April 2, 2013
Mud as a unit of measurement for a war movie’s authenticity: It’s a stand-in for blood, at least in shows made before actual gore became a possibility, and also a signal that the performers and the filmmakers were committed to putting themselves through at least a fraction of the hardships that actual soldiers endured. The Gallant Men, a World War II drama that ran on ABC during the 1962-1963 season, has mud in ample measure.
In particular, there’s a tactile set piece near the beginning of the pilot, where the hero, a somewhat overwhelmed journalist (Robert McQueeney), tromps through a foot of goopy muck to hitch a ride with the truckload of G.I.s that he’ll end up sticking with for the remainder of the series. The boxy compositions in this sequence, probably dictated by the constraints of the location (Los Angeles, remember, is a desert, and another reason that mud measured a film company’s commitment was the tempting expendability of a water truck as a line item on the budget), are defined with an appealing clarity: a tree-lined ridge on the left, a ditch on the right, a hill rising toward the background.
Robert Altman directed this hour, and like most of his early television work, it’s filled with the kind of details that make it stand out from more generic gung-ho action shows. The pilot – which has no on-screen episode title; some sources refer to it as “Battle Zone,” but that was more likely an early title for the series – is a platoon narrative, formulaic in its scenario and characters. But it has an unusually specific chronological-geographical progression, beginning with the soldiers’ amphibious landing at Salerno and then following them toward and through the battle of San Pietro. That particular conflict had already been immortalized in a famous film, John Huston’s startlingly frank documentary The Battle of San Pietro. And since the pilot (more than the subsequent series) shows us the war through the eyes of a hardened war correspondent, The Gallant Men also calls to mind The Story of G. I. Joe, William Wellman’s film about Ernie Pyle (a template for McQueeney’s character, Conley Wright). I’ll bet Altman was aware of those imposing cinematic touchstones, both of which privilege the dogface’s point of view over the rear echelon officer’s. (There are, in other words, no scenes of generals pushing toy tanks around on maps.) If the Gallant Men pilot never reaches the heights of its big-screen antecedents, it’s still a respectable entry in the genre, more interested in ideas and ambiguities than violence and spectacle.
There are several subplots, but the main narrative line in Halsted Welles’s script (adapted from a magazine story by James Merriam Moore) concerns Jake Miller, a member of the platoon with a secret. Conley recognizes Miller (William Windom) and gradually figures out that he’s actually an officer, a disgraced major who turned tail under pressure and is now hiding out under a dead enlisted man’s name. Miller beseeches Conley not to write about him, but Conley is noncommittal; he doesn’t think Miller is helping himself by ducking his past.
Working mainly through performance, Altman reduces this farfetched conflict to a series of crystalline emotional beats. A sort of second-rate Barry Sullivan, McQueeney was not a versatile actor, but he had a craggy, pock-marked, high-cheekboned visage, and a gravelly voice – all of which Altman knew how to align as a sort of stolid wall for Windom to bounce off of. And Windom has never been better than he is here. Windom was an actor who could go very big, and his most indelible roles had him doing that, quite literally clawing at the scenery both in his Twilight Zone (“Five Characters in Search of an Exit”) and as the mad starship captain in Star Trek’s “The Doomsday Machine.” But Windom knew how to work at the opposite end of the scale, too, and his Gallant Men performance is entirely free of histrionics. He could have played his confrontation scene with Conley as abject, pathetic, but instead he’s matter-of-fact, laying out his case like a soft-selling salesman, with just a strain of desperation creeping in to let us know how desperate he is. Windom (and Altman) make it clear that Miller, coward or no, is hardened in a way that the other characters are not. They give the man dignity, which is the only reason that his rather contrived plight becomes moving.
A fairly complex psychological dynamic comes into focus in the second half, when the platoon’s new leader, Captain Benedict (William Reynolds), appears. Benedict is young, new to command, and unsure of himself. Again, there’s an avoidance of hysterics –Benedict knows that he’s green and scared, and he’s smart enough to be open to whatever help he can collect – and once again Altman teases out a limited actor’s most usable traits. In this case, Reynolds’s narrow range of expression approximates Benedict’s uncertainty; he plays the character as an alert but tentative man who’s afraid to commit or even express himself, for fear of revealing himself as unfit. Reynolds’s eyes flit around, looking for cover.
Of course, the obvious trajectory here is for Miller to step up and rescue the platoon by revealing his own fitness for command. The conclusion plays out as a fairly predictable ritual of bravery and sacrifice, but the situation is complicated by two factors: the fact that Benedict, the weak and potentially unsympathetic character, will remain with the show while Miller will not; and Altman’s utter disinterest in convention. Altman presents Miller’s hidden past not as a secret weapon, there to tidy up the plot, but as an existential tragedy. He has the skills and the knowledge to lead, but not the temperament. He can offer tactical advice that may save this day, but as soon as the burden of men’s lives falls upon Miller’s soldiers, he will crumble. Miller can’t take the pressure of command; Benedict can, but he hasn’t the experience to succeed. Each of them is half a man and Altman, I think, wanted to underline this idea that two halves don’t make a whole – that our limitations define us as much as or more than our good qualities – even though a fairly subtle change in emphasis could have turned this into a triumphal story of redemption and victory through teamwork.
The avoidance of emotional resolution in Miller’s arc extends into an evasion of narrative resolution elsewhere – a harbinger of Altman’s feature work. In the end, Conley allows his friend to be buried under his assumed identity, seemingly in keeping with his wishes. But unpack that uneasy moment: it means that the heroism of Jake Miller’s final hours will never balance the scales against the cowardice that closed the file on Major Robert Clinton. My favorite scene in the pilot is a brief touch of surrealism: suddenly the grunts’ jaws drop as a beautiful young woman (Sharon Hugueny) suddenly appears out of nowhere, running across the battlefield toward them, an oasis of beauty amid a landscape of destruction. Eventually there’s some exposition to explain this – somehow she knows the platoon’s resident ladies’ man, Private D’Angelo – but Altman cares so little about the literal explanation that the point remains muddled. (The suggestion is that D’Angelo has been carrying on with the girl while scavenging in San Pietro, but in Hugueny’s scene it appears that the platoon is coming upon the town for the first time.) After San Pietro has been taken, D’Angelo searches the rubble, calling out the girl’s name. Altman pans down to the cross that D’Angelo gave to Rosa in the earlier scene, concealed under a pile of concrete. D’Angelo does not see it. Miller’s identity remained a secret between Miller, Conley, and the audience; Rosa’s fate is an even more privileged moment, a bit of grim news that Altman shares only with us.
This kind of untied loose end could not survive in a weekly series in 1962 – nor, as it turned out, could any of the pilot’s other welcome ambiguities, or even the key players behind the camera. Halsted Welles – a skilled adapter of prose source material, with episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents and Night Gallery and the classic Western 3:10 to Yuma among his credits – did not write for the show again. Altman left The Gallant Men to write, direct, and eventually produce a very similar series for ABC. Combat became a big hit, and Altman did some of his best early work there – biting anti-heroic, anti-war stories that expanded in triplicate upon the best ideas in his Gallant Men pilot, and got him fired before the end of the first season.
Meanwhile, working with lesser writers, the series’ journeyman producer, Richard Bluel, smoothed The Gallant Men out into a more standard-issue combat melodrama. (Something similar would happen to Combat after Altman left that show, too.) The greatest loss was the concept of Captain Benedict as an untested novice. In the pilot, he receives counsel not only from Miller, but from Conley Wright, who is even further outside the chain of command. He comes off as so inexperienced that he’s almost a danger to his men. War narratives about indecisive battlefield Hamlets who lead their men into disaster had already been done in the movies (see Robert Aldrich’s astoundingly pessimistic Attack!), but the suggestion that a platoon leader might be unfit for command would not fly in a weekly series. Captain Benedict became a steely, square-jawed hero, and Reynolds’s comforting blandness lost its intriguing subtext of mediocrity. In a less obvious way, Conley Wright’s identity as a war correspondent was also minimized. Although it was used as a plot device on occasion, the idea of his typewriter as his “weapon” (as he puts it in the first scene of the pilot), and the dynamic of Conley as an outsider, with an agenda distinct from that of the soldiers, was lost. In most episodes, Conley is simply the member of the squad who doesn’t happen to carry a gun.
Like many Warner Bros. shows of this era (as well as Combat), The Gallant Men was structured to split its focus between dual leading men, both to reduce the actors’ workload and to multiply the possibility of a launching a breakout heartthrob. But McQueeney and Reynolds (above) were so dull that the supporting cast carried the series to an unprecedented degree. Robert Ridgely, playing the tough-as-nails second-in-command, Lt. Kimbro, was probably always meant to dominate some episodes; it’s Kimbro who gets the booby prize of the obligatory psychosomatic blindness storyline, “Lesson For a Lover.” (Ridgely became a prominent character actor specializing in pompous suits and weasels – he’s perhaps best remembered for his films with Mel Brooks or his last role, as a pederast porn king in Boogie Nights – and it’s very difficult to reconcile that image with his stone-faced, deep-voiced performance here.) But jut-jawed Richard X. Slattery, as the platoon sergeant, and boxer Roland LaStarza, as comic relief hustler Lucavich, are occasionally front-and-center, and singer Eddie Fontaine (below, holding money), as the charismatic everyman D’Angelo, ends up almost an equal to the series’ putative leads.
Combat had a similar character, Private Kirby (Jack Hogan), who performed a similar function. Kirby got a bump in screen time any time the writers needed a character to do something unprofessional or unheroic, which was verboten for the static-heroic lieutenant and sergeant played by Rick Jason and Vic Morrow. But Hogan’s appealing, squirrelly trickster figured never shunted that show’s leading men completely to the side in the way that D’Angelo does in The Gallant Men. This was partly because D’Angelo spoke Italian, and was therefore essential to any storyline involving the locals, but mostly because Fontaine was the only cast member with any charisma. (Coincidentally, or not, his desultory career as a supporting player ended in 1984, when Fontaine was charged with trying to hire a hit man to kill his wife.)
“Advance and Be Recognized,” the only really interesting episode I’ve found other than the pilot, is a D’Angelo vehicle, in which he falls for a local girl who is quite clearly identified as a prostitute, censors be damned. A long, atmospheric sequence in a little cafe where the soldiers flirt with the Italian girls examines the G.I.s’ relative comfort level with women, and records the knowing looks of the town pimp, with an unusual empathy and eye for detail. As is often the case with failed TV shows, there are little crumbs that show you what might have been had the series reached its potential; this is one. “Advance and Be Recognized” was written by George and James O’Hanlon (yes, George Jetson and his brother), and directed by the twenty-five year-old Robert Totten, who is best remembered for a run of late-sixties Gunsmokes that I’m told are very good.
One pedantic game for bored TV historians might consist of attempting meaningful distinctions between The Gallant Men and Combat – two nearly identical programs that debuted simultaneously, a network television phenomenon that’s more common than it ought to be. (Think of the doctor doppelgangers – Ben Casey and Dr. Kildare, Medical Center and Marcus Welby, ER and Chicago Hope – that all debuted in the same season, or the trifecta of alien invasion shows – Surface, Invasion, and Threshold – that canceled each other out in 2005.) Combat takes place in occupied France; The Gallant Men in Italy. The geography varies: The Gallant Men roamed the scrubby hills of the western San Fernando Valley, more often a home to plains Westerns like Rawhide, while Combat was shot in the more verdant Franklin Canyon, on the other side of the hill.
In general, Combat was more of a director’s show, initially thanks to the exuberant imaginations of Robert Altman and the first season producer, who alternated with him Burt Kennedy. (After the first season, replacement producer Gene Levitt kept the scripts toothless but allowed a handful of gonzo visual stylists, especially Sutton Roley and John Peyser, to execute some astounding action sequences.) Historians tend to identify Altman’s primary stylistic fingerprint upon Combat as the show’s restless camerawork, but that’s a lazy bit of shorthand that’s debatable on both ends. Combat’s documentary-inspired handheld camera doesn’t resemble the slow track-and-zoom aesthetic of Altman’s seventies films very closely; also, Combat’s cinematographer, the great Robert Hauser, took his signature shoulder-mounted long-takes with him to his next assignment, Peyton Place, thereby muddying the auteurist claims for Altman. In The Gallant Men’s pilot, the action sequences are surprisingly perfunctory, laced with stock footage and composed without a lot of variety or movement. Altman excels elsewhere, in the still moments and in particular with the performances; indeed, his most permanent contribution to The Gallant Men was getting regular or semi-regular roles for a few members of his early stock company, chiefly Ridgely and Robert Fortier.
If The Gallant Men had a “look,” it originated with Richard C. Sarafian, a young Turk who directed nine episodes (chiefly in rotation with Charles R. Rondeau, who did eleven). In contrast to the handheld, newsreel-influenced look of Combat, Sarafian favored forceful tracking and crane shots. Although restricted somewhat by budgets and schedules, Sarafian managed to consistently compose many shots that are boldly framed and lit. His finest Gallant Men hour is the otherwise undistinguished resistance story “Signals For an End Run.” Like many young directors of his generation, Sarafian was bewitched by the influx of foreign films that appeared in the United States, and his images of the stone-faced partisans, dotting a rocky cliffside and outlined against an expansive sky, suggest the influence of Italian neorealism (particularly the late neorealist work of Francesco Rosi and Gillo Pontecorvo, who made use of newer telephoto lenses and high-contrast film stocks). Although the visual pleasures of The Gallant Men are intermittent, to put it mildly, Warner Archive’s recent DVD release of this long-unavailable series does reveal that there are important exceptions to the general understanding of Warner’s early TV output as cookie-cutter dull and directed by hacks.
Postscript(s): On February 19, 1963, ABC announced that it would not extend The Gallant Men’s episode order beyond the initial 26 episodes. (Presumably a “back four” or “back six” would have extended the first season to a more typical length had the show been a hit.) Although the show’s ratings were not disastrous, The Gallant Men was in an odd situation at ABC, which was also home to Combat and to McHale’s Navy, a service comedy that had debuted in 1962. It’s likely that the three military-themed shows were always seen as being in competition with one another, and that at least one of them was doomed to die in 1963. Another factor may have been that Oliver Treyz, the ABC executive who developed all three series, had been fired even before their debut – and that afterward Treyz had gone to work for Warner Bros., home to The Gallant Men. Warners had built an empire of shoddily-cloned, cheaply-made Westerns and detective shows, almost all of them sold to ABC (with Treyz as the key middle man), and clearly the studio proceeded in the hope that The Gallant Men could spawn a third cluster of wartime dramas. Two of the twenty-six episodes, “The Leathernecks” (with Philip Carey) and “Operation Secret” (aka Avalanche, with Ray Danton) were backdoor pilots, but neither went to series – probably a foregone conclusion, given that ABC reportedly had difficulty in signing initial sponsors for both Combat and The Gallant Men.
The timing of the show’s cancellation also coincided with a seismic shift at Warner Bros. On February 25, the news broke that longtime Warners television vice president William T. Orr and his head of production, Hugh Benson, had been ousted in favor of actor-director Jack Webb. Webb carried out a clean sweep of both series and contract personnel, either orchestrated by or meant to appease ABC. (Whatever revival Webb might have had in mind for Warner Bros. Television did not come to fruition – a shame, since the shows he produced during that period, especially G.E. True and the final season of 77 Sunset Strip, were stylish and fascinatingly eccentric. Warners would remain a relatively minor player in prime time for years to come.)
One particularly intriguing tidbit in Variety’s cancellation announcement is this: “Warners had ordered additional scripts on the World War II series in anticipation of a pickup, and when notified of the [network’s] decision, immediately sought to sell the extra scripts to TV’s other war series, Combat, also on ABC-TV.” Did this happen? There are three episodes from the middle of Combat’s second (1963-1964) season credited to Gallant Men scribes who did not write any other Combat segments: “Gideon’s Army” (written by Charles B. Smith), “The Pillbox” (story by Gallant Men regular Ken Pettus, rewritten by frequent Combat contributor Don Tait), and “The Hostages” (written by Richard L. Adams). The timing is perfect, and it seems an odd coincidence that Combat (which tended to rely upon a small stable of prolific freelancers) would commission scripts from three individual Gallant Men writers, and then invite none of them back again. At the moment I have no way of verifying it (production files for The Gallant Men, housed at USC’s Warner Bros. Archives, might or might not yield the answer), but I’d wager that one or more of those episodes are repurposed Gallant Men scripts.
Correction (4/19/13): The original version of this piece referred to the primary setting of Combat as Germany, rather than France.
November 1, 2009
Ford, Hart, Bell and the Von Kleinsmid Center
Lately I’ve been revisiting The Paper Chase, the ensemble drama about law students and their demanding, terrifying mentor Professor Kingsfield, which debuted on DVD earlier this year. The show had an unusual history. Cancelled after a single season on CBS, it resurfaced nearly five years later (after some success in syndication) on Showtime, which produced close to forty new episodes. It’s an early, outlying instance of the now nearly complete migration of worthwhile television programming from the major networks to niche cable channels.
I hadn’t seen The Paper Chase in over twenty years, and while its edges are a bit rougher than I remembered, I still consider it one of the best American TV dramas. It’s an important enough series that I hope to revisit it more thoroughly in the near future. In the meantime, here are a few thoughts that occurred to me as I watched the first dozen episodes.
1. The title song, “The First Years,” is a soft-rock classic, a beatific, even goofy little ditty performed by Seals and Crofts but written by Charles Fox and Norman Gimbel. Gimbel, who received an Emmy nomination for his lyrics, wrote a slew of big-time pop songs in the seventies: “Killing Me Softly With His Song,” “I Got a Name,” the English lyrics to “The Girl From Ipanema,” “It Goes Like It Goes” from Norma Rae, the Laverne and Shirley theme.
But shouldn’t it be “The First Year,” singular? Because the show places a great deal of importance on the fact that its main characters are all “1Ls,” newbies who are struggling to learn the ropes of the hugely challenging post-grad education they’re beginning. Their status would change quite a bit from year to year. (The Showtime version would track this matriculation with some precision). And since law school only lasts for three years anyway, it’s kind of meaningless to distinguish the first two from just the final one. I guess the first line (“The first years are hard years”) wouldn’t work in the singular, but the final stanza (“Then one day, we’ll all say / Hey look, we’ve come through / The first years”) could have dropped that final “s” and brought the song more in line with the content of the show.
2. Last year I wrote, briefly, about my own personal connection to the series; about how I adored The Paper Chase as a young teenager because I thought it showed what college would be like (wrong), and how when I went to college, I discovered that my own campus (the University of Southern California) was the same one where The Paper Chase had been filmed. This created a weird kind of disjuncture. I wasn’t having much fun as an undergraduate, and I resented the geographical overlap with my earlier, idealized, pop-culture version of how higher education should be.
When I wrote that, I remembered USC as the setting for Showtime’s Paper Chase episodes, but I wasn’t certain whether the same campus had been used in the first season. I thought that perhaps the bigger CBS budget had permitted for some location exteriors at a real New England university. (Coyly, The Paper Chase never says what school it’s depicting, although it’s based on Harvard grad John Jay Osborn, Jr.’s autobiographical novel, so you’re supposed to do the math.) But, nope. The first season of The Paper Chase was filmed at USC, and while the campus has been seen in a ton of movies and TV shows, I doubt that any project before or since made such extensive use of it. Alumni will have a blast watching this show unless, like me, they are still kind of sick of the place.
Although I spotted other locations as well, most of the filming seems to have been confined to the area in between three major buildings in the center of the campus: Bovard Auditorium (home to Professor Kingsfield’s lecture hall and office, although the real building does not house any regular classrooms), the imposing Doheny Library, and the more modern Von Kleinsmid Center. Most of this area looks the same now as it did then, although it’s fascinating to see Trousdale Parkway, the street between Bovard and Doheny, before it was paved over and closed to vehicular traffic. And the fountain in front of Doheny never seems to be turned on in the early episodes. I wonder if Los Angeles was in the midst of one of its periodic, very un-New England droughts during the summer of 1978.
If you stop and think about it, none of this looks at all like an Ivy League school, but of course, it’s television and hardly anyone ever stops to think about things like that.
3. The quality that makes The Paper Chase singular within television history, and disproportionately valuable today, is its celebration of the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake. Not even other shows in the “inspiring teacher” genre, like Mr. Novak or Boston Public, have focused primarily on this idea. The law students of The Paper Chase sacrifice fashion and even hygiene, not to mention social lives and sex, in order to give themselves over entirely to their coursework. Though they register the stress and the monotony of their work, they don’t cheat or take shortcuts (or if they do, the show depicts them as having failed to live up to an important standard). In a gesture that was probably idealistic even for the seventies, The Paper Chase rarely mentions careerism or money as reasons behind its protagonists’ interest in the law.
Unlike many of my real-life teachers who tried to “make learning fun,” The Paper Chase succeeds in passing along its enthusiasm for knowledge to the viewer. Professor Kingsfield (John Houseman) roots his lectures in the Socratic method. The scenes in his classroom, almost always the best in each episode, mine suspense from whether the characters will know the answers or not; whether they will express themselves eloquently; whether they will impress their teacher or disappoint him. The classroom sequences have an echo in the students’ study group meetings, where they typically discuss not their own personal problems (even if those problems form the thrust of that week’s plot), but the technical and moral intricacies of the law. Many scripts weave actual cases common to law school curricula into the storyline (Hawkins v. McGee in the pilot, the Speluncean explorers hypothetical in “The Seating Chart”). The resolutions to these cases, even though they are conveyed entirely through talk rather than action, often prove as compelling as the actual stories.
The Paper Chase characterizes Bell (James Keane), the comic relief law student, as a fat, pizza-gobbling slob, but I doubt that contemporary viewers would make much of a distinction between Bell and Hart (James Stephens), the chief protagonist, who is pale, sunken-chested, bespectacled, and generally unkempt. And yet Stephens manages to remove his shirt in most of the first half-dozen episodes. I think The Paper Chase was positioning him quite deliberately as a sex symbol in the sensitive-New-Age-guy mold (think Alan Alda or Woody Allen). What I like most about Stephens (and Hart) is his avidness, which contrasts strikingly with the kind of image-conscious nonchalance that nearly every modern TV hero projects. “How do you do it?” he blurts out beseechingly after he meets the have-it-all-career-girl Law Review editor (Darleen Carr) in the episode “A Day in the Life…” Hart doesn’t care whether anyone thinks he’s cool.
I bring this up because many of these notions, which were central to The Paper Chase, have no currency within our culture any more. The Bush II era codified anti-intellectualism as a legitimate approach to national leadership, one which may have been ratified at the polls. (Recall the “which candidate would you rather have a beer with?” factor in the 2004 election). And it’s very difficult to find anyone on television now who doesn’t appear to have stepped out of a fashion magazine; even “nerds” (like Adam Brody of The O.C. or Zachary Levi of Chuck) have a six-pack and a stylish haircut.
When I was a kid, I picked up the ideas (from shows like The Paper Chase, but also from the adults who surrounded me) that enlightenment meant developing the mind more than the body, and that obsessing over one’s personal appearance was vain and shallow. I still live by those ideas, but they seem rather lonely within the public and private discourse I encounter these days. I didn’t expect to be old-fashioned before I was thirty-five, but it seems to be working out that way.