I have very strict criteria for liking a show, and I have no idea what they are.
Sometimes it just clicks instantly—like Rat Patrol, or Combat!, or Laramie. Sometimes I have to warm up to it, like Mission: Impossible, or Rawhide. When I first saw the latter I was suspicious as I wasn’t sure I liked Clint Eastwood from my prior experience with him (five minutes of The Beguiled, whichever five they happen to be, is enough to make me vomit any day of the week) but after watching an episode I was shamelessly intrigued. Forget Rowdy Yates—who was that man with the power to order him around and make him obey? Thus began my love affair with one of the best Western shows ever made, and the main character that made it so famous. But that’s another story for another time that will probably never be told, so let’s move on.
My first encounter with Rat Patrol wasn’t really an encounter at all. I was curled up on the couch, channel-flipping, at 2 in the morning when all sane people are in bed. As there is rarely anything worth watching at 2 in the morning, I was mostly amusing myself by reading the channel schedules and thinking up new and even better excuses to not to go bed with each minute that passed. On THIS TV the channel guide was full of typical bad 80s cop shows and other subpar genres that I’d all seen mention of before and knew I wouldn’t be interested in. But taking up the 5:00 AM slot was a name I had never seen before in all of my 15 years: Rat Patrol.
Oh ho, what’s this then? I thought to myself in a mediocre British accent. The description sounded suspiciously WWII-themed (it was The Moment of Truce Raid, though I didn’t know it at the time), but I wasn’t about to stay up until 5 to see something that was only 30 minutes so I filed it away to look up the next day on YouTube. I wasn’t sure what I expected—as the description mentioned some guy named “Dietrich” I was waiting for some stereotypical Aryan dude with dyed-blond hair and a Luger in each hand, shouting incoherencies about the supremacy of the German Übermensch and the inevitability of Nazi world domination—but I didn’t get it.
Instead of a Combat!-like story of Americans striving against the evil Germans to fulfill their mission and defend democracy, I got one of my favorite tropes—man vs. nature, two mortal enemies forced by their circumstances to unite and depend on each other to survive—in The Chain of Death Raid.
It helped that these two mortal enemies were good-looking. It also helped that the German guy, continuing the very un-Combat!-like trend, didn’t die at the end but lived through the thorough plot-beating to spar another day with the short American guy whose name I couldn’t remember. What more could I ask for?
Handsome actors, a clichéd plot, a WWII setting and historical inaccuracies galore—who wouldn’t be hooked after 30 solid minutes of that? But I digress. Without further ado, let’s dive in to the characters, the premise, and why you should love this show too.
Sergeant Sam Troy: The Roadrunner
This man is roughly four feet high but his towering intellect makes up for it. Known for his megawatt smile and goofy Aussie slouch hat, to describe this flamboyant American extraordinaire as unconventional would be an understatement. Troy is arguably the main star despite enjoying a pretty even rotation into the limelight with his fellow characters. He’s tough, no-nonsense, and never loses because he is physically incapable of accepting defeat. These are only a few of his best qualities, another one being the intense rivalry he shares with this man:
Hauptmann Hans Dietrich: The Coyote
AKA “Wile E.”, his ineptitude is legendary. Behind that tall tanned exterior lies a decent guy who’s a chronic failure with a phobia of short Greek people; his coveted Oh No Not Again looks are the norm at the end of most episodes. The only trait he possesses more prominent than his propensity to lose is his unwillingness to accept that he is utterly outclassed by the mad unpredictability of his mad, unpredictable opponent. Has a deeply engrained fear of fuzzy pink tennis balls, for which he can’t be blamed, as the only ones he’s ever been around had a tendency to explode. Packed in impenetrable plot armor and leader of a bunch of deaf and blind, idiot DAK soldiers, he has to content himself with watching his men die every episode. As for the immortal Troy, he runs around with these charming, and otherwise invincible, people:
Sergeant Jack Moffitt: The Skeptic Brit
The skinny Anglo Everest of the bunch, he is rarely (never) seen without beret, ascot, and doubtfully wry expression. He knows more about the desert than anyone, ever; gets lost quite often. Duty-minded and agonizingly dry, he tends to view life through bloodthirsty glasses. To him, war is war is war, and he doesn’t like the fact that Troy and Dietrich keep not killing each other when the opportunity arises. It does no good to mention this, however, so he confines most of his disapproval to silent facial acrobatics.
Private Tully Pettigrew: The Silent Driver
This fine specimen of a man’s man hails from Somewhere-Or-Other, Kentucky, and has about 60 lines in the entire two seasons of the show. To compensate for this he spends his days gnawing constantly on a matchstick from an endless supply in his shirt pocket. As Moffitt’s driver, his unflappable silence pairs well with the judgmental half-squints and smirks of his passenger. Sees all, says nothing. A rare smile can be expected when blowing people up with bazookas or Tommy guns. Once he even held a conversation that lasted more than two lines.
Private Mark T. “Hitch” Hitchcock: The Smart-Aleck Driver
Like William G. Kirby from Combat!, this fresh-faced young fellow is the only one of his cohorts to be blessed with a middle initial, but unlike Kirby, he doesn’t flaunt it at every turn. He lurks behind the steering wheel of his jeep in glasses and a red Free French kepi, hauling Troy around the desert with only his wisecracks and bubblegum to sustain him. With his infectious smirk and fluffy blond hair, he exudes college kid vibes and chases anything that isn’t wearing pants; has a soft spot for idiot French women, i.e. Claudine Longet, who are incapable of pronouncing the letter “R”.
The show’s premise has these five he-men running around the desert during the North African campaign of WWII, blowing up crap and getting blown up with pure abandon. The concept of the Rats, four guys in two jeeps armed with a .50 cal Browning each, is loosely based on the SAS, the Desert Rats of WWII, and the movie The Desert Rats itself. With three Americans and one Englishman for show, it hardly reflected historical accuracy or the Brit-heavy demographic of the time—but then again, with two machine guns on jeeps repeatedly taking out the finest equipment the Wehrmacht has to offer, accuracy wasn’t high on their list of priorities. The flaw-riddled concept annoyed the British so much that when Rat Patrol first showed across the pond the BBC pulled it, and Australia relegated it to the lonely time slot of Saturday afternoon when nobody was around to watch it. But that didn’t stop it from becoming a big hit with kids who didn’t know their history, and the simple black-hats-vs-white-hats formula appealed to younger viewers. It also appealed to 15-year-old girls channel-flipping at 2 AM, but we’ve already covered that.
Rat Patrol isn’t much for huge milestones, but it’s the first WWII show to air in color, which treats us to sweeping vistas of vibrant sky against hot golden sand, Troy’s blue eyes, and Hitch’s red kepi. Dietrich sports some color, too, with red piping on his uniform that would indicate he’s an artillery officer, but he never has any artillery. Either the Rats blew it all up or the network just thought it looked pretty having red instead of the white of motorized infantry or golden-yellow of armored cavalry. We may never know.
Something else this modest little program managed to do was keep a solid rating during the decline of military shows, like Combat!, brought about by discontent with the Vietnam War. And heck, it’s got a peppy theme song by the inimitable Dominic Frontiere. (Alex North’s original tune was dumped and ended up being the theme to the 1968 movie The Devil’s Brigade. It’s a good theme and I like it, but with no kilt-wearing Scotsmen around in Rat Patrol it made no sense to have Scotland the Brave woven into the music so intricately.)
What more do I need to say? Action, soldiers, vague war-related plots, and the bad guy always loses and gives the best annoyed looks while doing it. It’s all you could want in a goofy live-action cartoon, and more besides. Still doubt me? I don’t blame you. But just go try out the pilot, and you’ll see what I mean. (And while you’re at it, see which Rat Patrol character you turn out to be with this stupid quiz it definitely didn’t take me only ten minutes to make.)