Well…at the very least, the toys were cool.
You ever want to watch a big, noisy WWII epic…but you simply don’t have the time? Problem solved: a few years back, Shout! Factory released The Rat Patrol: The Complete Series, gathering up the 58-episode ABC WWII combat series starring Christopher George and Eric Braeden, that ran from 1966 to 1968. Only a half-hour long each (with commercials), these noisy, surprisingly violent little WWII action/adventure stories play rather like those old Rover Boys novels: plenty of action…and little if any complexity. Repetitious if you binge (perhaps an unfair way to view them, considering they were meant to be seen only once a week), these agreeably entertaining comic books-come-to-life feature the same story week after week (an impossible mission carried out with much violence…but little if any actual bloodshed), and zero character development. However, you have to admit that The Rat Patrol episodes are professionally done, with a big-screen look to the action that’s indicative of the 1960s glossier TV production values.
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Set in the WWII North African desert, where Hitler’s elite Afrika Korps prowl the sand dunes, the “Rat Patrol” consists of an unattached, four-man Allied fighting unit, led by stalwart American Army officer Sergeant Sam Troy (Christopher George). Second-in-command is Sergeant Jack Moffitt (Gary Raymond), a British demolitions expert who joins up with the team much to the initial consternation of Troy (who isn’t sure he can trust the college-educated, but not-battle tested Moffitt). American Privates Mark Hitchcock (Lawrence Casey) and Tully Pettigrew (Justin Tarr) round out the team.
Racing around the desert combat zones in Jeeps outfitted with .50mm machine guns, the “Rat Patrol” are relatively autonomous in their selection of, and discretion in, executing commando operations because they belong to no regular unit. Their frequent nemesis is Captain Hauptman Hans Dietrich (Hans Gudegast, later known as Eric Braeden for Colossus: The Forbin Project, Escape from the Planet of the Apes, and of course, The Young and the Restless fans out there), a cold, calculating Afrika Korps C.O. of a heavily armored, mobilized German unit (who nonetheless displays frequent regard for the niceties of war while battling the professionals of “Rat Patrol,” whom he respects…while trying to kill them). Playing cat and mouse games amidst the searing arid expanses, Sgt. Troy and Capt. Dietrich match wits week after week as they battle for supremacy in the African wasteland.
The Rat Patrol premiered in September of 1966 on perennially third-placed network ABC. Playing Monday nights at 8:30PM, featuring ABC’s mish-mash selection of fading (Peyton Place) or marginal (The Big Valley, Felony Squad, The Iron Horse) series, The Rat Patrol turned out to be one of the few bright spots in ABC’s dismal 1966 performance, ranking 23rd for the year (tied with CBS’ Petticoat Junction). It was only one of five ABC series to make it into the Nielsen Top Thirty (along with Bewitched, The Lawrence Welk Show, The ABC Sunday Night Movie, and The F.B.I.). The fact that The Rat Patrol aired directly opposite CBS’ The Lucy Show, the third-highest rated show for the year, only made its performance seem that much more impressive. Expectations were high from executives that this trim little successor to ABC’s earlier WWII hit Combat would continue its successful ranking (when they start cranking out lunchboxes and board games and comic books…you know you’ve got some pull behind you).
Unfortunately, ratings faded fast for The Rat Patrol‘s second 1967-1968 season. It’s always tough to ascertain why a series suddenly drops off in the ratings; so many variables are at work. The Rat Patrol didn’t face any tougher competition this sophomore session than it had the previous season. It still ran directly against The Lucy Show on CBS, while over on NBC, it now faced the second half hour of The Man From U.N.C.L.E., a once wildly popular show that was quickly winding down, as well. It’s possible that the direct kids’ appeal of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. took a bite out of The Rat Patrol‘s numbers, considering the fact that The Rat Patrol‘s simplified, almost cartoonish “mow ’em down” production largely appealed to young boys and their fathers (that Jeep jump over the sand dune in the opening credits is an immediate Boys Own grabber). But I suspect a certain number of viewers simply tired of the show, forcing ABC to cancel the relatively expensive series.
It’s not that the second season is any worse or better than the first (and thus causing the ratings’ decline), and that’s just the point: they’re exactly the same. There’s absolutely no growth in either the characterizations or in the emotional or intellectual content of the episodes between seasons. Now, I’m not demanding that The Rat Patrol be as complex or as “truthful” as a comparable series like Combat. The Rat Patrol can be just as simplistic as it likes, as long as it’s entertaining and competently done. Even if The Rat Patrol‘s goals are set much lower, meeting them still gets a nod from me.
But I imagine enough viewers noted the fact that watching the second season of The Rat Patrol was almost like watching reruns of the first season, and decided maybe they should check out The Man from U.N.C.L.E. one more time, or see what crazy Lucy was up to that week (often times, a strong sense of déjà vu will enter into your mind when watching the second set of Rat Patrol episodes, as if you’re wondering what exactly was recycled: the stock action footage…or portions of whole scripts).
Taken individually, and forgetting the fact that one episode looks and plays pretty much like any other, The Rat Patrol shows are quite straightforward little combat vignettes (and admirable for that focus). The half-hour format doesn’t allow for a whole lot of exposition or shadings to the characterizations, let alone historical accuracy. From my understanding, they didn’t even have these kinds of assault Jeeps during WWII, but what American kid cared about that (the same couldn’t be said for British TV viewers—who take their war games dead serious: they yanked the show from their airwaves due to viewer complaints)? Instead, we’re treated to plenty of gunplay, nicely mounted in the Spanish deserts where the series was partially filmed (during the first season).
I had forgotten how relatively violent The Rat Patrol was, with frequent knifings and machine gun blasts interspersed with more creative ways of killing people (a sling-shot bullet to the head stands out in memory)—all of course presented quite bloodlessly to satisfy the network censors. In fact, that might also have been a factor in ABC’s decision to cancel the program, too; quite a few advocacy groups were gearing up in the mid-to-late 60s, expressing concern over the levels of violence depicted in network TV shows. And certainly it didn’t help matters that so many viewers were experiencing the real-life violence of Vietnam footage televised on their local and national news each night.
A case could be made, I suppose, that the comic-strip violence of The Rat Patrol violated in some way the sensibilities of the viewing audience who had real-life wars to worry about each night. But The Rat Patrol‘s relative innocence (no blood, no major characters getting killed, no grinding boredom often associated with military life, and impossibly perfect commando raids, always flawlessly executed) didn’t offend viewers so much as it eventually bored them to death. Each individual episode of The Rat Patrol is more than competently produced and directed, and they’re enjoyable, too; watching them is like reading a Fightin’ Army comic book.
However, there’s so little lateral movement for the characters or for the situations in The Rat Patrol that eventually, they all tend to blend together. Christopher George, a talented actor who had to be used very carefully to make him stand out (he never got that one important role that put him past the recognizable “B” list), has so little to do here that his disconnect with the various shenanigans is obvious. As for Eric Braeden, this was the first big break for the naturalized actor from Germany, and he’s quite good in what was already a pretty familiar idealized character by this point in WWII feature films: the tough, efficient, but essentially fair-minded professional German soldier. With his and George’s solid presence, and the plentiful, more-than-competent action sequences, The Rat Patrol is an easy recommend when you want some uncomplicated, vintage TV-sized thrills.
PAUL MAVIS IS AN INTERNATIONALLY PUBLISHED MOVIE AND TELEVISION HISTORIAN, A MEMBER OF THE ONLINE FILM CRITICS SOCIETY, AND THE AUTHOR OF THE ESPIONAGE FILMOGRAPHY. Click to order.Read more of Paul’s TV reviews here. Read Paul’s film reviews at our sister website, Movies & Drinks.