Films about mental health can be a slippery slope. From insensitive and judgmental to sappy and sentimental, it’s a topic that hasn’t always been addressed right and still attracts a lot of stigma. People’s understanding of mental health has changed a lot, too, so sometimes it’s easy to assume a film like Captain Newman, M.D., which came out in 1963 and was directed by David Miller, is going to get things wrong or not be compassionate. PTSD wasn’t even a term yet, and the film takes place during WWII.
Captain Newman (Gregory Peck) is in charge of the neuropsychiatric ward at Colfax Army Air Field. Understaffed and given six weeks to decide if a patient should be discharged, returned to duty, or hospitalized, most of Newman’s high-ups aren’t supportive and the general thinking seems to be that his patients are either faking or crazy.
Captain Newman, M.D. is a gift to sitcom fans. Much in the same way TV shows like Breaking Bad and Damages would cast comedic actors in dramatic roles and pull out great performances, Dick Sargent (Bewitched), Ted Bessell (That Girl), Larry Storch (F Troop), and Vito Scotti (The Flying Nun) all appear in smaller parts in Captain Newman. Eddie Albert (Green Acres) is one of the patients, along with two others played by singer, Bobby Darin, and Robert Duvall, who gets more attention.
The effect is like having a film comprised of special guest stars. While many of the characters aren’t revisited again after their introductions, it’s not the number of scenes that matters, but what this cast is able to do with one. The worst that can be said about this movie is that at the end you’re left wishing there were more time to spend with all of them. Had Captain Newman, M.D. been released today, it would’ve surely become a TV show.
Why isn’t Captain Newman better known today, though? It has everything going for it, including Tony Curtis who is terrific as a poached orderly who initially doesn’t want anything to do with Ward 7, but then goes to great lengths to score them a Christmas tree (the scene where Dr. Newman confronts him about this is technically too long yet all the funnier for testing how long Peck and Curtis can go without breaking).
Film historian, Samm Deighan, discusses some possible reasons in her commentary track for Kino Lorber’s Blu-Ray release and it’s not a track you want to skip. While most commentaries devote some time to the biographies of the cast and crew, Deighan makes sure to consider where Captain Newman fits within their larger careers, including screenwriters Richard L. Breen, Phoebe Ephron, and Henry Ephron. It’s not just that Peck was cast in films with a social justice message (Captain Newman came out after To Kill A Mockingbird). He sought them out. Brentwood was Peck’s production company and if “Captain Newman” is a typical Peck role, in the sense that he tends to be a moral compass, Deighan really draws attention to the fact that it’s no small feat to be the lead in an ensemble cast this good (she also talks about the film’s depiction of sodium pentothal compared to spy films, where sodium pentothal is “truth serum”).
The film never ignores how cruel people can be towards soldiers with PTSD, and Captain Newman is no saint either. He’s deeply sexist towards one of the patient’s wife (Bethel Leslie) and Angie Dickenson’s Lt. Corum is sometimes depended on too much to cheer him up, but those faults make the film believable and, when it comes to patients, no one cares more than Captain Newman.
Captain Newman, M.D. is available on Blu-Ray now from Kino Lorber.