Directed: Robert Altman
Written: Gene Levitt
Released: 11 Dec 1962
In this moody outing by Robert Altman, we see the squad escorting a French priest back to their lines to talk with S2 (Intelligence). The Frenchman is holding vital information and has in his possession a sheaf of paper to support it.
Saunders instructs everybody to stay in his footprints because there might be mines. No sooner does he say that when a sudden wind comes along and blows the papers out of the Frenchman’s hands. Pvt. Temple helps out the Frenchman retrieving the blown papers. I was thinking when all the papers blew away how all that could’ve been avoided had they put the papers in one of the bags instead of carrying it loose like he was doing.
The old Frenchman suddenly trips a mine and both him and Temple go down. Temple is in a bad way and the Frenchman has shrapnel lodged in his spine. Doc says they both need a doctor. Saunders spots some nuns working in a field so they make their way to their convent.
It turns out that these nuns are “cloistered nuns”. All they do is pray and work and all of them keeps a vow of silence except for the mother superior who is allowed to talk.
These nuns walk around inside the convent like wraiths. They are completely alien to the men as they bring their wounded in so that the Doc could work on them.
Here we begin to see Altman’s ethereal screen work with plenty of symbolism worked into the scenes. The Jesus on the cross keeps showing up and the inside of the nunnery is strangely quiet, devoid of the constant music that we’re normally used to hearing as they work between action shots in Combat. The quiet contributes to the eeriness of the play as the strangeness disquiets the guys, especially Kirby. He says “I’m telling you Sarge, it’s darn right spooky! That’s what it is!”
The Frenchman needs a doctor but he can’t be moved. Saunders and Caje go into town to look for a doctor and they find one in the village, only, he’s not a French doctor but a German soldier who happens to be a doctor.
They “borrow” him for a little while and bring him back to the nunnery where he is forced to work on the two wounded men.
Among all the religious symbolism, we see the tension between the men who don’t trust the German doctor who they say could kill the Frenchman a dozen different ways and they wouldn’t even know it.
The Frenchman mumbles something while he was delirious and it turns out the German can also speak French which contributes to the distrust.
The German doctor proceeds to operate on the Frenchman while Temple, who is receiving blood from Crowne, dies on the floor. It’s pretty sad because we all got to know Temple from a previous episode when he used his ballet and dancer’s skills to take out a German machine gun nest after balancing from rooftop to rooftop in order to do so.
Saunders threatens the German doctor telling him that if the Frenchman dies, he will kill him. The German’s reply was: “Is this threat to my life supposed to make me a more skillful doctor? In wartime, one’s concern for one’s own life diminishes by the hour. You threat is an idol one.”
Saunders is assisting with the Frenchman’s blood pressure. He reads the pressure which reads like a meter instead of having to pump it as you normally do. I noticed this error because I always take my own blood pressure.
The blood pressure drops to nothing and then we have a tense moment wondering if the doctor will let the Frenchman live or die? The doctor had heard the Frenchman muttering and he had said that there was important information that he needed to give to the U.S. Army’s S2 – Intelligence.
After a suspenseful moment, the blood pressure finally begins to rise and then the Frenchman is out of the woods and can be moved.
In the last scene, the German doctor, played by Gunnar Hellstrom asks Saunders “Sargent, tell me something. If the Frenchman hadn’t had military information that you considered valuable, would you have gone to this much trouble to save his life?” Saunders answers him “There’s a war going on. I don’t like it, but I do what I have to do. Like you. Now you tell me something. If I didn’t put a gun up to your head, would you have operated?”
There you have the moral questions being asked of each other as enemies in war. Each of them convinced of their own rightness of purpose. The doctor could have easily killed the Frenchman, knowing that he had this vital information but he followed his oath and saved his life. Whether it was because of the threat to his life by Saunders or being true to himself is a question that is given to the audience to answer.
The end sees the squad passing the nuns busy digging Temple’s grave and Saunders passing his helmet and rifle and while all the rest of the guys just looked at it, Saunders touched the helmet in a moving way. After all, he was a replacement that Saunders brought along.
This episode, Temple was the only one killed.