Staring into the dark: Films confront PTSD

Gregory Peck as Gen. Frank Savage in Twelve O’ Clock High.
(Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Philip Martin)
Gregory Peck as Gen. Frank Savage in Twelve O’ Clock High. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Philip Martin)

PTSD has been around as long as there have been wars.

And we have come a long way since World War II in showing stories about men cracking up. Men were "shell shocked" as the world once called it. The acronym PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), came into use in the 1970s in large part due to the diagnoses of U.S. military veterans of the Vietnam War. It was officially recognized by the American Psychiatric Association in 1980, according to Wikipedia.

This explanation is from the Mayo Clinic's website: "Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental health condition that's triggered by a terrifying event -- either experiencing it or witnessing it. Symptoms may include flashbacks, nightmares and severe anxiety, as well as uncontrollable thoughts about the event.

"The condition can last months or years, with triggers that can bring back memories of the trauma accompanied by intense emotional and physical reactions."

Hollywood's war films during WWII were flag-waving stories. Propaganda. The films usually showed us that men (and women) fighting for our country were brave and fearless and nothing could stop them. Heroes. (And they were, but for the sake of this column, let's move on to the war films made after 1945.)

Two films (actually, three) dealt with PTSD long before it had a name.

Gregory Peck starred in two of those films: Twelve O'Clock High (1949) and Captain Newman, M.D. (1963). Peck plays a "patient" in one and a psychiatrist in the other.

The third film is The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), perhaps one of the best American films ever made. It was likely the first to address PTSD, if only slightly.

In it, three men returning from the war have to re-adjust to their new lives. Two of them, Fred Derry (Dana Andrews) and Homer Parrish (Harold Russell), have the hardest time. Derry has memories that cause him night sweats and Parrish has lost both his hands. The third character is Al Stephenson (Frederic March), who drinks too much.

Their PTSD is never addressed in a medical or clinical sense. And by the end of the film, they have adjusted as best they can.

But back to Twelve O'Clock High. Peck plays Gen. Frank Savage, a tough by-the-book commander who wants his fliers to buck up and just do their job. He has been sent to replace Col. Davenport (Gary Merrill), a man with a lot more compassion for his men. Davenport knows that driving them to the point of exhaustion will not win the war. And he points out that 21 is a little early to grow into a man. Most of the fliers are in their late teens and early twenties.

The supporting characters in Peck's films are standouts. Twelve O'Clock High is bookended with Col. Stovall (Dean Jagger, in a well-deserved Oscar-winning role) traveling back to England in 1949. He buys a new hat and spies a Robin Hood Toby mug in a store window that he believes is the one the fliers used in the Officer's Club to tell them to get ready for a mission. The mug was turned toward the wall until a mission was imminent. Then someone would turn it to face the room. One of the characters says they did that to keep the rest of the people in the club from knowing what was happening.

Stovall bikes out to the old abandoned airfield when he relives his time in the war there. That starts the flashback, which takes up most of the rest of the film.

Stovall is the voice of reason in this story. He was too old to fly "so they gave me a desk job," he tells Savage.

Also in the cast are Hugh Marlowe and Millard Mitchell.

When first they meet, Savage asks an intoxicated Stovall if he is drunk. "Yes, sir. This is the first time in 20 years that I've been drunk. And it probably won't be the last," Stovall tells him. He is mourning the loss of the fliers on the most recent mission and the removal of Davenport as the commander.

Eventually, Savage comes to rely on Stovall for his suggestions and critiques because he knows Stovall is the wise old man in the group.

The pressure on Savage commanding these men, many of whom will die, keeps mounting. Several bombing runs have taken their toll on the fallen planes and fliers. Finally, after a flier commits suicide, Savage has a breakdown. He can't even get in the plane to take off. He rants and raves about going on the mission. The others take him back to his room where he sits motionless and silent for hours, waiting for the fliers to return. Upon their return, he gets up and calls the tower for the count and asks "How many planes have returned?"

The film ends where it began, in 1949 with Stovall wiping his eyes and starting back to town on his rented bike with his prized Toby mug package.

20th Century Fox chief Darryl F. Zanuck wanted the film to be made in Technicolor, but others convinced him to use actual American and German footage of dogfights and bombings, which were all in black and white.

Twelve O'Clock High is a great film that has a lot to say about what we do and see in wartime can have permanent repercussions.

Captain Newman, M.D., the least well known of these films, was based on the 1961 novel by Leo Rosten -- who borrowed heavily from the actual World War II experiences of his friend Ralph Greenson, a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst who served as a captain in the Army Medical Corps at Yuma Army Airfield in Yuma, Arizona. Greenson would go on to become famous for his work on empathy and his work with soldiers returning home from war. He is considered one of the first to take what we now call PTSD seriously.

(He was also something of a Freudian analyst to the stars; his clients included Tony Curtis, Frank Sinatra, Vivien Leigh and Marilyn Monroe, who was his patient at the time of her death.)

The film begins with Lt. Barney Alderson (Dick Sargent) is sent to Colfax Military Hospital out in the middle of nowhere Arizona. He is to report back to the Pentagon about the rash of shell-shocked veterans filling the hospital.

Capt. Josiah Newman (Peck) at first thinks Barney is a patient. (This film has a lot more humor than Twelve O'Clock High.)

Newman shows Barney the ever-expanding file cabinets with the patient files and he tells him that these men can't be cured in six weeks, the time the military allots per person. He then takes him on his morning rounds, just to see how messed up some of these patients really are.

The three main supporting characters are Col. Bliss (Eddie Albert), Capt. Winston (Robert Duvall) and Cpl. Tompkins (Bobby Darin, who was nominated for an Oscar in this role).

Bliss is nuts. In his mind, he has become "Mr. Future."

Winston is catatonic. Only Newman's expertise brings him out of his self-inflicted coma.

And Tompkins is drinking himself to death with his guilt over his best friend's death. Their stories are what keep the film moving. Also, a romantic interest in the form of Lt. Francie Corum (Angie Dickinson) for Newman is added for good measure. My only complaint is the hair and costumes for the women in the film. They are strictly 1963, not 1944.

Greenson's friend and patient Curtis plays the same sort of wheel-dealer character he played in Operation Petticoat. And he brings the levity needed to keep the film from being maudlin.

But it has a lot to say about men with PTSD, even if it never uses the acronym.

For more information on PTSD, go to mayoclinic.org.

MovieStyle on 03/27/2020

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