A Robert Altman Veterans' Day


Robert Altman's first movies were the industrial shorts he made for the Calvin Company in Kansas City in the 1950s. It was an unpretentious film school for the man who would become one of America's most revered directors in the 1970s: a way to learn the nuts and bolts of quick and effective low-budget filmmaking, and also an opportunity to experiment in the margins, nurturing Altman's art as well as his craft. "All of this, it must be emphasized, was in the service of some of the most deadly, routinized film subjects imaginable," biographer Patrick McGilligan wrote in Robert Altman: Jumping Off the Cliff. "Yet there were touches. This is what distinguished Altman at Calvin—his touches, his moments of lightness, his imaginative digressions."

And that's how you got The Magic Bond, a 1955 documentary sponsored by the Veterans of Foreign Wars. The bulk of the film is bland stuff steeped in the language of countersubversion; the narrator pivots from describing the wartime soldier's "feeling of belonging to a team" to stressing the need to maintain that unity when battling domestic foes, which are "doubly dangerous because they are subtle, intangible, and hard to identify." The enemy at home turns out to be the quadruple scourge of juvenile delinquency, neglect of veterans, the "smugness which lets our national defenses dwindle away," and "apathy toward our political problems, leaving the door open for the grafter, the subversive, the traitor, the tool of pressure groups, the crook, the incompetent." And the patriotic entity taking them on is, of course, the VFW. The details of its efforts then follow, starting with a National Marble Tournament that undermines delinquency by giving kids something more wholesome to do.

But before the official script starts, there is something else: five minutes of a gritty war sequence that feels like it was dropped in from another movie. In theory it's there to illustrate the aforementioned "feeling of belonging to a team," but the tone and style are at odds with everything else in the picture. In terms of Altman's career, you can see it as a dry run for Combat!, the TV series he helped create in 1962, and you might even see some early traces of Altman's movie M*A*S*H. If it's a little rough around the edges, well, it is journeyman work. But it's good journeyman work. Altman was a veteran of the Second World War, and it's likely that many of the actors were vets as well, so their semi-improvised scene has an air of truth to it. And since it's November 11, I'll post it here today.

Watch the first 14 minutes of the picture here…

…and the rest here: