50 years ago, 1966, was a good year for television.
We’ve already had numerous documentaries on Star Trek which led to movies, series, spin-offs. Mission Impossible (hello, Tom Cruise!) also premiered which has also had an afterlife, The Monkees made young fans (me) swoon and The Prisoner debuted as an intriguing puzzle box of reality and security. People talk about it even now.
And then there was The Rat Patrol first broadcast September 12, 1966. It was based (sort of) on the real life exploits of the British Long-Range Desert Patrols during the North African campaign of World War II. it starred Jeeps!, war, tanks, and five very handsome men, only four of them on the Allied side – the late Christopher George (Sam Troy),
Gary Raymond (Jack Moffitt of the British Army), Justin Tarr (Tully Pettigrew) and Lawrence Casey (Mark Hitchcock) on the Allied side.
Hans Gudegast played Captain Dietrich of the German Army. He later changed his name to Eric Braeden, of The Young and the Restless.
Rat Patrol had all the ingredients to make it a hit. First filmed in Spain, then in Los Angeles, it was adventure-laden. It ended its run in 1968. (UK viewers back in the day, and likely now, protested the twisting of their real wartime history for television, a complaint heard even today in Hollywood.)
But there were dangerous accidents. Actors were switched in and out. Chris George had a terrible accident at one point.
After The Rat Patrol‘s run ended, the show vanished into late night television. Cable TV would run it occasionally. Fans in the know dug out their VCRs and made tapes, knowing that the show had probably been hacked apart for more advertising. Then came 2010 and the DVDs. Finally it was possible to see the complete shows.
What did fans find out about it? It had bang-bang action. It was fun to enjoy. Despite being historically-inaccurate, you could get a feeling for a little-known (in the U.S.) period of World War II.
The characters weren’t one-dimensional. Dietrich was a Captain in Rommel’s Afrika Corp and considerably smarter than almost every other character in the show. He just had rotten luck every time he ran up against the Rat Patrol. His injuries included getting shot at, hit in the head, and dragged in the street. Then again, many members of the Rat Patrol took damage as well. (I suspect they would have been invalided out in one week if the show had reflected reality.)
It wasn’t as simplistic as it could have been. There were men of virtue, honesty and bravery on all sides. (Also handsome actors.) The Englishman, Moffitt, contrasted with the Americans. The German, Dietrich, is a contrast with all of them. The Allies always win, though sometimes it was a Pyrrhic victory. The shows often showed deception and espionage. They often asked the question “Who can you trust?” and sometimes it was the enemy.
The actors moved on to other projects. Christopher George died in 1983 of a heart attack. Justin Tarr was reported dead in a surfing accident in 2012. Lawrence Casey lives in the New York area. Gary Raymond continued acting in the UK, and in 2001, came to the US for a small Rat Patrol convention where I had the honor of meeting him.
So, 50 years later, thank you creators, actors and fans of The Rat Patrol. It’s still a hell of a fun show.
As they would say, before roaring off in a shower of sand – “Let’s shake it!”