Captain Newman, M.D., a film about an Army Air Corps psychiatric ward in World War II, shows flyers with combat fatigue realistically, not as weaklings. We started calling it post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in the Vietnam era. Now, people are challenging the word disorder because a lasting emotional reaction to the horror of war is not a disease.
Captain Newman was one of Gregory Peck’s signature roles. He was supported by Tony Curtis, Angie Dickinson, Robert Duvall, James Gregory, Eddie Albert, Bobby Darin, and Jane Withers.
Whenever popular culture takes on mental health issues, it either perpetuates or counters the stigma, myths, and stereotypes people struggling with emotional adversity must deal with .
Based on an autobiographical novel about a real Army psychiatrist, Captain Newman, M.D. spreads excellent information, with empathy and humanity, especially considering it was made in 1964, when good information was scarce, and stigma far greater than it is now. The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) keeps a list on its website (www.NAMI.org) of helpful and harmful movies about mental illness. Captain Newman, M.D. is one NAMI approves of.
All the patients on Captain Newman’s ward “cracked” under the pressure of aerial combat. Each patient/actor shows an accurate picture of at least one of combat trauma’s many manifestations: rage, withdrawal, suicidality, acute depression, crippling guilt, anxiety, flashbacks to the traumatic experience, nightmares, insomnia, substance abuse, and dissociation.
So-called PTSD is a normal human reaction to abnormal events like combat, rape, violent crime, natural disasters, abuse and neglect by a care giver, loved one, or spouse, or any overpowering experience that robs a person of the idea that the world is a safe, trustworthy place he can control somewhat.
Everyone experiences trauma; it becomes serious, lasting emotional adversity when it takes over the involuntary centers of the brain, like the fight or flight response. That survival tool makes mammals hyper-alert, faster, and stronger when their lives are in danger. For someone experiencing post-traumatic reactions, that impulse will go off at times that are inconvenient, inappropriate, and damaging.
Typically, post-traumatic issues make it hard for people to establish and maintain trusting relationships and emotional consistency and serenity. When re-traumatized, all the feelings connected with all similar traumas often come back as if they are happening now. Sometimes, the person experiencing this is aware it’s a flashback; other times, it’s a gross overreaction to a minimal trigger.
Eddie Albert’s Split Personality
Eddie Albert plays an Army Air Corps colonel who paces compulsively, barking orders to an empty room, using names that make no sense. Newman checks military records, and finds the names were all people Albert ordered into combat who did not return. He’s compartmentalized all this trauma into a separate personality he calls “Mr. Past,” and denies that he is the same person. When the reality hits him too suddenly, he climbs a water tower, and jumps off. That’s the most extreme manifestation of combat trauma, but not unrealistic.
Bobby Darin’s Traumatized Playboy
Bobby Darin’s character denies he needs psychiatric care, and is sneaking booze into the surgical ward where he’s recovering from injuries. Newman meets him in a bar, since he won’t come to the psych ward. Darin brushes Newman off, but shows up unexpectedly the next day in Newman’s office asking for sodium pentathol.
Under its influence, Darin’s character painfully relives the plane crash he survived, where his best friend died. In fact, he saw his friend with his head cut off, but is paralyzed by guilt for not saving him. He gets well after facing his trauma. This is traditional “exposure therapy.” Darin’s character recovers after the exposure, but it led to the suicide of Eddie Albert’s colonel.
Robert Duvall’s Crippling, Unjustified Guilt
Robert Duvall’s character was captured and imprisoned in a cellar for 13 months. He feels guilty for not trying to escape. He didn’t try to escape because he felt safe in that cellar. Escape would have meant certain death. He withdraws completely into himself when he is liberated.
He really feels guilty for being afraid. His family taught him fear is cowardice. Newman calls in the patient’s wife to try to reach him, and finds he has to treat her for being formal and frigid toward her husband, who has put himself back in a prison of sorts, so she wouldn’t find out he’d been afraid.
James Gregory Plays the Old-School Base Commander
James Gregory plays the base commander, who represents the military’s traditional hostility to mental illness, psychiatrists, and psychiatric patients. The patients are all malingerers and cowards, and the doctors molly-coddle them, according to Gregory’s character.
He and Captain Newman are constantly fighting with each other, and the base commander clings to his prejudice even in the face of evidence he can see. Newman keeps saying these men are sick, and Gregory keeps saying they’re lazy and cowardly.
To this day, war veterans with lasting combat trauma have a much harder time getting combat benefits from the military and Veterans Administration than veterans with visible combat injuries, according to Tom Jarriel, the ABC News reporter who suffered a head injury covering the Iraq war, and now reports on issues concerning wounded veterans.
The Air Force today is experimenting with modern interventions for combat trauma, and has turned to the Copeland Center for Wellness and Recovery to train Air Force medical personnel to help people traumatized veterans.
Tony Curtis and Angie Dickinson
Tony Curtis and Angie Dickinson provide much-needed relief from all the movie’s intensity. “Nurse” Dickinson provides eye candy for the audience and sympathy for the patients and Dr. Newman.
At first, her character is afraid to enter the psych ward, much less work there. She changes her mind when she sees the suffering for herself, and Newman’s understanding, usually successful, treatment.
Curtis offers comic relief as the ward’s orderly, a Jewish boy from the Bronx, with street-smart, self-taught insight into human nature, and a natural talent for hustling.
Meuser, Kim, and Rosenberg, Stanley, “An Intervention for People with Mental Illness and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder,” Journal for Psychiatric Rehabilitation, Summer, 2001, commentary by Ken Braiterman.
Copeland, Mary Ellen, The Trauma Workbook, Peach Press, available through the website, www.mentalhealthrecovery.com.
The National Alliance on Mental Illness, www.nami.org
The Copeland Center for Wellness and Recovery, Matthew Federici, executive director, www.copelandcenter.com
Copyright Ken Braiterman. Contact the author to obtain permission for republication.