Judge Cynthia Boris enlists and ships out to North Africa to ride along with The Rat Patrol: The Complete First Season.
It was a rarity on TV: a half-hour war show and in color to boot! A real gem in ABC's crown, the series captured a male audience with its action sequences and female viewers with its four good-looking leads. There were weekly explosions, miles of military maneuvering, and enough angst moments to keep even the most rabid fan girl happy. It also had one truly different, truly amazing thing: a German commander who was intelligent, compassionate, and honorable. This is not your stereotypical WWII drama—this is The Rat Patrol: The Complete First Season.
Facts of the Case
It's early 1942, and Rommel has command of the desert campaign in North Africa. It's a challenging place to do battle, with an ever changing landscape, fluid enemy lines, huge amounts of ground to cover (with no natural water source), and sand, sand and more sand. Enter The Rat Patrol—a four-man strike team trained to create alarm and despondency behind enemy lines.
Sgt. Sam Troy (Christopher George, The Exterminator) is in charge. He's tough, stubborn, and not above playing dirty. His second in command is the veddy British, Sgt. Jack Moffitt (Gary Raymond, The Greatest Story Ever Told). Moffitt is an archeology student who brings to the table his understanding of the native Arab tribes as well as his command of the German language. Behind the wheel of Troy's jeep is Private Mark Hitchcock (Larry Casey, Return to Peyton Place). The pretty boy of the bunch, "Hitch" snaps bubble gum during the heat of battle and uses his charm to gather needed supplies from flirty females. Rounding out the group is Private Tully Pettigrew (Justin Tarr, Bullet), the best kid moonshine runner in all of Kentucky. Tully is a man of few words, but he's a genius with an engine and he's the one that keeps the Rat Patrol on wheels. (Speaking of wheels, the jeeps with the 50 caliber mounted machine guns became true icons of the series and were thoroughly marketed as model kits, pull-back cars, and die-cast vehicles.)
Week after week, The Rat Patrol set out on dangerous missions behind enemy lines: seek and destroy, ferreting out intelligence for HQ, tracking spies, freeing prisoners. Whatever the mission, it always involved a lot of shooting and blowing things up (explosions being one of the trademarks of this action series).
The entire first season is on this DVD set. You will quickly notice the similarities in the episode titles (a little naming convention also used by The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and The Wild Wild West):
• "The Chase of Fire Raid"
On the surface, The Rat Patrol seems to be a typical WWII action series of which there were many in the early sixties. (And why has that genre faded, I ask?) It had Americans battling Germans, guns, tanks, bullets flying—yet there really is a difference here. You'll find it hidden in the dialogue, the stories, the theme. In this WWII drama it isn't always easy to tell the good guys from the bad. As a matter of fact, our heroes are apt to be much more devious and destructive than their German enemy. That is due in large part to actor Hans Gudegast (aka Eric Braeden, The Young and the Restless) who played weekly nemesis Hauptman Hans Dietrich.
At the time, Germans on TV were inevitably played as vicious Nazis who enjoyed torture for torture's sake and were constantly overtaken by the throes of a stiff armed salute. But Braeden, a German native, wanted to play Dietrich as an honorable soldier fighting for his country. The writers for the show infused Dietrich with a sense of compassion, a sharp wit, and a charming smile (not at all shark like). Throughout the run of the series, Dietrich was often forced to make tough military vs. humane choices including the protection of aid workers in a war zone, or whether or not to brand Jews with a pinned-on paper star. In "The Moment of Truce Raid," Dietrich and the desert rats are forced to lay down their arms and work together to defend themselves against a rioting band of Arabs. When Dietrich is given the opportunity to go back on his word and capture the Rat Patrol, he refuses and puts his own life on the line to do what is right. Dietrich's character was so upstanding and compassionate that viewers actually began rooting for the German Captain and bemoaning his eventual loss to the wily Rat Patrol. Men respected him, women loved him—and actor Eric Braeden parlayed that attention into a fine acting career that led to him becoming one of the most powerful actors in daytime television.
If Germans can be good guys, then Americans can be bad. Watch for a very unlikable Gavin MacLeod (Love Boat) as a POW with secrets to tell in "The Fatal Chase Raid," or the slimy Steve Franken as an American black marketeer who's much happier on the other side of the law in "The Gun Runner Raid." You'll also find a mix of good and bad Arabs, French resistance workers, displaced Italian soldiers, and Claudine Longet (The Andy Williams Show). Hmm, maybe I should have saved her for the rebuttal.
The writers of The Rat Patrol were adept at setting a typical story on its ear. On this show, the informant you trust is likely to be a double agent, while the agent you suspect is the one you can trust. Troy gets captured—but maybe that was the plan. And why doesn't anyone believe the German captain who pegs our guys as American soldiers? Because the man is paranoid so no one believes him, even though, in this case, he's right. (Can you say Cry_Wolf?).
But I have to say that the best and the worst thing about the series is the characterization of the leads. Since the episodes are only a half hour, it's difficult to pack in a lot of back-story. Still, there's nice chemistry between these four that makes you believe they'd put it on the line for each other. So in addition to completing their military missions, these desert rats break into Dietrich's base camp to find blood for a wounded Moffitt. Walk into a German hospital to patch up a wounded Hitch. Risk life and limb to save Moffitt's father, downed in a plane crash. And then, there are all the times that two of them are taken prisoner and the other two help them escape.
It's the fastest half hour on television; thanks to MGM, it's crystal clear and nicely packaged with great box graphics, terrific use of cast photos inside and out, single-sided discs, and a neat little booklet with character profiles and filmographies of the actors.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Probably the biggest flaw in The Rat Patrol is that historically it's a little too Uncle Sam. The show is based on the adventures of the real life Long Range Desert Group, but these soldiers were from New Zealand. There wasn't an American in the bunch. US forces didn't even arrive in North Africa until late in '42, and even then the military coup was mostly controlled by the British. (Rumor has it that the British were so annoyed by this rewriting of history that they protested The Rat Patrol being run on TV in the UK.)
Still, it's sixties television, so I guess we should be happy that they got the rest of it right! My sources tell me that the majority of the equipment, uniforms and tactics are historically correct—except for Troy's Australian slouch hat, which is just too cool to complain about.
The second problem with the series is its half hour format. Opening battle, opening credits, get your mission, obligatory battle sequence, end credits. Not much time left for anything else! As a result, the guest stars got more back-story than our boys (which likely made for better plots, but not happier fan girls). I'm all about the guys so I always pined for one more scene, six more lines of dialogue…anything that would give us a little insight into Troy, Moffitt, Tully, and Hitch.
Turning to the DVD itself, well, there's not much here to grumble about except the lack of extras. There are none and that's a shame. The print is so clean, the packaging is so nice, yet I wish MGM could have come up with one commentary from the prop guy, or anybody who worked on the show. Practically, I know this is difficult. John Peyser, who directed the first ten episodes, passed away recently. Christopher George (Troy), sadly, left us way before his time while Justin Tarr (Tully) has faded into the woodwork. But Gary Raymond (Moffitt) was recently a guest at a Rat Patrol fan convention (yes really) and his comments would have been most welcome.
The Rat Patrol is another one of those shows that I've been devoted to my whole life. Frankly, I was afraid it wouldn't live up to my fond memories. (That happens so often with TV shows I haven't seen in years). Nothing could be further from the truth. From the moment those jeeps came leaping over the sand dune I was in hot and dry heaven. You see, I remember watching the series chopped to ribbons on UHF TV at five in the morning. (Insert Ode to the Rabbit Ears). I have never (that I remember) seen the series uncut and crystal clear until this week. Wow. I couldn't stop pointing out how blue the sky was and how young and handsome Christopher George was and—hey! I never saw that scene before! Geez, the story makes so much more sense now! Yeah, there are a few groaners in the script, and when it comes to the realism of war it's no Saving Private Ryan, but it is a great way to spend a half hour. You may find that watching The Rat Patrol is like eating peanuts. You can't stop at just one.
Due to the time constraints forced upon the series, the court is willing to overlook the grievous sins against history committed by Rat Patrol: The Complete First Season but suggests that the case might better be handled by a military tribunal. Case dismissed.
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