Second Lieutenant Gil Hanley does not get a lot of love. He’s got his fans, but I feel safe in saying that in a lot of circles he’s firmly ensconced beneath both Saunders and, well, everybody else in popularity.
(Except for Doc I. Doc I is a useless sad sack who plummets my mood to clinically hazardous levels of depression whenever I see him. Because of this I not only discount him as a squad member, but also as a person. He is simply an unfortunate blip in the history of Combat!, a warm body using up space and air until the beloved Doc II, played by Conlan Carter, could take his place and give us the squad medic we needed—nay, deserved—after so much suffering.)
There is a perfectly good reason for Hanley’s low rank on the totem pole, and that is the simple fact that he’s never freakin’ there half the time. In the earlier seasons we got a lot of Hanley-centric episodes—whether it was just him, him and the squad, him and Saunders and the squad—but often as the series progressed he’d appear in the beginning, riding in his Jeep of Doom to come give the guys a suicide mission, then vanish for the duration of the plot until it was time for what I call so fondly, in my Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea lingo, “the coffee scene”, where the episode is neatly wrapped up and all the loose ends are cauterized. It ain’t a good look for our lieutenant.
One thing to understand about Hanley is that he’s naturally aloof. I suspect he isn’t best friends with all his men because he’s not best friends with anybody. (Saunders is the exception, because Saunders is, well, Saunders.) He’s not a warm and fuzzy person, and perhaps he feels that he can’t afford close relationships. Maybe his reasoning is that he’s the lieutenant and it might undermine his position; maybe it’s simply that, with an average of 220 Americans dying every day in the war, it’s a waste of time to make friends. I don’t know. The bottom line here is that he’s a commander, not a confidant. He’s calling the shots and is always on top of things—but not in the way that Saunders is. Hanley understands his orders, but Saunders understands his men.
Alas, this is not about Saunders, though the two characters are intertwined enough you can’t mention one without the other. Today, however, we will be counting down five of my favorite Combat! episodes that feature Rick Jason.
To clarify, these episodes don’t have to be Hanley solo missions. My only requirement is that they actually have Hanley in them for more than five minutes before he drives off into the sunset in his Jeep of Doom and leaves Saunders to clean up the entire German offense singlehandedly.
ACHTUNG: Depending on how you define the term “spoiler”, there are probably a few in here, but nothing too terrible. I don’t tell you who shot J.R. or anything.
5: Weep No More, Season 2, Episode 27
The gist: while on patrol, Hanley, Kirby, and Caje run across a farmhouse inhabited only by a terrified young woman who has been rendered totally mute by some unknown trauma. They take her to an Allied hospital, but she escapes and runs back home. Hanley goes after her, only to get trapped there with her when a squad of Germans appears and sets up shop.
If nothing else, it’s a good showcasing of Hanley’s gentler side. By the awkward, delicate way he handles poor shellshocked Annette, it’s clear he’s concerned for and even attached to her. The sweet, quiet goodbye he bids her, and the way she watches him go, shows that she’s aware enough to know it. The episode itself isn’t terribly stellar, and rightly gets some flak for all the inconclusive loose ends: what exactly happened to Annette to leave her mute? Does she ever learn to talk again? How did the German guys fare after Hanley stole their vehicle? Since our lieutenant was gone forever and a day going after Annette, why didn’t Caje and Kirby eventually go looking for him to make sure he wasn’t kidnapped by Chinese pirates? Some of these can be classified as either shoddy writing or simple realism. Sometimes you just don’t know. Sometimes the writer just doesn’t care. Still, it gets bonus points for the classic Kirbyism early on in the episode.
Hanley: “If the Krauts start moving in, you know what to do.”
Kirby: “Yessir. Panic!”
(Cue classic Exasperated Hanley Look.)
4: Beneath the Ashes, Season 3, Episode 32
The gist: Steve Kovac’s wife is dying in the hospital. Unfortunately, the letter revealing this arrives when he’s out on patrol and Hanley is the one to receive the news. The lieutenant decides not to recall Kovac until the message can be confirmed, but by then it’s too late: not long after being told, word comes that Kovac’s wife has died as he’s preparing to go home. His leave is cancelled. His ire is raised. He decides to blame Hanley.
This one is a good example of Hanley making a very tough decision that ends up with him being hated for it. He chooses not to tell Kovac until he can make sure the news is true, so Kovac won’t be worried and will be able to focus on not getting killed. In hindsight, it wasn’t the kindest thing to do, but it was the most practical. Kovac needed to keep his head in the game, or he could have gotten himself and the squad shot. Hanley regrets not telling him, second-guessing his own decision even after he gets some tough love from Captain Jampel. He declines Saunders’ suggestion to transfer Kovac from under his command for someone else to deal with. It’s his problem, and he’s going to see it through.
This one focuses a lot on Kovac’s development, from hating Hanley to saving him, and Saunders’ assistance in that development by way of insulting the very fiber of Kovac’s being, but my favorite 2nd lieutenant gets enough time in the spotlight for this episode to earn a place on my list.
Bonus: Noam Pitlik, the undercover Nazi in the Hogan’s Heroes pilot, makes his second Combat! appearance as Mac, Hanley’s radioman.
3: Any Second Now, Season 1, Episode 4
The gist: Hanley and Saunders go into Lore for a quiet evening, but a German air raid foils their plans. A timebomb lands in a demolished church and may detonate at any moment, but the only man capable of defusing it is Lieutenant Woodman, a high-strung Brit with a chip on his shoulder. Matters are complicated when he discovers that Hanley’s caught under the debris of the church ceiling. He can’t be moved without disturbing the bomb, and the bomb can’t be set off without killing him, so Antsy Brit Man has to take Door Number 3: defuse it without blowing it up and taking himself and Hanley with it.
This is one of Combat!’s immortal “beamer” episodes, wherein a character is mashed into powder by a falling object, be it a pipe, a tree branch, the Leaning Tower of Pisa, or overly large Jenga blocks. Hanley, the victim of choice, is certainly in a pickle, but Woodman is just as bad off with his nerves and shellshock. He’s the only one left alive of his original group, and he’s carried that with him quite a ways. You can see that in the way his hand trembles as he readies Hanley’s morphine, and Hanley can see it too. He smashes the morphine syrette and insults Woodman right down to his ancestor’s ancestors, which is what anyone would do. As it turns out, his “I’ll just be nasty to you until you straighten up and fly right” attitude is exactly the kind of tough love Mr. Twitchy Bomb Disposal Man needs. We get one of my absolute favorite deliveries of one of my absolute favorite lines when Woodman is complaining about all the things he can’t do, and Hanley squints up at him through the flashlight beam and inquires icily,
“Just what can you do, Lieutenant?”
As an aside, I like calm Major Thompson and the Frenchman with his cat. The setting is excellent and very Altman: a bombed-out church, heavy with shadows and the dread of death. Hanley’s pretty excellent, too, snapping Woodman back to reality with a dose of harsh truth and then keeping him there with steady conversation, even though he himself is scared stiff. Good stuff.
Bonus: Saunders is about as neat and proper as we ever see him, with short hair and canvas gaiters. Littlejohn gets a role as a GI who neither knows nor acknowledges the people who will be his future superiors.
2: Cry In the Ruins, Season 3, Episode 27
The gist: in a town torn apart by artillery, a young French woman begs for help to save her baby, trapped in the cellar of a collapsed building. After she, in desperation, inserts herself into the midst of a firefight between Hanley’s patrol and a squad of Germans, the two factions strike up an uneasy truce to rescue her child, only to discover that all is not as it appears. *dramatic chord*
Vic Morrow directs, and whenever he directs and Rick Jason acts, good things happen. Hanley and his German counterpart Markes (who technically outranks him) are superb in this one. They’re both incredibly cynical, suspicious fellows, but once they get the dirty details sorted out, they try their best to get along for the distraught woman’s sake. Hanley gets to deal out both his trademark hard logic and frigid stare, and they both actually work. The rough-and-tumble Germans are refreshingly human this episode—with all the flaws that brings—and they don’t even randomly die at the end, either, which is uncommon for Combat! but a pleasant, poignant addition to the plot. And the ending. . .well, dang. That ending.
Bonus: the trope of “endangered child unites opposing forces and heartstrings are yanked out of chests” is used again in Rat Patrol’s The Truce at Aburah Raid. Edward J. Lakso, who co-wrote the teleplay for this episode, also had a hand in that one. A coincidence? I think not.
1: Hills Are For Heroes, Season 4, Episodes 25-26
The gist: Allied Command is lusting after a road that’s snugged between two hills. Unfortunately, there’s a German bunker on each of those hills, and without artillery support it’s impossible to crack them open. Hanley’s ordered to try, though, over and over again. With every failed attempt, body counts rise and morale lowers.
I’ve said it once and I’ll say it again: when Morrow directs and Jason acts, good things happen. Hills Are For Heroes is about a lot of things—the futility of war, the horror and the waste of it, the massive struggle for such a tiny, temporary victory that in the end means nothing. It’s also about breaking points. Kirby having a yelling fit, even at his commanding officer, is not entirely unexpected. This is Kirby, after all. The man built his reputation up from Season One as a whining, skirt-chasing goldbrick who could hold grudges better than a wet cat. He’s much improved, of course, but he’s still a short-tempered firecracker, and he’s not shy about saying the things he thinks should be said. But this two-parter gives us something different. It shows that everyone—even Hanley, always so distant and in charge—has his limits.
This is some of Rick Jason’s best acting, IMO. You feel that hopelessness and misery crawl out of the screen like Samara in The Ring, only it doesn’t kill you, it just makes you want to cry as much as Hanley does. Luckily for him, Hanley’s got Saunders to smack him into shape, and all you’ve got is that bowl of potato chips you’ve been clutching to your chest for the past two hours whilst going on a Combat! binge because you’re lonely and have no friends to hang out with, and even if you did they couldn’t ever be better than Sarge and the boys’ adventures through the German-populated wilderness of France.
Bonus episode: Command
Hanley gets all of five minutes in this one, but Joseph Campanella’s character, replacing him for the plot’s duration, makes you realize that dang, maybe there are worse lieutenants to have. That is all.
Well, let me know what you think. Does Hanley come across to you in these episodes like he does to me? Am I struggling to justify the behavior of an impersonal grouch, or does everyone’s favorite 2nd lieutenant really have some greater depths under all that distant, vaguely exasperated exterior?