I haven't marked where there's spoilage, but there isn't a ton of it -- I don't tell you what happens to any of the main patients, whether Captain Newman is able to heal them or not. You will still have plenty of interesting things to learn if you watch the movie after reading this.
I'd wanted to see this for many years, but I was out of college before I finally located a copy. I've probably watched it ten times in the past dozen years. It's quite dear to my heart, even though it's kind of a zigzag of a film, emotionally. It goes from funny to serious to sad to funny to serious to sad to tragic to funny, often within the same scene or sequence. Which I guess is probably pretty accurate to how it would be to treat mental patients a lot of the time.
The movie takes place at Colfax Army Air Field in 1944, a fictional base in Arizona, where the titular Captain Newman is an Army Medical Corps psychiatrist. The movie begins by following one Lt. Barney Alderson (Dick Sargent -- yeah, the guy from Bewitched) as he kills some time waiting for a superior officer. He's here to sort of inspect the hospital and see if money they've asked for would be used wisely there. While he waits, he's invited to look around the hospital, and I'm not sure if he thought he'd wind up at the nurses quarters or what, but he follows this sign and wanders into Ward 7, the mental ward.
He finds himself in the office of Captain Newman (Gregory Peck), who greets him rather oddly. Kindly, but oddly.
Barney soon realizes the captain thought he was a new patient! Once they get that straightened out, Captain Newman asks if he would like to come along on his rounds.
This lets us, the audience, have someone equally unused to a 1940s military mental ward get a little explanatory tour along with Barney. The men of Ward 7 greet Captain Newman affectionately, and we right away know that here's a doctor who cares about his patients. And his patients know it, too
I'm going to mention two patients solely because the actors playing them later popped up in one of the best Combat! episodes, "Hills are for Heroes." One, played by Paul Carr, still has a long way to go before his mind is healed.
The other, played by Joseph Walsh, has been healed enough that he's being sent back to the war. I just think it's neat that the guys who played Kleinschmidt and Einstein in "Hills are for Heroes" are both in this too, though they don't share any scenes or anything.
Anyway, Barney leaves, but we get to stay in Ward 7 and see what happens next. And what happens next is the arrive of Cpl. Leibowitz (Tony Curtis), an orderly who does not want to work on a mental ward, and who wasn't supposed to get here at all, only one of Captain Newman's other orderlies shanghaied him when he arrived on base because Ward 7 is short-handed.
Captain Newman sweet-talks him into staying. They're getting more and more cases of men with "battle fatigue" and "shell shock" (what they called PTSD back then), and Newman knows his ward will soon be more than he and three orderlies can handle.
He also meets up with Lt. Francie Corum, a nurse in a different part of the hospital. She knows he stole Liebowitz from the ward where he should have ended up, and she gives Newman a pretty hard time about it.
Which leads to Newman making annoyed and repentant faces while she's looking, and then being all scheming when she's not. He wants her to come work for his ward too. Also, he liiiiiikes her.
And with Liebowitz convincing himself he's got all kinds of mental disorders one minute, then deciding he can cure the patients himself the next, Newman definitely needs more help!
Newman tries to charm Francie into transferring to Ward 7. She gets really mad about that, because she thought he was romancing her instead. Oops.
Enter Col. Bliss (Eddie Albert), an irate Air Force officer that Newman has to try to calm down.
Francie sees Newman in action, sees the sort of people he's trying to help, and next thing you know, she's working in Ward 7.
Soon we meet up with another new patient, Capt. Paul Winston (Robert Duvall). He's not exactly catatonic, but he hasn't spoken since being rescued from a cellar where he hid for many months in a Nazi-occupied town after his plane went down.
He won't even feed himself, and when Captain Newman tries to talk to him, he simply goes to sleep.
And then, finally and at long last, we meet up with Cpl. Jim Tompkins (Bobby Darin). He's not in the mental ward, he's a patient in the regular wards. But he's been getting drunk every night and generally being an obnoxious nuisance.
Francie goes to talk to him, kind of see if maybe Captain Newman could help him. He tells her all he needs is some better booze and some juicier broads, and generally thinks he's pretty cute. Francie describes him as "a stinker," and that sums him up real well.
He IS pretty cute, though :-)
He's also holding in a whole lot of guilt and self-hatred. Captain Newman prescribes a sodium pentothal treatment for him. Yeah, that's truth serum.
The scene where they administer it is hard to watch. Jim relives his plane crashing and the death of the rest of his crewmates vividly. He's still terrified, months later, and full of guilt for surviving.
It's a very hard scene for me to watch, and I usually end up feeling like Francie looks during it. So sad for this broken boy.
Captain Newman stays by Jim's side, stern and solid and reassuring.
They wind up with Jim clinging to him in despair. Please don't step on the little bits of my heart scattered all over the floor.
Captain Newman goes to the window and stares out. I love this shot for how it outlines how alone he is. He's behind the wire fence like the rest of Ward 7, a prisoner with his patients. But he's also stuck behind glass, observing their heartaches and troubles, but unable to partake in them. He has to stay detached to help them, but that leaves him bearing the knowledge of their burdens alone. Poor man. He's helping so many people, but who's there to help him?
(Actually, Francie does help him a lot by letting him cry on her shoulder a few times.)
Now that he knows what's eating at Jim, Captain Newman is able to start helping him with private counseling sessions in his office.
Captain Winston's wife (Bethel Leslie) shows up at Captain Newman's request. He hopes she'll be able to reach her husband where everyone else has failed.
And just when things are going pretty well for the patients we've met, and thus for Captain Newman too, he gets stuck with a whole bunch of Italian POWs because his is the only ward with bars and locks.
Next thing you know, it's Christmas. Liebowitz fixes up a tree for the ward, which he acquired with his typical unusual procuring skills. Throughout the movie, he's been able to find, get, or create just about anything needed, with hilarious results. "Since Liebowitz came to Ward 7" becomes a standard explanation for how or why something has happened.
Captain Newman gets some sad news during the Christmas party, and he and Francie comfort each other.
And then all of a sudden, it's the end! It's an oddly paced movie, I have to admit -- it bounces from happy to sad to happy really quickly, as I mentioned earlier. The first time I watched it, I felt like I had emotional whiplash, though I'm used to it now.
This is my 11th movie watched and reviewed for the Period Drama Challenge!
As is my wont when it comes to movies I'm reviewing for the PDC, I will now spend just a little time talking about costumes. You've seen what most of them are like -- military uniforms. Here's Angie Dickinson in a pretty nurse's cape that I didn't show earlier:
The only civilian clothes we get to see are on Mrs. Winston. She arrives wearing this smart travelling ensemble:
Later, we see her in this much prettier dress:
Those are about the only interesting costumes. The eye candy here is all about guys and girls in uniforms.
Is this movie family friendly? Somewhat. There are a handful of cuss words. Also, when Jim Tompkins is undergoing his sodium pentothal treatment, he calls out to God and Jesus for help, but I don't consider those instances as taking the Lord's name in vain, because he seems to be imploring them for help in his distress. Some people may disagree with me, though.
There's also an attitude toward Lt. Francie Corum that I know will bother some modern audiences -- Captain Newman straight out tells her that his patients will be attracted to her, and he wants her to use that to get them to cooperate. There's another instance of a soldier whistling at her and falling off his bed holding his arms out to her and saying something along the lines of "Darling!" None of this comes across to ME as degrading, but actually rather celebratory and appreciative of her appearance, but I'm pretty sure a lot of people today would be shrieking, "Sexist!" over it. So your mileage may vary. Jim Tompkins definitely meant to be less than gentlemanly with his "juicier broads" remarks to her, but he's shown as misbehaving there. Everyone else treats her with appreciative respect.
There's also some alcohol use and LOTS of cigarette smoking. Also, Mrs. Winston accuses Captain Newman as being one of those psychiatrists who read sex into everything, and she uses the word 'prostitute' too.
So it's not a movie for little kids. I'd say mid-teens and up.
You can buy this on DVD for around $10, and if you're interested in WWII, Gregory Peck, movies about doctors, or any of the other fine actors in this film, I really do recommend it.