Captain Newman M.D. (1963) ****

Somewhat lost in the rush to acclaim star Gregory Peck for his Oscar-winning To Kill a Mockingbird (1962), this bold attempt to tackle mental illness among the armed forces deserves reassessment.

Set towards the end of World War Two, psychiatrist Captain Newman (Gregory Peck) heads up a unit addressing the previously ignored mental health issues of U.S. airmen. One of the first to identify post- traumatic stress disorder, Newman employs a whole raft of unusual techniques such as allowing his clients to tend sheep. And he’s not above using romantic sleight-of-hand to woo Lt. Corum (Angie Dickinson), a nurse in a non-psychiatric department, to join his team. Orderly Corporal Leibowitz (Tony Curtis), more of a con artist than a medical professional, is the other key member of the team.

As you might expect, Newman has to battle superiors to allow him to even attempt to cure any of the men under his care since in standard armed forces opinion they are really just cowards trying to duck out of their duty. Given there’s no prescribed treatment for his clientele, Newman basically improvises on a case-by-case basis to get to the heart of what caused mental collapse.

While the movie motors along nicely on the interplay between these three characters – the potential for real romance between Newman and Corum and Newman’s acceptance of Leibowitz’s alternative, more down-to-earth and decidedly un-medical approach – it focuses on three critical cases. Col Bliss (Eddie Albert) suffers from split personality, Capt Winston (Robert Duvall) is catatonic and Corporal Tompkins (Bobby Darin) too bubbly by far.

In dealing with each, Newman adopts a different persona, occasionally entering into the make-believe world of his clients to expose how much of a fiction they are. Stern with some, he is gentle with others and when he appears to go over the score explains he is not shouting at a person but at his symptoms.   

And while at time it feels like a mental equivalent of episodes of a hospital soap, the underlying drive, the knowledge that men are hiding from the horrors of war or endure guilt over action they may have taken or are unable to face the consequence of orders they carried out takes this into a different level. Almost all suffer from the standard conviction that they must be cowards. Newman’s task is to make all face up to their fears.

Presumably to overcome fears of audience resistance to the downbeat subject matter, the U.S. poster plain misled the public – “love, laughter and tears” were not much in evidence.

And it’s Corum’s self-appointed job to get under Newman’s skin and in so doing get to the heart of the terrible irony of his role. If he fails and men are discharged without being cured they will be returned to their units while mentally unstable and make decisions that could endanger thousands of men. If he succeeds, he sends men back to face potential death.

Luckily, it’s far from dour. Instead of taking the audience down a medical jargon rabbit-hole, the movie sensibly concentrates of character and humanity. It is filled with brilliant dialogue and whenever Newman appears overwhelmed up pops Leibowitz like the self-appointed class clown to bring events to a cheerier conclusion. Up till the end – a Xmas show by inmates and the arrival of a bunch of Italian POWs – the movie steers well clear of sentimentality and delivers a lucid exploration of the effects of war on the human psyche.

Gregory Peck (Mirage, 1965) is outstanding, not just from the way he adapts his character to suit the situation, but because quite a lot of his role is just to react to what is being said. Most stars would run a mile from being on the receiving end of chunks of dialog and insist on altering the script to make them appear more dynamic. Unlike Atticus Finch who is convinced he can find a solution, Newman knows his detection skills are very basic.

Tony Curtis (The Boston Strangler, 1968) might appear as if inhabiting a custom-made role suited to his natural effervescence and charm, but this is a deeper character than initially  seems the case and rather than ride along and enjoy himself he has spells of challenging Newman’s authority. It’s a more subdued role for Angie Dickinson (Jessica, 1962), too, but she also brings a level of seriousness to the part and is integral to the picture’s success.

Bobby Darin (Pressure Point, 1962) was Oscar-nominated but I found his acting over-the-top. Eddie Albert (Green Acres television series 1965-1971) and Robert Duvall (To Kill a Mockingbird), in particular, were more assured. Look out for James Gregory (The Secret War of Harry Frigg, 1968) and former child star Jane Withers.

David Miller (Hammerhead, 1968) strikes the correct tone, leavening the seriousness with humor, but not avoiding the deeper issues. In their final screenplay assignment Henry and Phoebe Ephron (Carousel, 1956), parents of Nora Ephron (When Harry Met Sally, 1989), teamed with Richard L. Breen (A Man Could Get Killed, 1966) for an intelligent screenplay based on the bestseller by Leo Rosten.

Author: Brian Hannan

I am a published author of books about film - over a dozen to my name, the latest being "When Women Ruled Hollywood." As the title of the blog suggests, this is a site devoted to movies of the 1960s but since I go to the movies twice a week - an old-fashioned double-bill of my own choosing - I might occasionally slip in a review of a contemporary picture.

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