Servante

Our Off Kilter show this time out is Combat!, a TV action/drama show about World War II that ran from 1962 to 1967. What the audience came to expect from this show was, well, combat, Americans fighting Germans on French soil. The running joke with fans and insiders alike was that the United States fought in France less than a year compared to the five years the show ran. But the episodes were always freshly written and the battle scenes choreographed by WWII veterans, giving the show edge and its characters a realism lacking in the other “war” TV shows of the day. However, there was that one episode that wasn’t about fighting or killing, or taking a bridge or blowing up a strategic obstacle to further the advances of the Allied Forces; this episode concerned itself with peace, if only for a day, and therein lies the Off Kilter formula I look for in family television of old.

The episode is titled Cry in the Ruins. It is directed by Vic Morrow, one of the stars of the show (who does not appear in this episode but is credited). It stars Rick Jason as Lt. Hanley and William Smithers as German officer Lt. Markes, and was written by A. Martin Zweiback, who wrote for TV’s KUNG FU and THE RIFLEMAN.

 (Vic Morrow) 

Hanley and King Company, which consists of Pierre Jalbert as Private First Class Paul “Caje” LeMay, Jack Hogan as PFC William G. Kirby, Dick Peabody as PFC “Littlejohn, and Conlan Carter as “Doc”, the company medic, enter a bombed out village right after a German Squadron led by Lt. Markes (William Smithers—he played bad guy Captain Merik in the original STAR TREK series). A wailing French woman searches for her baby amongst the rumble of the village and the Germans help her in her search. Hanley sees the humanity in the Germans’ assistance and offers the German Lieutenant a truce so that his own company can join the squad in the search for the missing child. After many cautious exchanges, both armies lay down their weapons and dig for the wine cellar where the baby is buried. “The hysterical mother is played by Lisa Pera, the grandniece of Russian author Leo Tolstoy and a prot├ęgee of series star (and director of this episode) Vic Morrow” (Wiki).

 (William Smithers) 

There is much tension as the soldiers dig and work to free the infant, but the goal remains true to both sides—save the child. It’s not really a ghost story, and the horrors of war are set aside in favor of working together for the common good of this woman, a stranger, and her baby. When a dying German Captain comes upon the two enemies at work in the ruins, he orders the lieutenant to kill the Americans. While the Captain, woozy from loss of blood, trains his machine gun on King Company, the Germans retrieve their weapons that were placed out of reach by both sides in the uneasy truce. Then the Captain dies, leaving the Germans armed and the Americans at their mercy. Hanley tells Markes that they should resume the search, but the German leader reminds the American leader that the Captain brought the war back. Hanley then asks him, “Then what were we digging for?” After a moment of thought, Markes replies, “We were searching for something we have lost” and orders his men to re-place the weapons out of reach once more and resume the search for the child.

(Rick Jason)

Thus far, we’ve had no killing. The soldiers on both sides find the cellar and one of the Americans is lowered down to find the baby as the French woman looks on. The American finds no infant and exits the wine cellar. The soldiers regroup and plan their next move to resume the search, when an old man appears and talks to the woman. He begins to escort the woman from the site of the digging. Hanley asks the man about the woman. He says that many months ago the mother lost her infant during a bombing of their village and that whenever the bombing resumes she returns to the site where her baby died and searches for him. He further says that it’s the bombing that triggers her memory and he must always come for her to take her home. Then with the woman in tow, they depart.

The enemy soldiers realize that their truce was based on a lie, that there was no child to find. Their “humanity” was the product of a falsehood. And therein lies the off kilter element of our story. The soldiers were willing to kill each other based on a political “lie”, an order to murder to further political ambitions. They are pawns in a greater game of War with a capital W. But for a moment the pawns set aside the game for the falsehood of Peace; it was a different lie but a lie nonetheless. The soldiers retrieve their weapons and put on their respective uniforms, aware that for a while they were all alike, just men working collectively; they depart the village together, side by side one last time, letting their truce remain until next they meet in combat and the killing resumes.
(Lisa Pera)

It was a ghost that they fought for, and it was a ghost that they laid down their arms for. And they understand that the cause one fights for is sometimes an illusion and that coming face to face with that illusion one can sometimes find their moral purpose. When Markes answered Hanley’s question about what they were digging for, he meant that they were searching for something they had lost, their individuality, their humanity. If they could follow orders to kill, they could also say no to those orders if just for a moment.

The truce was based on finding life, a living child in the rubble. When they find that child does not exist, they understand that peace is an illusion, and that war can be based on an illusion too, fighting for something that doesn’t exist except in theocratic form. The war killed the French woman’s baby, she lost her baby to the war, and she turns to the soldiers, both German and American, to find her baby; who else but the ones who took the infant can return the infant to her? The soldiers learn this too. They were looking for the thing that they themselves disintegrated with their bombs. As the woman returns to seek her baby whenever she hears the shelling, the soldiers return to their shelling of other villages and towns. The cycle of life is spun by death.

Well, thank you, dear readers, for joining me this time out for our Off Kilter TV episode. This is one of the most haunting episodes ever written for COMBAT! It was one of the few episodes that dealt with death, but without any killing. As such, its message was sent to us ironically in the O’Henry ending. And for one episode of the War action/drama, we had an hour of Peace, a humanitarian mission, thanks to the soldiers’ belief in something bigger than war—life. Click below to watch Combat! Cry in the Ruins. Until next we meet, keep your TV tuned to black and white.

1 comment:

  1. Just saw this episode. Moved by the energy and pathos of Lisa Pera in her role and surprised to find she did little else afterwards. It certainly seemed she had an understanding of how to move people through acting. To me she was the key factor, who stepped in to stop the brief battle which did happen and to continue to drive them away from combat. For a moment I wondered if it was an act just to get the armies to stop fighting. Thanks for this piece. It was nice to find other perspectives. Steve S