The last time I participated in this annual blogathon (hosted by A Shroud of Thoughts) was back in 2019, when I reviewed an episode of The Fugitive. This year, I’m returning to my roots with a review of a Combat! episode (the very first year of this prestigious blogathon, I also reviewed a Combat! episode).
‘Billy the Kid’ is one of my top ten favorite C! episodes; I’m super excited to share it with all of you. There will be spoilers—if you want to watch this episode spoiler-free, it’s available on YouTube.
And now, on to the episode review!
We start out the episode with a good bit of archival footage. Shelling, explosions, all of that. Actually, this episode probably has the highest concentration of archival footage that I’ve ever seen in a single Combat! episode. Kind of boring, tbh, but the rest of the episode more than makes up for that.
Anyway, we then cut to the squad enjoying a little rest and relaxation—well, maybe not relaxing so much since they seem a bit nervous about all that shelling nearby. But still, it’s a rare moment of downtime for the squad. Nice to see. Honestly, this show could just be scenes like this and I would still watch and rewatch it (as evidenced by my love for the episode ‘Losers Cry Deal’, which is almost nothing but the guys sitting around, talking, etc.). But I digress!
Hanley shows up and announces the Mission of the Day. Saunders and his squad have been assigned to escort an artillery spotter in an attempt to find the Germans’ big artillery gun—the one that’s been making so much noise and causing so much trouble. Hanley also lets them know that the officer who will be leading today’s mission is Lieutenant Benton, the son of the famous, heroic General ‘Bull’ Benton. (According to rumor, General Benton led an attack on a village while standing in his jeep, a .45 blazing in each hand.) The squad perks up a little—maybe this Lieutenant Benton will share his dad’s tenacious spirit and dogged courage.
Then the scene cuts to a shot of Lieutenant Benton (Andrew Prine) travelling toward HQ (or the outpost or whatever it is). The truck (bearing Benton, his sergeant, a couple random GIs, and the artillery spotting equipment) pulls up alongside the squad. Benton steps out of the truck. As he gets out, he accidentally bumps his head against the top of the truck’s doorframe (is that the right word?). I don’t know if that was an intentional choice on the part of the director, or if it really was an accident. But either way, I love that detail. It’s very small, but it speaks to Benton’s inexperience. We learn in a few minutes that he’s never seen combat, that he’s been more or less behind a desk ever since he got into the war. So yeah. I love that little detail.
Sergeant Stoner introduces himself, then Benton: “He’s here to knock out that big German gun.” There’s a bit of a shocked silence before Saunders walks over and leads Benton away to see Hanley. The opening scene ends with Littlejohn grinning and shaking his head. At this point, the squad doesn’t know that Benton has never been in combat before. I just think they’re all a little surprised, simply because Benton is so young. Andrew Prine was 29 when this episode aired, but he honestly looks much younger. (Like, very early twenties, in my opinion.)
With Benton off to speak with Hanley, Sergeant Stoner explains to the squad that Benton hasn’t seen any combat and generally runs Benton down in a pretty disrespectful way (calling him ‘Billy the Kid’, which is where the ep title comes from).
Stoner also asks about Saunders’ date of rank in an attempt to figure out who will be in charge of the mission—him or Saunders—”when the kid fouls up.” Saunders shuts him down brilliantly. “I don’t care what your date of rank is. I still run this squad, Stoner.” (One of Saunders’ many talents is getting guys to shut up when they’re being annoying.) Stoner subsides, obviously embarrassed. It’s a great moment in an episode chock-full of great moments. XD
Hanley calls Saunders back into his office so Benton can brief Saunders before they head out. Benton’s briefing is, well, brief, and it’s obvious that Saunders already knows everything Benton is telling him. But Saunders doesn’t say anything, just listens and agrees with what Benton says. It’s a nice contrast to Stoner’s disrespectful, dismissive attitude a couple minutes ago.
Saunders heads back outside to round up the squad. Benton thanks Hanley for his help. And then comes the moment that makes me love Benton.
Hanley: “By the way, how’s your father [super famous General Benton]?”
Benton: *pauses* *smiles the tiniest bit* “He’s fine.”
Benton, oh-so-casually: “How’s your father?”
Yep, I love him. And I wonder just how many times Benton got asked about his dad before he started throwing out that little comeback.
When Benton leaves Hanley’s office, Saunders points out that they’re bringing along double equipment. Two scopes, two radios, etc. Saunders suggests that they leave some of it behind, since the squad will have to carry everything themselves when they reach the front lines. Benton calmly overrides Saunders’ suggestion—all they equipment will be taken, no matter the extra hassle. It’s important to note that Benton is not nasty or abrasive about this. He simply says what he means, what he wants to happen, and leaves it at that. He doesn’t posture, make demands, or become petulant. He lets his rank and his word speak for themselves.
Hanley walks over to Saunders for a final word before the squad leaves.
“Lieutenant, he hasn’t had five minutes in the field,” says Saunders, referring, of course, to Benton.
“You have,” Hanley says.
(If I haven’t mentioned yet that I love these guys…I LOVE THESE GUYS. I wish that Saunders and Hanley had gotten more scenes together throughout the show. They did in the first season, but then it kind of petered out. And that’s a shame, because the two of them understand each other so well and have such a great friendship. We love to see it.)
The squad sets out with Lieutenant Benton, Stoner, a couple extra GIs, and a whole lot of equipment in tow. They haven’t travelled very far down the road when they’re stopped by a soldier who tells them that there are snipers up ahead. Benton listens to what the soldier, Saunders, and Stoner have to say (basically telling him he shouldn’t go on in the truck and that they can take all the equipment by hand), but all he says is “Thank you, sergeant. Let’s drive on.” Very calmly and coolly. And so they drive on (though not without a look from Stoner).
Of course they do run into some Germans. And of course there’s a firefight, which I won’t detail—except to say that, for someone who hasn’t seen combat before, Benton handles himself well. His rifle even jams for a bit, but he figures it out.
After the fight is over, Benton announces that they’ll now go forward on foot, carrying all the equipment. Once again, Saunders brings up the fact that there’s double equipment—a seemingly unnecessary burden on his men. Benton says “I know, sergeant. Everybody take a load.”
So they do. However, one of the random GIs forgets to bring both radios. When he goes back to the truck to retrieve the radio—surprise! One of the Germans from the firefight faked being dead. The German kills the GI and then Saunders kills the German.
“I hope it’s worth it, lieutenant,” Saunders say to Benton, as they stand around the dead GI.
Benton doesn’t respond as he stares down at the fallen soldier. Is this the first man he’s seen killed in combat? The first person he’s seen dead who was alive just a couple minutes earlier? We don’t know—the script doesn’t tell us. I tend to doubt it because, while there’s definitely something going on behind Benton’s eyes, I don’t think it’s shock at seeing a dead body for the first time. Plus, I don’t know if he’s been that shielded from the realities of war. But whatever the case, it’s a great bit of acting from Andrew Prine.
The squad keeps going until they reach the spot where Benton will do his artillery observer stuff. And he’s pretty competent! Which is nice. I like competent characters. Benton relays a bunch of information to Saunders and Saunders and Stoner send it in to headquarters or the artillery locations or…wherever. I’m kinda vague on the technical aspects of this episode. Guess it’s a good thing I watch this episode for the characters and interpersonal drama instead of ‘How to Be an Artillery Observer 101’. 😉
“He gets on target real fast,” Saunders says to Stoner, speaking about Benton. And of course Stoner has to be a jerk. “He’s only following the data I plotted for him, sergeant. Any corporal that can divide by two can do the same thing.”
Okayyyy, Stoner. Whatever.
Benton finishes registering their position—seems like their mission is complete. But before Stoner hangs up the radio, a new message comes through: the infantry in the area is pulling back, which means that Saunders and the rest will be all alone on the front lines.
They report the news to Benton. He thinks about it for a moment. Then, “This could work for us.”
Saunders explains that, with the infantry gone, the Germans can bring out their big gun and shell Benton, Saunders, and the rest off the ridge. And all Benton says (once again) is “Yes, I know, sergeant” before going back to observing the valley before him.
“Well, what are we going to do?” Stoner asks. You can hear nervousness in his voice.
“Finish the mission,” Benton replies.
Stoner protests. “I was sent on this mission because I have the field experience you haven’t had. I say we go!”
Benton regards him. “You’re out of line, sergeant,” he says. Calmly. Quietly.
Then he walks off.
Stoner and the rest stand there for a moment, and Stoner starts yelling at the squad. “You’re going to stand there and get killed just because you’re too afraid to talk back to Bull Benton’s little boy?” he demands.
“Lieutenant Benton’s in command,” Saunders snaps. And then he, too, walks off to talk to Benton himself.
In the conversation that follows, Benton opens up a little bit. Up to this point, he’s remained remarkably self-possessed. But as he goes into a bit of a monologue, there’s some frustration and bitterness that comes to the surface. We learn that Benton knows exactly what everyone says about him, what everyone thinks of him. Benton has to get that big gun, to prove to everyone that he is capable, that he’s not just ‘Billy the kid’. And, I think, to prove something to himself as well.
But as relatable as his motivations are, Saunders “isn’t concerned with [Benton’s] personal problems”. He’s concerned with the lives of his men.
“So am I, Saunders,” says Benton. “But I’m sticking to my plan.”
Up until this point, Saunders has given Benton a lot of space to do his own thing. But when it comes to the possible demise of everyone in the squad, Saunders can’t keep silent any longer. “You’re asking my men to risk their lives on a plan they know nothing about!”
I love Benton’s reaction to those words. (Or, more specifically, how Andrew Prine portrays his reaction.) It’s all in the eyes. A sudden realization. “Oh. That’s right. I haven’t actually explained my plan to anyone.” It’s like the thought that other people might have questions never occurred to him before, with how wrapped up he was in his own thoughts and worries and plans. “Oh…” he says. “I’ll fix that right now.”
So Benton goes back to the rest of the squad and explains his plan. The reason they drove to the front lines, even with the risk of snipers, was that Benton actually wanted the Germans to know that an artillery observer team was coming up to the front. The reason they hauled an extra set of equipment was so that they could leave one set to make it seem that they’d fled in a panic, while actually staying holed up in a cave nearby. Why? Because, if the Germans think that there are no artillery observers in the area, they might roll their big gun out of hiding—and then Benton can spot it and call in artillery to destroy it.
(Just want to say that whatever Benton lacks in experience, he makes up for with intelligence.)
After Benton explains, enemy shelling starts. Searching fire. “Let’s get out of here,” Benton says. He orders the squad to take one set of equipment to the cave and leave the other set at their primary position.
“We’re going to get clobbered,” Stoner insists. “We’ve gotta go back!”
“We’ll go back when he orders us to,” Saunders says.
But then a couple shells hit really close. Benton gets hit in the face with a bunch of rock dust, debris from an explosion. His eyes fill with blood and will soon be swollen shut, according to Doc, which obviously means that Benton can’t do anymore artillery spotting. (I know I keep bringing up Andrew Prine’s acting, but he really does SUCH a great job after Benton gets hit. Jerky hand movements, keeps instinctively trying to touch his eyes, but then forces himself not to…soooo good. Prine really sells it.)
“Let’s get out of here,” Stoner says. “He’s blind—he can’t finish the mission.”
“Sergeant Saunders,” says Benton.
“I need one man to go back to the cave with me. You tell the rest of the men to go back. I just need someone to spot for me when they bring that gun out.”
Of course Saunders volunteers to stay. And of course the rest of the squad won’t let him go it alone. How will he defend himself when the enemy comes searching the area for any remnants of the squad? I just love how Littlejohn, Kirby, Caje, and Doc all insist on staying behind. My guys. ❤
But you know who doesn’t love it? Stoner. Because…naturally. “What are you?” he asks scornfully. “A bunch of heroes?”
(Yes, Stoner. Yes they are. XD)
“If you don’t like it, Stoner, take off. Nobody’s holding you,” Saunders says.
“Okay. All right.” Stoner moves off. “I’ll tell ’em where to pick up your dog tags.”
“Don’t let those [sergeant’s] stripes get to heavy for you on the way back,” Kirby mutters to Stoner. Stoner stops, looks at him…and then keeps going, away from his lieutenant, the squad, and the mission. Sigh.
This is getting very, very long, so I’ll quickly recap the next several minutes. The rest of the squad + Benton moves to the cave. A German patrol noses around in the search of any remaining observers. Saunders and Benton work together as a team to relay the big gun’s position back to the artillerymen so they can shell the gun into oblivion. It takes a few minutes and a few tries to nail the gun, but at last Saunders and Benton (and the shells) do just that. And Benton’s grin of pure relief is a lovely thing to see.
However, it’s not over yet! A firefight broke out while Saunders and Benton were spotting the gun, and it’s still raging around them. With the Germans’ big gun destroyed, Saunders joins the fray.
And someone else does too—Stoner. A few minutes earlier in the episode, there was a shot of him pausing in his walk back to friendly lines, adjusting his rifle, and then noticing his sergeant’s stripes. Kirby’s words come back to him. (Side-note: I absolutely love that it’s what Kirby says that gets Stoner to change his mind. Kirby has come a long way from his first season days where he would’ve been complaining right alongside Stoner.)
So yeah, Stoner pulls a Han Solo and comes back in the nick of time to help save the day. “What took you so long?” Saunders asks him when the fighting is over. And Stoner just shrugs, a little smile on his face. I’ve spent most of the episode greatly disliking Stoner, but somehow I always really do like him by the end. I’m a little bit amazed how the writers were able to give Stoner such a great, genuinely moving character arc in less than an hour’s run time (along with all the other stuff going on in the episode).
The two sergeants rejoin the rest of the squad. Everyone prepares to head out. Benton starts to stand, struggling a little, and Stoner reaches out and steadies him, helps him to his feet. “Thank you, Doc,” Benton says, unaware in his blindness.
Stoner pauses, like he’s searching for the right words. Then, “It’s me, Lieutenant Benton.”
(I always get a little choked up during this scene. Always.)
“Yes, sir. Let’s go, lieutenant.” It’s the same kind of thing Stoner has said several times in this episode, but this time it’s said differently. Respectfully, even. Benton smiles. And Stoner guides him as they walk back down the hill.
Now that we’ve reached the end of this episode review, I’d like to say a few general (hehe) words about Benton. Benton is a young, inexperienced lieutenant, the sheltered son of a famous general. He could have been weak and cowardly. He could have been demanding and entitled. He could have had a chip on his shoulder, a relentless bad attitude that exploded in bitter outbursts and tirades. He could have been immature and stupid. I’ve seen many, if not all of those ‘qualities’ in other one-episode characters on this show.
But Benton is none of those things. Rather, he is a mature, intelligent, cool-headed young man trying to do the best he can with what little respect and responsibility he is given. He is under a lot of pressure—both external and internal—but he remains polite, (mostly) unruffled, and professional. The same can’t be said for many other characters who are much older and more experienced than him!
And Andrew Prine’s portrayal of Benton? Perfection. Literally. Combat! had some pretty great guest stars—James Coburn, Lee Marvin, Robert Duvall, Charles Bronson, Jeffrey Hunter, Roddy McDowall…and the list could go on! But there have been only two guest stars whose characters I have liked so much that I view them as (almost) on par with The Squad: Rip Torn as Sergeant Avery in ‘A Gift of Hope’—and Andrew Prine as Benton. (They are also the only one-episode C! characters I’ve written fanfiction about, for what that’s worth.)
TL;DR—I love Lieutenant Benton and Andrew Prine, Your Honor.
Wow. That was quite a long blog post. XD Even if you just skimmed through it, thank you for taking the time to check out this episode review! Again, if you want to watch the episode yourself, it’s available on YouTube. (And, of course, I highly recommend it. *wink*)
Have you watched any episodes of this show? I’d love to fangirl over it with you!