The Sarge and Me
It is my custom, while slowly going blind staring at faded receipts marked with cryptic notes that doubtless seemed perfectly understandable at the time, to avoid encroaching madness by renting and watching a series of bad action movies.
Why bad movies? Because you don’t have to pay attention, or think about them. All you have to do, when you can’t stand decoding the receipts any longer, is to look up from your desk and watch the pretty explosions, or the action-packed car chase, or the flesh-packed bikinis.
Which is how I found myself watching Flyboys the other night. You don’t have to think about this one at all, because you’ve seen the whole movie before, many times, in other action movies. The film leaves no cliché unturned. In its own way, the total lack of originality is sort of genius. It’s Extruded Film Product.
But thanks to a Netflix subscription, I now have some other options. I’ve been watching some archived television programs from my childhood, chief among them Combat!, a World War II series that lasted longer than the war itself, and which starred Vic Morrow as the hard-bitten sergeant in an infantry unit.
I’ve always had a sentimental regard for sergeants, I guess because my father was one. Doubtless actual service in the armed forces would have altered this naive attitude— as it would have if my dad had been a sergeant when I knew him. But he was a citizen-soldier, who volunteered in 1943, and mustered out in ‘45. (He told his own father, a refugee from the Imperial Russian Army, that he’d been drafted, otherwise there would have been hell to pay.) Because Dad could speak Finnish, the OSS shipped my dad overseas on the Queen Mary; but once he arrived in Britain, the Army apparently realized they weren’t going to invade Scandinavia after all, and Dad was assigned to an ambulance company, where he eventually became its first sergeant.
Being assigned to that particular ambulance unit might have put him in more jeopardy than if he’d remained in the OSS, because the unit was assigned directly to SHAEF, the Supreme Headquarters, and was sent wherever there was vicious fighting. So Dad got to land on Omaha Beach, and experience the Normandy campaign, the liberation of Paris (he dug a foxhole in the gardens at Versailles), the disastrous Market-Garden operation (attached to the British Guards Armored), and the Battle of the Bulge (still attached to the British). He crossed the Bridge at Remagen, and helped to treat the liberated prisoners of Dachau. He was under fire a lot, though as he was with a medical unit he didn’t get to shoot back. He shipped home in 1945, and stayed in the Reserves until presciently getting out just before Korea.
Unlike a lot of veterans, Dad didn’t mind talking about his experiences. He was fairly chatty about it, in fact— he’d tell me any damn thing. My young ears were not spared the horrors of war, or other singular aspects of military life. (I’m glad I never asked my mom what Dad meant by “that Brussels donkey show.”)
It was clear that, the blood and death aside, for my father World War II was the time of his life. He traveled to places he’d only dreamt about, had lots of girlfriends (including a French lady who had to be quietly shuffled aside once my mom appeared on the scene), and even (thanks to the GI Bill) got a college education out of it.
Ere long I was introduced to fictional sergeants who helped explain my dad’s stories. First and greatest of these was Sergeant Rock, in his original incarnation, written mostly by Robert Kanigher and drawn by the wonderful Joe Kubert. Though capable of comic-book heroics, Rock was also hard-bitten, cynical, loyal to his Easy Company, and hated war. Rock and Easy Company would never have made it in Patton’s Third Army— they generally were drawn with dinged helmets, torn uniforms, unshaven chins, and covered in mud. Kubert’s characters generally had a realism that you didn’t find elsewhere, even when he was drawing costumed super-heroes. And as for the writing, it was sometimes very fine.
I remember an episode called “What Makes a Sergeant?”, in which Rock— in addition to his usual duties of killing Germans and blowing up Tiger tanks— helps a replacement find his footing, scares up hot chow for his troops, and aids one of his soldiers in writing a love letter to his girl. The episode served installed itself in my mind as a kind of iconic example of Sergeantry at its finest.
I read other war comics featuring the Haunted Tank, Gunner and Sarge, Johnny Cloud the Navajo Ace, and Sergeant Rock’s sometime love interest, the French Resistance heroine Madamoiselle Marie, who I enjoyed for her expressive blue eyes and the rollneck sweaters that outlined her iconic pointed 1950s breasts. (I was not only a bloodthirsty young child, but a horny one.) I also liked Enemy Ace, another Kanigher/Kubert team-up, featuring a First World War rittmeister who, while blowing Allied pilots out of the sky, uttered depressed Nordic soliloquies about death, war, death, duty, death, and the fact that his own plane was so fed up with the slaughter that it wanted to kill him.
None of them quite measured up to Sergeant Rock, however, who is the only one of that star-spangled crowd whose book survives to the present day.
My next fictional sergeant starred in Combat!, a series that was based on the experiences of its creator, Selig Seligman, in the European Theater. The stars had served in the Second World War as well, and had an idea of how people in the military actually behaved (unlike those kooky Yanks in Flyboys, for example).
Combat! was on ABC, and our town didn’t have an ABC affiliate, so ABC programs were shown at odd hours— at one point late on Sunday night. My sergeant father let me stay up late to watch it. He liked the show, too.
The series had two stars, Rick Jason as the lieutenant and Vic Morrow as the sergeant, leading an Easy Company-like assortment of misfits and screwups. As the series went on, Rick Jason was largely sidelined by his co-star— partly on account of Morrow’s phenomenal acting ability, partly on account of the First Rule of Movie Infantry, which is that for dramatic purposes no military unit need be larger than six men. (The Second Rule of Movie Infantry is that the unit must contain at least one person who speaks the local language, in this case former Olympic skier Pierre Jalbert as the Louisiana-born Caje.)
The series began with the invasion at Omaha Beach and continued its march for six years across Northern France (which looked a lot like Southern California, only with quainter architecture). The series must have made a huge impression on me on its original run, because as I viewed the Netflix DVDs, I actually remembered a great many of the episodes. The one where Vic Morrow’s Sergeant Saunders was captured and trapped in a burning barn— it was the first time I ever heard a heroic character scream in mortal agony. The episode where Jeffrey Hunter guest-starred as a spoiled priest who enjoyed blowing the crosses off churches with his tank gun. The episode where Rick Jason was trapped beneath an unexploded bomb.
The years have improved my understanding of some of the episodes, as for instance the show where the squad mistrusts a new replacement because, in civilian life, he’d been a ballet dancer— mistrusts him, that is, until he tiptoed en pointe along the ridge of a roof to drop grenades on a German machine gun nest below. As a kid, I couldn’t figure out why being a ballet dancer was supposed to be so suspect. A grown-up’s appreciation of the subtext now leads me to understand it wasn’t the lad’s dancing ability the squad was concerned about.
(My Dad told me that real-life GIs were more relaxed about gays. When a homosexual was discovered in Dad’s outfit, the man was transferred to a gay company, which everyone knew about and where everyone from the officers down were gay.)
As a grown-up, I can now appreciate the series’ stellar production values and excellent writing (sometimes, uncredited, by Vic Morrow himself). The series had sufficient prestige that film stars like Lee Marvin, Jeffrey Hunter, Robert Duvall, Sal Mineo, Richard Basehart, and Keenan Wynn turned up as guest stars, usually as roubled, unhappy characters whose neuroses were solved either by Sgt. Saunders or by a bullet.
Directors included the young Burt Kennedy and the young Robert Altman. Altman hadn’t yet developed many of the trademark tics that characterized his film work— other than shooting long, long takes so that his eloquent scenes couldn’t be chopped up in editing, a tactic that eventually got him fired.
But even with all that talent around, it’s the sergeant that keeps the show together. Vic Morrow’s acting is simply phenomenal— he outshines everyone around him, even the guest stars, and owns every single scene he’s in. It’s amazing that, outside of this series, Hollywood couldn’t think of anything to do with him except have him play the heavy.
World War II was canceled over sixty years ago, and Sergeant Rock still soldiers on, leading his iconic, combat-happy crew across shelltorn France. My father has now joined Vic Morrow in that great NCO club in the sky.
Here’s a drink to you, Sarge, in looted French brandy. Live forever.