The following is commentary on Episode No. 24 ("Hazard") from members of AFAMILYATWAR-LIST. If you wish to add your thoughts to what is being said on this page, become a part of our discussion group by clicking the "Join" button.
Essentially, this episode is a psychological study of the title character, Pioneer Sergeant Jack Hazard. We sense at once his paralysing fear of land mines and witness the braggadocio he exhibits to disguise it. Only later do we discover the underlying cause of his dread. As a Regimental Sergeant-Major, his father was killed by such an explosive when a recruit panicked during a training exercise. Fancying himself something of a ladies' man, Hazard tells Philip Ashton that he particularly fears a blast that strikes his "parts," confessing that his only real talent is "to show the Judys a good time." The climactic moment occurs when Hazard is stranded atop a German half-track that is surrounded by mines, and he must overcome his terror long enough to retrace his footsteps back to safety.
I suspect that some people may not be very fond of the strictly "military" episodes in the series, but I find them to be fascinating. The officers and enlisted men who are depicted on screen seem quite true to life, at least judging from the Army personnel whom I encountered during my own years of service (1970-1972, the very years of production for "A Family at War"). Obviously, great care has been taken in maintaining authenticity in terms of uniforms, period equipment, military slang, and primitive living conditions. I notice that the closing credits for "Hazard" acknowledge, "This programme was made with the co-operation of the Army." Such careful attention to detail certainly does contribute to the splendid realism that stands as one of the programme's hallmarks.
Some other random comments about "Hazard"...
On two separate occasions, Jack Hazard sings or whistles "Lili Marlene," a song which was popular among Axis and Allied troops alike. In Britain, 13-year-old Anne Shelton scored a major success with her recording of "Lili Marlene" (with an English lyric written by Tommie O'Connor), as did actress Marlene Dietrich in the United States (sung in the original German).
It is a fine piece of acting by Maurice Roëves when we can see the bravado of his character actually draining from his face as he reads aloud the prefatory passage in the anti-personnel mine manual.
Later, Philip rightly accuses Hazard of being a "big show," needing an audience, and the pair become alienated. Their reconciliation comes after Philip talks him through his safe return across the mine field. It should not be overlooked that Sergeant Ashton was attentive to the instructors at mine school, and this probably saved his life, as well as those of Jack Hazard and Lieutenant Perkins.
Hazard's contempt for the German land mine ("It kills you, but you can't hurt it") borders on the irrational, and he seems to assign it a personality of its own. We witness his unstable mentality when he frantically fires his automatic weapon into the offending stretch of ground.
The "No Man's Land" scenes are effectively photographed, simulating the Western Desert of Africa. Also evocative is director Bob Hird's use of sound effects to underscore the setting's stark desolation: wind whipping over the flat terrain.
Downward camera angles create suspenseful framing when the men's boots step across the sand dunes, and a German SMIZ-35's three-pronged igniter can be detected mere inches away from instant doom.
This is the third time I have watched through the three "A Family At War" series and each time an episode such as "Hazard" comes along I tend to brush over it as it only involves one member of the Ashton family (Philip, my namesake)and none of the others. As a result I find these kind of episodes are very underrated and also bears witness to the terrific scope of the series as a whole that even though it concentrates on the lives of civilians during the war it also gives a detailed account of the lives of men and women in each of the armed services (David in the RAF, John Porter and Philip the army along with Robert and Tony Briggs in the navy).
Keith Drinkel is obviously excellent in this episode and I always enjoy watching him as Philip from the first. The episode itself is also done extremely well showing the feelings of fear mixed in with the false arrogance of Sergeant Hazard (terrifically played by Maurice Roëves) which is found out by Philip. Also well done for the actors in desert gear filming in the usually slightly brisk seaside sands of the U.K.
I am wondering if there was any particular reason for the episode, "Hazard" to be sandwiched between "Lend Your Loving Arms" and "Giving and Taking." Bearing in mind that Robert is the first member of the Ashton family to have been killed in action, I would have thought that it would have been more appropriate for "Giving and Taking" to have followed directly on. It just feels a bit dissonant for me. The audience at the time must have been on tenterhooks to see how the family coped with Robert's death, but needed to wait two weeks to find out.
There really was not much chronological choice as to where to place “Hazard” in the schedule. Due to its depiction of No Man’s Land in the western desert, “Hazard” had to be set in March of 1942, roughly the same time period as “Giving and Taking.” Perhaps “Hazard” was inserted to indicate the passage of time before “Giving and Taking” was aired, thereby granting the Ashtons some healing prior to allowing us to see how they were coping with the loss of Robert. Of course, “Hazard” also served to keep the storyline of Philip going. The middle son had not been seen by viewers for eight weeks, since way back in “A Lesson in War.”
What makes a miltary episode dramatically effective ? In my opinion it is the degree of excitement based upon the essential questions: Will anybody be hurt or even die? Who will it be? And in what way? Especially the first time you watch a military episode you can't help asking yourself questions like that - consciously or not.
Therefore my favourite military episode is "Hazard" (24) in which we follow Philip and his mate, Hazard, in the Desert War. The third leading role is played by all the land mines in the episode: Mines appear continuously in the talk between Philip and Hazard, they are an important part of Hazard's past and therefore a crucial cause of his present fear, and they occur as very concrete objects hidden in the sands - especially in the peak of the episode in which Hazard is caught in a German tank surrounded of mines.
I like the way the excitement gradually grows the more we are forced to focus on mines. And we wonder: Will Philip and Hazard be the victims of a mine? In "A Lesson of War" (16) Philip's mate, Stashek, actually is killed, so why not Hazard (or please, please not Philip!)? But they both survive - Hazard with support from Philip, whom we can only admire for his coolness in the dangerous situation.