Judge Maurice Cobbs says they don't make 'em like this two-fisted rough-and-tumble war series anymore.
"Just name a hero…and I'll prove he was a bum."—Major "Pappy" Boyington
"In World War II, Marine Corps Major Greg 'Pappy' Boyington commanded a squadron of fighter pilots. They were a collection of misfits and screwballs who became the terrors of the South Pacific. They were known as the Black Sheep."—from the opening credits
Ah, a blast from my past! I adored this show when I was but knee-high to a grasshopper, and now it returns, and I'm happy to say that it's just as exciting, just as action-packed, and just as enjoyable as I remembered. In fact, I'd say that the charm of this remarkably engaging show has actually increased over the years. A two-fisted, slam-bang, romanticized and almost pulpish telling of the adventures of Major Gregory "Pappy" Boyington (Robert Conrad) and his legendary Black Sheep Squadron, scourge of the Pacific Theatre during World War II, Baa Baa Black Sheep is about as good as TV action gets. The shrewd, anti-authoritarian Boyington and his squadron of high-spirited, freewheeling misfit soldiers are all about fighting, drinking, and sleeping with nurses (and not neccessarily in that order). Has ever a more manly show been broadcast across public airwaves? Somehow, I doubt it. If TV were ever again to reach the dizzying levels of testosterone typified by any given episode of Baa Baa Black Sheep, the heads of metrosexuals across the country would summarily explode.
Example: In the pilot episode, "Flying Misfits," Pappy is relaxing on the beach with a beer when one pilot, Bragg, approaches him to confide his fear of dying. Pappy listens sympathetically as Bragg talks about his feelings, about "seeing the light," then helps the young Marine to his feet. "I've got something that's gonna help you," says Pappy, and punches Bragg square in the kisser.
Bragg leaps to his feet, and the two Marines trade punches until they are both lying on the sand, bloodied, battered, gasping for breath. "You still see the light?" says Pappy, and Bragg grins like a fool. "No!" says Bragg. "If I don't die in the next ten minutes, I feel like I'm gonna live forever!"
That must be what Marine therapy is like. It's the guts of Baa Baa Balck Sheep and probably why the show has a strong fan following even today. It gleefully sells itself with the antediluvian two-fisted attitude toward war held by the Greatest Generation while also promoting the post-Vietnam rebellious anti-establishmentarian stance adopted by the generation that followed. It plays both sides of the fence, and does it with style.
Part of the fun of watching old TV shows is playing "name that star," and Baa Baa Black Sheep offers an interesting glimpse of established names and soon-to-be stars. Dana Elcar (MacGyver) is Col. Thomas Laird, Boyington's commanding officer, a "rulebook commando"—a regulations-obsessed martinet more interested in maintaining bureaucracy than in winning the war. Pappy's slippery schemes and complete disregard for red tape make him an early target for the Colonel, but Laird's superior, the gruff, battle-hardened Brig. Gen. Thomas Moore (Simon Oakland, The Night Stalker), intecedes whenever he can on Boyington's behalf while giving the Major his tacit approval. Regular cast members include Dirk Blocker (son of Bonanza's Dan Blocker), John Larroquette (Night Court), Robert Ginty (Falcon Crest), and Lance LeGault (The A-Team's Col. Decker); and there are guest stars galore, like Sharon Gless (Cagney and Lacey), George Gaynes (Punky Brewster), George Takei (Star Trek), Charles Napier (The Blues Brothers), and Rene Auberjonois (Deep Space Nine). And as long as you remember that, as far as history is concerned, it's all mostly B.S.—although the guys of Black Sheep were definitely the terrors of the South Pacific, they were a lot less Dirty Dozen in real life—you're sure to get a kick out of the rough-and-tumble fighter aces of the 214.
I certainly can't fault our friends at Universal for their presentation of this show; the transfers are reasonably clean, though there is still a fair amount of speckling and scratching, and the preview segments that precede each episode look awful, as does the footage pulled from archival sources (the on-screen dogfights were padded out with actual WWII film). The sound is a great mono presentation, quite dynamic, with punchy sound effects and good, clear dialogue. There is also about seven minutes of interview footage with the real Pappy Boyington—a virtual deluge of special-features material from the stingy Universal crew, who routinely thrust bare-bones TV show releases at us without even the benefit of a token commentary or even a cheaply produced retrospective documentary.
Universal has reached a new low in their distribution of this TV classic, however—only the pilot movie, along with the first ten episodes of the first season, are presented here:
• "The Flying Misfits"
• "Best Three Out of Five"
• "Small War"
• "High Jinx"
• "Prisoners of War"
• "Presumed Dead"
• "The Meatball Circus"
• "Up for Grabs"
• "Anyone for Suicide?"
• "New Georgia on My Mind"
• "The Cat's Whiskers"
There are twelve more episodes in Season One, which will no doubt soon be available in an equally overpriced set—a devious way of maximizing profit from a popular show that lasted only two seasons (it was scheduled against Charlie's Angels). By comparison, the similarly priced Adam-12 set provides the entire first season—26 episodes—and the Quincy boxed set contains the first two seasons of that show. Shame on you, Universal. Shame, shame, shame.
The Black Sheep Squadron still flies today, in AV-8B Night Attack Harriers. But for classic TV fans, the Black Sheep never stopped soaring in their distinctive F4U Corsairs. Not guilty!
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Scales of Justice
• From the NBC News Archives: Interviews with Major Gregory Boyington
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