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Countdown (1968)

Made during the space race of the late sixties when Russia and the U.S. were competing to land the first expedition on the Moon, Countdown (1968) is not only prescient in its storyline (the Apollo 11 would make a historic landing on the Moon the very next year - July 1969) but it also marks the feature film debut of Robert Altman, who would go on to become one of the most original and uncompromising American directors of his generation.

In Countdown, a trio of astronauts - Chiz, Rick and Lee - are subjected to rigorous training and simulated space flights in preparation for a future Moon expedition. When it is learned that the Soviet Union already has a mission orbiting the moon with plans to land on the surface, NASA officials race against time to land their own man on the lunar surface first. At first, Chiz, an Air Force colonel, is selected to pilot the Pilgrim I to the moon. The President, however, feels that the mission should not appear to be a military endeavor and requests that Lee, a civilian, guide the expedition. Bitterly disappointed at the turn of events, Chiz, acting as Lee's trainer, pushes his protégé to the limits of his endurance in training, putting his life at risk in one situation. The intense preparations pay off, however, once the Pilgrim I is launched and Lee encounters genuine life-threatening problems during his flight to Mars.

Prior to being assigned Countdown Altman was at a low point in his career. He had recently given up his rights to produce and direct Petulia (1968) in exchange for his involvement in a prime-time television series entitled Nightwatch. Unfortunately, the network cancelled Nightwatch after pressure from Lucille Ball who demanded the same time slot for her company's new series, Mission Impossible. Altman's loss was compounded by the fact that Petulia ended up on most critics' top ten lists for 1968 with Richard Lester basking in the acclaim. Meanwhile, Altman had no new prospects though he was determined not to return to television work and was dead set on breaking into the film industry one way or another.

Thanks to his association with William Conrad (from previous Warner and Universal Studios work) and James Lydon (from Kraft Suspense Theatre), Altman was offered the opportunity to direct Countdown by the two former actors who were now presiding over Warner Bros.' B-picture unit. Although Altman's account of the making of Countdown differs substantially from Conrad and Lydon's, the final result is unmistakably the work of the same man who would go on to direct M*A*S*H* (1970) and Nashville (1975).

According to the director in Altman on Altman (edited by David Thompson), "There was a book I tried to buy called The Pilgrim Project by Hank Searls, which I thought was terrific. It was about sending a guy to the Moon on Gemini, and then he had to wait there until they could develop Apollo to come and pick him up. It was all about beating the Russians. It was owned by someone else; then Warner Brothers got it, and they had a low-budget film programmer. They offered it to me, and I took it without hesitation. That was Countdown. I thought it was a pretty good little film. I tried to show astronauts as human beings with problems, and I had scenes with over-lapping dialogue, in which I made sure that every word wasn't being heard. There was quite a bit of excitement over my work at the studio."

Countdown also benefited from the outstanding ensemble cast which included Robert Duvall and James Caan in the key roles of Chiz and Lee, respectively, and several actors from Altman's television days such as Barbara Baxley, Charles Aidman, Joanna Moore, Ted Knight, Steve Ihnat and Michael Murphy. Equally important was the fact that NASA cooperated with the production and members of Altman's "production teams visited NASA sites and conferred with scientific and technological personnel. Art director Jack Poplin did an estimable job designing mock replicates of the Apollo capsule, Mission controls, and Gemini simulators, as well as a lunar-landing module years before its actual use. At Altman's insistence, there were to be no process shots, no miniatures. Using sound stages 14, 15, and 17 at Warner Brothers, Poplin devised a credible rendering of outer space and the moon's surface. The moon landing scene was simulated in the Mojave Desert. There is also one all-out party sequence set at Altman's then-Mandeville Canyon digs." (from Robert Altman: Jumping Off the Cliff by Patrick McGilligan).

At the end of Countdown's production, the relationship between Altman and Warner Brothers suddenly broke down. According to Altman, he was undermined by the legendary studio head. "When I was finishing the film, Jack Warner, who had been in Europe, came back, although when he came on the set I wasn't there," the director recalled. "Then over the weekend he watched the dailies. On Sunday I got a call at home - I was going to start editing the next day - and it was Bill Conrad...He told me, 'Don't come to the studio, they won't let you through the gates.' I said, 'What do you mean?' 'Well, Jack Warner saw your dailies and he said, "That fool has actors talking at the same time."' And I had to drive up to the gate, and there was a cardboard box with all this stuff from my desk, which the guard handed to me. I was not allowed in the studio. And they cut the picture for kids...Actually, being fired from Countdown was great for me, because each time something like that happens, you get a battle scar and you know how to protect yourself in that situation again."

Altman also accused Warner Bros. of tampering with the conclusion of Countdown: "They rewrote the ending we shot. I left it ambiguous - the guy was probably going to die on the moon. When he landed there, he was supposed to find a shelter with a beacon on it. But he only had so much life support, and he landed prematurely and hadn't seen the beacon." If Countdown had actually ended here as Altman suggested, the film would probably have gone down in history as the most anti-climactic space race drama ever made. As it is, the conclusion is more hopeful and less ambiguous than Altman intended but it is still far from a conventional ending for a commercial feature.

Counter to Altman's version of his Countdown experience, producer Lydon insists that Altman was never fired by Warner and that the studio mogul approved Altman's final cut despite his concerns about the "muddiness" of the overlapping dialogue. "Studio records indicate that, one way or another, Lydon and Conrad were in fact reconciled to Altman's footage," wrote Patrick McGilligan in his biography of Altman. "Only one additional day of filming was clocked, well after Altman had finished directing, by a substitute director, Conrad himself. Duvall was the only star on the set for a day set aside for cutaways to smooth out transitions." Lydon emphasized to McGilligan that "The final cut of Countdown was the taste and judgment of Bill Conrad and me - according to our contract with Altman. The changes we made were technical only...I believe now as I did then that it's the best film Altman ever made - except for M*A*S*H* - and I'm still a fan."

When Countdown was finally ready for distribution, Warner Bros. made the mistake of placing it on a double feature with the infamously bad John Wayne Vietnam war saga, The Green Berets. It went virtually unnoticed as most critics were too busy attacking Wayne's right wing film polemic so Countdown was pulled from the double bill and released as a single feature a year later. It didn't perform any better at the box office but it did garner a few positive reviews. Variety called it "a model example of what can be achieved on a relatively modest budget...far superior to cheap exploitation product." For Altman fans, it's certainly worth a look and its importance is best summed up by Geoff Andrew in his TimeOut review: "Slightly soapy in parts, but overall it's an intelligent and taut little film, interesting for the way it foreshadows not only the actual look of the Apollo capsules but also Altman's later style: the lack of interest in 'plot', the overlapping dialogue, and the imaginative use of the 'scope frame are all there, if in embryonic form."

Producer: William Conrad
Director: Robert Altman
Screenplay: Loring Mandel, based on the novel The Pilgrim Project by Hank Searls
Cinematography: William W. Spencer
Art Direction: Jack Poplin
Music: Leonard Rosenman
Film Editing: Gene Milford
Cast: James Caan (Lee Stegler), Joanna Moore (Mickey Stegler), Robert Duvall (Chiz), Barbara Baxley (Jean), Charles Aidman (Gus), Steve Ihnat (Ross Duellan), Michael Murphy (Rick), Ted Knight (Walter Larson), Stephan Coit (Ehrman).

by Jeff Stafford

Robert Altman: Jumping Off the Cliff by Patrick McGilligan
Altman on Altman, edited by David Thompson IMDB



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