Category Archives: Director Series: Robert Altman

MASH (1970)

Among plenty of other achievements, MASH is (allegedly) the first major studio film to make use of the word “fuck”. While not necessarily a proven fact depending on your definition of “major studio”, the employment of the word is the perfect illustration of the important and innovative way MASH used dialogue. A large portion of Robert Altman’s filmography is made up of movies that are filled to the brim with sharp wit and fast banter, and MASH is arguably the finest example.

Donald Sutherland stars as Hawkeye Pierce, surgeon in the U.S. Army during the Korean War, prankster and goofball extraordinaire. Hawkeye, along with cohorts that include characters played by Tom Skerritt and Elliot Gould, is a lover of all things mischievous and manages to cause trouble even when he is blissfully unaware of doing so. This is war, of course, so people lose good friends and die themselves during the endless futilities of battle – in a Catch-22 sort of way, MASH uses its relentless humor as a way to illustrate this futility in highly satirical fashion, with Hawkeye and Co. essentially laughing in the face of meaningless death because what else can you do? In a Catch-22 sort of way, it works like a charm.

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Countdown (1968)

James Caan and Robert Duvall starred in quite a few films together in their early careers. In 1969 Francis Ford Coppola would cast them both in The Rain People, and the director would go on to give them each one of their finest roles as Sonny Corleone and Tom Hagen in The Godfather and The Godfather Part II. The pair would reunite in 1975 for Sam Peckinpah’s The Killer Elite, and the fact of that film failing shouldn’t be faulted to either actor. But their first collaboration was on one of the earliest feature films of the great Robert Altman: the man-on-the-moon drama Countdown.

Altman had years of television and film experience prior to Countdown. His first feature The Delinquents appeared in 1957, around the same time as his James Dean documentary The James Dean Story, both of which led to television gigs on the likes of Bonanza and Alfred Hitchcock Presents. It was Countdown, though, that seemed to herald Altman’s career as a film director – he would basically direct a film every single year for the next two decades, which is pretty unheard of in this day and age.

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