Season 1 Episode 1 Forgotten Front

Released 10/2/1962

Directed by: Robert Altman
Written by: Jerome Coopersmith

Plot –

Takes place somewhere in the Vire River region 1944, of Normandy, France after the invasion.

vire20river
Vire River, Normandy, France

A patrol lead by Sgt. McGraw and 3 men are inspecting a dye works factory.
McGraw is in contact with Lt. Gil Hanley over the radio.

McGraw tells Crenshaw to take point and inspect the factory, followed by himself, Gerber and for Whitehead to cover.

Sgt. McGraw is wearing the stripes of a Staff Sgt. Why is he carrying the field radio and not one of the privates? Here’s the field radio – SCR-300 Field Radios

After they enter a room, Sgt. McGraw calls in to check in with Checkmate King Two, which is always Lt. Hanley, and he’s Black Rook. (White Rook is normally Sgt. Saunders)

While two of his men are rummaging through the junk, one of them sets off a booby trap, which immediately kills them and seriously injuring McGraw.

McGraw is able to tell Hanley over the radio and Hanley then dispatches Sgt. Saunders and his squad to investigate and to complete the mission.

The mission is to set up an Observation Post and to search for the German “Big Gun” to relay coordinates in order to destroy it.

Sgt. Saunders, Caje, Kirby and Doc Walton show up. Saunders finds McGraw injured in the room and he dies immediately afterwards,

Here’s a question – McGraw told Saunders that everybody got it, but there were only 2 guys that got it. Where did Whitehead go?

Doc Walton continues to add sulfa powder and Saunders admonishes him telling him that “It won’t do him any good now.” Doc pouts out a “It never would have.”

At this point, we get the impression that the Doc is green to the squad.

This story is for the most part told from the viewpoint of the Doc. He’s obviously frightened and apprehensive because of this new job. He even tells Caje a lie when Caje asks him whether McGraw was dead when he got there. Doc told him “yes”.

Caje then taunts Kirby by telling him that he was right, “We didn’t need a medic after all.”
Apparently, there’s some sort of internal squabbling going on that the audience isn’t aware of between Caje and Kirby.

Since this is the first episode, Kirby comes across as being a wise-ass and complainer. He pretty much kept that sort of persona for the entire series but they tempered that aspect of him after awhile.

While Doc and Saunders are resting downstairs, Doc says that he didn’t say two words to McGraw in 3 weeks. At this point, we learn that he is new to the squad.

After Saunders tells Doc to get some sleep, a trap door slowly rises, being noticed by Doc. Kirby runs downstairs and guards the trap door as Saunders opens it and sees a German soldier lying down and cowering at the foot of the stairs.

Saunders yells “Aufstehen!”, which means to “Get Up!”

The German solder turns out to be a frightened middle aged man who was terrified of being shot and kept begging and repeating – “Do not shoot. Do not shoot.”

The German’s name was Carl Dorfmann, played by Albert Paulsen. He actually played in 4 different episodes of Combat. All playing German parts.

Caje, Kirby and Sgt. Saunders are pointing their guns at him along with Doc, who retrieved McGraw’s carbine.

At this point, I just want to say that according to the Geneva Convention, Medics are not allowed to carry weapons in an offensive manner and Saunders should never have instructed him to use it for guarding the prisoner.

Saunders asks the German what he’s doing there and Kirby accuses him of rigging booby traps. The German claims that he was deserting.

While Saunders, Caje and Kirby are conducting a thorough search for more Germans, Saunders orders Doc to guard the German with the carbine.

The German engages Doc in conversation and tells him that before the war, he used to be an entertainer, singer and magician. He then begins performing for Doc, which helps to break down Doc’s suspicions and Doc finally smiles at him.

dorfmann-singing
Carl Dorfmann singing for Doc
doc-smiling
Doc finally breaking down with a smile.

Right at this relaxed posture is when Saunders, Caje and Kirby walk in on them and Doc then gestures for the German to sit down in the corner.

Kirby comes downstairs with a helmet full of apples. He asks the German if he wants some and then begins to taunt him after giving him a rotten one.

While Doc was guarding the German, there was one instance where he tripped backwards down the stairs and knocked his head on the overhead pipe as he went down. This is a pretty telling scene when Dormann, picks up Doc’s dropped carbine and hands it back to him.

A German patrol then shows up at the dye works. Saunders tells the German to tell them that he was disarming the mines and they left immediately afterwards.

The German told Saunders that the German patrol were looking for them because they were observed the night before.

After they heard the artillery shells from the “Big Gun”, they went up to the upper floor to spot it. They then called in the coordinates at which time the American artillery was able to take it out.

It is at this time that the moral part of the entire story comes as Doc comes upstairs with the German and he overhears Kirby talking about taking out the Big Gun. Caje takes the German out, while at the same time admonishing Doc for bringing him up there.

Saunders then calls Hanley and confirms that the Big Gun has been “scratched”.

Saunders is now wondering what the German had told the patrol. He says that he’ll be coming with them when they pull out. It’s at this time that Kirby says “I’ve got a better idea.” implying that a better solution would be to kill him rather than risk him telling his side about them. Caje, who usually doesn’t agree with Kirby, goes along with the idea.

Right about this time, they hear a clanking of a German tank that’s rolling in.

german-tank
Appears to be a German Panther but the picture wasn’t that clear.

They wait until night and Saunders sneaks out of the tunnel towards the river. The tank spots Saunders as he tries to peek around the corner. Saunders is now in the difficult spot of deciding whether the German is to come with them and possibly impair their escape or to execute him to prevent him from talking.

Saunders leaves Caje as the last man to leave, which leaves this morally questionable task on him. Doc is reluctant to leave because he senses what is about to happen, but Saunders orders him to come on, which he obeys.

This is probably the most intense part of the film, when Caje is forced to chose whether to shoot the prisoner or not. It’s not an “order”, yet, it’s understood that is what’s going to happen.

We then hear a shot, which Saunders takes as Caje doing the unpleasant business and they get on their way back to their lines.

It’s at the end, when Saunders wants to talk to Caje about what happened and Caje confesses that he couldn’t do it. That they didn’t train him to look into an old man’s eyes while he shot him.

At this point, we get a sense that Saunders would have been okay with what Caje had done, no matter which way it had gone. This is the conundrum of war that this series will explore.

Personally, I feel that the ending was a bit overacted. I did like the choice that was made though. I’m not sure how the American public would have bought a brand new war series, had the leading character(s) committed cold blooded murder on the very first episode. Especially to an amiable and frightened old man who presented no harm to the squad. Perhaps they would’ve had a more of a difficult time warming up to the guys had that happened.

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