DVD Review: Baa Baa Black Sheep - Volume 1
by Rachel Jaffe
Published: June 13, 2005
For the past several years, America has been gripped by a fascination with "The Greatest Generation," the generation that fought World War II. From Tom Brokaw's 1998 book of the same name, to the success of "Saving Private Ryan", to the new memorial in Washington, DC, we've been fascinated at looking back at that last best war.
So perhaps it's not surprising that Universal Studios has issued a DVD set of the series "Baa Baa Black Sheep," set in the Pacific Theater of World War II. Originally premiering in 1976, "Baa Baa Black Sheep" satisfies nostalgia for both the World War II era and for '70s television.
"Black Sheep" is loosely based -- very loosely based -- on the real-life Marine Corps Major and Congressional Medal of Honor winner Gregory Boyington and his misfit band of pilots known as the Black Sheep Squadron. I haven't read Major Boyington's book, but I suspect that the plotlines on the DVD set, featuring such '70s staples as the stranded Navy sailor behind enemy lines who rallies with encouragement to make a stand, or the "Manchurian Candidate"-style brainwashed Naval flyer, don't make an appearance.
The emphasis of the series is not historical education, but light-hearted escapist entertainment, and "Black Sheep" provides that in spades. There's a high level of testosterone, and the majority of the episodes have at least one episode of fisticuffs. In the pilot, there are three, including one started when Boyington takes a swing at a pilot who is afraid that his number will be up on the next mission. During their fight, Boyington asks, "Do you still see the light?" The pilot responds, "No. If I don't die in the next ten minutes, I feel like I'm going to live forever." Take that, Dr. Phil!
And somehow, this testosterone-laden melange works. Robert Conrad plays the roguish Boyington (also known as "Pappy," due to being a decade older than the rest of his pilots) with charm galore. It's impossible not to respond to that smile. Of course, he needs an adversary, ably provided by Dana Elcar (better known for his role in "MacGyver," and sadly recently deceased) as Colonel Laird. The squadron itself contains several actors who would go on to make bigger splashes in other roles, such as Robert Ginty ("The Paper Chase"), John Laroquette ("Night Court"), and Larry Manetti ("Magnum PI"). While most of the pilots are fairly interchangeable (with the exception of the bookish Casey and the hapless Wiley), over the course of the episodes I developed an appreciation for James Whitmore Jr.'s dour Gutterman. There's a nice sense of camaraderie that comes across in every episode.
And sometimes an episode would rise above my modest expectations. I found "Up for Grabs," in which the squadron is taken hostage by a Japanese troop, to be taut and exciting, and I admired the long stretches without dialogue. But my favorite episode was "Prisoners of War", where the Squadron interacts with a downed Japanese pilot. Clyde Kusatsu did a wonderful job showing the layers of the pilot who enjoyed interacting with the Americans around him, even accepted "with pleasure" honorary Black Sheep status, but still felt a duty to the land of his fathers.
Technically, the DVD looks good. The series itself incorporates archival footage, which is of course of a very grainy quality, and it is a little disconcerting to go from one type of video to another. I was impressed in several episodes by a nice use of black in the original -- check out a conversation between Boyington and the brainwashed sailor in "Presumed Dead," or the shadows in the scenes in the Japanese soldier's cell in "Prisoners of War," which have a lovely, theatrical use of black background and white lighting.
The packaging is quite nice. Each of the discs comes in a plastic holder which has the episode titles and summaries on the back, and both are contained in a cardboard box. The discs themselves are double-sided, which is my only quibble. As someone who sometimes leaves discs in the open, I like being able to flip them safely on their back.
The only bonus feature is a set of interviews with the original Boyington from the NBC archives. One is a September 21, 1976 Today Show interview, with Robert Conrad, when the "Black Sheep" first aired. The other is from April 16, 1959, after Boyington's book came out. It's interesting to see the original Boyington, but they are not particularly illuminating. (It is interesting, though, in the Today Show interview to see how grainy the clip they use from the show is. It gives you an appreciation of how much sharper the episodes are in DVD.)
This DVD set is billed as "Volume 1," and contains only the first half of the first season. Based on this DVD set, I'm looking forward to Volume 2.
Overall Rating: B
|Baa Baa Black Sheep Volume 1
Flying Misfits (pilot)
Best Three Out of Five
Prisoners of War
The Meatball Circus
Up for Grabs
Anyone for Suicide?
New Georgia on My Mind
The Cat's Whiskers
Bonus Footage: NBC News Archive Interviews with Major Gregory Boyington