PTSD — The Movie

Mental Health

Jun 21
From the movie Captain Newman MD

There are a few movies that have touched on the subject of PTSD, mainly from the death and destruction of war. Some movies prior to the 1980s focused on the problems veterans face when they return, but the actual term, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder didn’t become a “recognized disorder” until 1980. Before that it had been called many things from “soldier’s heart” to “shell shock” to “battle fatigue.”

Watching the 2003 cowboy film, Open Range, with Keven Costner and Robert Duvall, it really struck home when, before a battle, Costner started talking about his “feelings” [PTSD symptoms] and how they would often come up before a confrontation.

There is, however, an entire movie that focused on PTSD that was set during the second world war, but if you google movies about PTSD, it’s not even listed.

I’ve seen it only once, but it must have made one hell of an impression on me. For years I’ve wanted to see it again, and here is why.

I’d never suffered acute PTSD. The movie was about acute PTSD. I was one of those who had to wait 30, 40 years before it snuck up and whacked us upside the head.

I grew up wanting to be John Wayne; even wanting to die like he did in some of his films.

I had always been battle ready. What happened the day previous was dead and gone. I was always up for a good fight.

At the time, I’d had no idea how my early brainwashing had affected my thinking. And we baby-boomers were all brainwashed growing up with the sterile death and destruction portrayed on television. By the time I got to Vietnam, I loved war — the danger, the fighting, the killing, and the heavy drinking and camaraderie afterwards were just part of the John Wayne Complex many of us grew up with.

Many of us were born during the “forgotten war,” Korea. The book, movie, and TV series M*A*S*H tried to remind us, but it wasn’t until the Korean War Memorial went up in DC that people realized how long it had taken to honor those who fought and died in that hell.

The Korean Memorial in Washington DC

I returned to the states with no symptoms but a lot of great jokes. Years later my sister-in-law would tell me, “You were the only person returning that I know of who just made jokes about it . . . and smoked pot every day of your life.”

Little did I know I was self-medicating. Laughing was my way of coping.

If you google movies on PTSD, you’ll find all sorts of things. One site lists: 10 Films About Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

They are, in order,

  1. The Deer Hunter

  2. Coming Home

  3. Born on the Fourth of July

  4. The Perks of Being A Wallflower

  5. First Blood

  6. Jacob’s Ladder

  7. Forrest Gump

  8. Saving Private Ryan

  9. Iron Man 3

  10. Mystic River

These are all quite recent; only two aired prior to the term Post Traumatic Stress Disorder entering the English language.

It’s almost as if PTSD didn’t exist prior to Vietnam, at least for those who made that page and who chose those movies.

The website Ranker, lists the “best” 50 PTSD movies ever made, ranked by movie fans.

As I went over the list I was shocked (shocked, I tell you!) that two of them actually went way back to the sixties, The Manchurian Candidate and Marney (an Alfred Hitchcock thriller). And then finally I found one from 1949 called, Home of the Brave.

Sure, I’m making fun of them. They did rank at 14, The Best Years of Our Lives from 1946. At the Internet Movie Database, the story line is this:

The story concentrates on the social re-adjustment of three World War II servicemen, each from a different station of society. Al Stephenson returns to an influential banking position, but finds it hard to reconcile his loyalties to ex-servicemen with new commercial realities. Fred Derry is an ordinary working man who finds it difficult to hold down a job or pick up the threads of his marriage. Having had both hands burnt off during the war, Homer Parrish is unsure that his fiancée’s feelings are still those of love and not those of pity. Each of the veterans faces a crisis upon his arrival, and each crisis is a microcosm of the experiences of many American warriors who found an alien world awaiting them when they came marching home.

For a movie on PTSD, there sure is an absence of “suffering” or “trauma” in this description.

You could easily add 100 more movies that touch on PTSD, because war brings trauma. And not just war: rape, abuse, tornados, hurricanes, auto accidents, and even your butcher slicing off his thumb while cutting you a steak. One thing about being in a PTSD group is the overarching rule that “we do not compare traumas.” Nobody’s trauma is worse than anyone else’s. We’ve all experienced it, and now we’re just trying to live with it.  

But I’ll be damned if I’m going to let these websites get away with overlooking the one movie that was specifically and distinctly produced to focus on PTSD and war trauma. Again I’m shocked. Have we all lost our minds? Our memories?

The movie I’m going to tell you about is the most definitive movie ever made on acute Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

You see, acute PTSD can be dealt with using a wide array of therapies. There will always be residual problems, but the idea that these soldiers could be cured was well founded in the fact that physicians were able to repair these broken spirits, fix them all up, and send them back into combat. The long term effects were never studied and, for the most part, not even mentioned until the disease was categorized and listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders in 1980.

It was then that doctors at the VA began to realize that the old farts who were crying themselves to sleep at night might just be suffering from the lingering effects of trauma; that they might just have chronic PTSD.

Like I said way back at the beginning of this, I saw this movie only once. It really stuck with me and I’ve looked all over, trying to see it again.  I owned a TiVo at one time that had an great feature: A Wish List. I could enter any title, and when/if that title aired, it was recorded onto my TiVo. I loved the movie Becket and always wanted to see it again, so I programmed it into my TiVo, and sure enough, ten years later my TiVo recorded it (incidentally, the same week it came out on DVD).

I programmed in this other movie and it never showed up. Since I now have a ROKU, I can search through thousands of titles available, which I do a couple times a year, but no hits. Nothing.

And then, just the other day, I decided to look on YouTube for it, and BINGO, I found it. The entire movie. Free. Again, I was shocked.

And when I watched it, it was as if I’d seen it yesterday. It was still so clear in my mind. I knew every scene; they came at me in the order I’d remembered; I’d even memorized some of the lines; it was amazing to see this movie 50 years after the first and only time I’d seen it and feel as if I’d watched it a thousand times.

It’s called, Captain Newman, MD, and was made in 1963, starring Gregory Peck, Tony Curtis, Angie Dickinson, Eddie Albert, and a host of other names you’ll all recognize, including Robert Duvall whom I’ve already mentioned.

The movie will make you laugh and it will make you cry. It’s warm, funny, and a bit too freaking real for those of us who’ve been there, whether in an acute or chronic phase of this mental illness.

You can watch it from your computer, or you can watch it on your big screen TV if you get YouTube.

Just watch it. Okay?

And have a nice, peaceful day.  

Further Reading

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder — we’ve been told by over a dozen professionals that his is the best article they’ve ever found on the web dealing with this subject. They tell me that it really hits home because it’s both personal and scholarly.