Robert Altman claims to hate the television version of M*A*S*H because it steamrollered over the moral complexity of his feature film, but he might also hold a grudge against the show because it ripped off the tone and substance of the '60s WWII drama Combat!, which Altman helped make into a dramatic force. Combat!'s first full-time producer, Robert Blees, took over for creator Robert Pirosh after the pilot episode, and hired Altman to direct every other episode of the 1962-63 season—a deal that fell through when Blees and then Altman were fired partway through the 32-episode run. But though he only directed 10 episodes, Altman did a lot to establish Combat!'s focus on vital moral dilemmas and finely shaded performances.
Later seasons of Combat! told stories of full-squad battles during an unspecified time in the Allied march across France, but the first season remained fairly continuous, beginning with D-Day and ending with the imminent liberation of Paris. Each episode carved the war up into small crises, usually with one or two U.S. troops and a handful of Germans locked in a moment of stalemate. And, since Pirosh, Blees, and Altman had all served in the military, Combat! carved those moments into micro-moments, noting how the men slip purification tablets into their canteens, how German snipers get distracted by a hungry kitten, and how a swim to safety is hampered by a floating corpse. The production values (and Robert Hauser's cinematography) were movie-quality, making Combat! a strong link between one of its chief cinematic inspirations, Paths Of Glory, and one of its obvious cinematic followers, Saving Private Ryan.
The two four-disc sets that collect Combat!'s first season contain a few selected episode commentary tracks from surviving cast members and directors (including one by Richard Donner and two by Altman, who insists that his work on the show is as good as anything he's ever done), as well as episode notes from Combat! fan Jo Davidsmeyer, who has said elsewhere that she prefers the more heroic vision of first-season writer-director Burt Kennedy to Altman's rougher take on war and humanity. But even Davidsmeyer admits that the latter's episodes look fantastic, marked by tight framing, fluid camera moves, and layers of smoke. Like most of the Combat! brain trust, Altman used WWII as a backdrop for stories of soldiers lost in an ethical soup, as seen in his signature episodes "Forgotten Front," in which a squad has to decide how to dispatch a friendly German prisoner, and "Survival," in which star Vic Morrow gets shell-shocked and caught behind enemy lines.
If nothing else, this Combat! set should prompt a new appreciation of Morrow, whose place in pop culture has mostly been defined by his daughter (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and his 1982 death in a helicopter accident on the set of Twilight Zone: The Movie. Combat! had a fine cast of regulars and vivid guest turns by the likes of Tab Hunter, Tom Skerritt, Harry Dean Stanton, and Robert Culp, but Morrow, with his unsteady gait and quick temper, embodies the sometimes-untenable contradictions of a show that tried to praise courage under fire while decrying the fire.