Although Robert Altman is now widely regarded as one of the key figures of New Hollywood cinema, he was also a significant director of mainstream US television in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Altman has a reputation as an iconoclastic and combative figure who routinely fell foul of producers and studio executives, but this legend sits a little uncomfortably alongside his consistently productive career and demonstrably efficient filmmaking practice. He made well over 100 episodes of series television for the networks in the period between 1957 and 1963, including a stint as a contracted director at Warner Bros. and work on multiple episodes of such iconic shows as Bonanza, Bus Stop and Combat!
Altman’s most substantial and fondly remembered contribution to series television, before his return to the medium in the 1980s and the production of the groundbreaking Tanner ’88 for HBO, was the World War II series Combat! This show followed a “revolving” unit of soldiers from the D-Day landings until the defeat of Germany, and lasted five series and 152 episodes. It also features a number of recurring characters including its two stars, Vic Morrow as Sgt. Saunders and Rick Jason as Lt. Hanley. Altman was integral to the development of this series as a director, producer and writer, and helmed ten episodes out of the first 23 before being relieved of his duties. It is uncertain whether Altman was fired from the series (his self-serving, but undoubtedly partly accurate, version of events) or manufactured circumstances that led to him being asked to move on. Whatever led to his removal, it marked his last sustained contribution to series television. After making a number of episodes for such portmanteau series as Kraft Suspense Theatre and the pilot for the relatively short-lived The Long, Hot Summer (1965), Altman struggled to develop film projects such as Petulia (memorably directed by Richard Lester in 1968) before breaking into features with Countdown in 1968 and fully cementing his credentials with the aesthetically groundbreaking and box-office topping M.A.S.H. in 1970.
“Survival” first screened on ABC on 12 March 1963, and was the last episode of Combat! directed by Altman. It is remarkable for the performance of Morrow as a badly wounded soldier abandoned behind enemy lines who wanders across a blighted landscape in pursuit of his escaping comrades. According to Altman, it was his decision to film this episode, featuring minimal dialogue and generally grim content, while the executive producers of the show were absent that led to his dismissal. The episode itself is not as experimental or even unrelenting as is commonly suggested. It is, rather, a fascinating palimpsest of the show itself and its competing agendas and elements. The two main stars of Combat! are themselves studies in contrast. Rick Jason gives a conventional, appropriate and measured star performance, while Vic Morrow draws upon his training as a Method actor in expressing the more troubling aspects and experiences of combat. The series is equally fascinating for a range of other things including its often-grimy experiential detail and its insistence on untranslated German dialogue. This is even poked fun at in moments of this episode such as the early exchange between a captured US soldier and a plainly incompetent German-speaking infantryman who fails to convince the audience, as well as his fellow actors, that he doesn’t understand English. It is this combination of realism and artifice, the generic and the idiosyncratic, the physicality of the environment and the cloistered safety of the MGM backlot that provide the productive tension on which Combat! thrives. The limited budget of the series (around $115000 per episode) and the very tight shooting schedule (six days for most episodes) are also significant contributing factors in this regard.
This episode is most memorable for its punchy, matter-of-fact brutality and the fever-dream of Morrow’s performance, but this is counterweighted by the more generic and predictable actions of the other characters and their journey back towards the Allied lines. Although Morrow’s performance does attempt to burrow into the psychology of a character traumatised by combat and the burning of his hands, it is more expressionist than realist in style. At various points, Saunders evokes the figure of Frankenstein’s monster as he staggers forward with smoldering hands or wanders about impervious to the world around him. The episode contains a significant amount of handheld camerawork – part of the show’s attempt to approximate the immediacy of World War II combat footage, a form still familiar to viewers at the time – but is most memorable for those moments that either show Saunders wandering in front of a shell blast or that close in on his delirious attempts to soothe his hands by smothering them in mud or immersing them in water. Altman’s key focus is plainly evident across the episode; while the activities of the rest of the unit are rendered in conventional style, the scenes with Saunders feature an aggressive array of subjective techniques and expressive camerawork and sound design (using a different composer, George Bassman, than the rest of the series). But what is equally revealing are the ways in which these short flourishes, and even innovations, are contained within a formally and narratologically familiar framework of action and genre. In these more adventurous but still highly conventional episodes of series television, we get a glimpse of how Altman worked and ‘survived’ both within and outside of the mainstream.
My description of Morrow’s performance may make it sound more one-dimensional than it actually is. The title, “Survival”, highlights the largely singular nature of the plot (a key factor in the studio’s reputed resistance to its production) but Saunders’ fevered response to his trauma does develop across the episode. He gradually shifts from the mute, pained and semi-conscious figure we travel alongside during the first half of the episode to a more psychologically damaged and delusional individual. The final scenes of the episode show him stumbling across the body of a German officer and mistaking it for that of his brother killed in a childhood accident (or so we assume). His submerged guilt over this trauma comes to the surface as he carries the body back to the advancing Allied lines. The final moments, as he is quickly moved to the side of the road for treatment as the tanks rumble on, sit in contrast to the triumphant return of his comrades only moments before. This final scene also introduces an actor – making his first performance on film or television – who will reappear across Altman’s work from Countdown to the lead role in Tanner on Tanner (2004): Michael Murphy. Such moments provide an illustration of the ways in which we can read a work like “Survival” in relation to the broader contours of Altman’s career and in terms of his complex relationship to the mainstream of Hollywood film and television production.
Combat! – “Survival” (1963 USA 46 mins)
Prod Co: Selmur Productions/ABC Television Network Prod, Dir: Robert Altman Scr: John D. F. Black Phot: Robert B. Hauser Ed: Jack W. Holmes Art Dir: George W. Davis, Phil Barber Mus: George Bassman
Cast: Vic Morrow, Rick Jason, Pierre Jalbert, Dick Peabody, Tom Lowell, Joby Baker