The film version of MR. ROBERTS, a great stage hit for Henry Fonda and the top grossing pic of ‘55; yielded a tv series; a forgettable sequel (ENSIGN PULVER/’64); and this Gregory Peck vehicle, MR. ROBERTS IN A PSYCHO WARD. Not really, but it might as well be. While the dramatic lever that made MR. ROBERTS/’55 work was watching the crew ‘act out’ with wild scams & antiestablishmentarianism in response to the monotonous routine of life on a WWII supply ship, CAPTAIN NEWMAN, M.D. is set at a Stateside military psychiatric ward, so the ‘acting out’ is par for the course. (It’s like the difference between The Marx Bros. in A NIGHT AT THE OPERA/’35, where the boys stick out; and AT THE CIRCUS/’39, where they fit right in.) Here again is the rigid commander & his prized tree; the scheming junior officer who lives to break the rules; the girl with the gams who drives the men goofy; and our calm, sensible, quiet hero who rides the whirlwind, staying sane amid the madness. Heck, they even cadge the cabled death notice for a bittersweet climax. Megged by David Miller and very well shot by Russell Metty, it’s decent enough, but terribly square. The sort of military-life dramedy that M*A*S*H*/’70 would sweep away in a few years. Yet, the film demands viewing for highlighting a big generational shift in film acting. With all those deeply troubled servicemen, the film’s an orgy of big emotional set pieces. But while Greg Peck, Angie Dickinson & Tony Curtis (who does wonders with his thankless Ensign Pulver rip-off) play a waiting game and try to make the slapsticky comedy mesh with the serious stuff, the patients chew up the scenery in those sparsely furnished hospital rooms. And while Bobby Darin’s traumatized tough guy showed old-school bravado and earned him an Oscar® nom., the new-style interior implosion of a young Robert Duvall as a catatonic patient, pointed anyone with eyes in their head in a new direction.
WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: To see the real deal on psychologically wounded WWII vets, search for John Huston’s long-suppressed documentary LET THERE BE LIGHT/’46. Available for free on many sites, the visual quality isn’t great (a full National Archive restoration was only made in 2012). But the film, mostly interview sessions with traumatized men, is remarkable in any condition.