First Public Showings of Lost 1945 Gene Kelly Movie on Combat Fatigue

In 1945, actor Gene Kelly, then a Navy Lieutenant, directed and starred in a Navy training film called Combat Fatigue Irritability.  To get a feel for his role, Kelly had himself admitted to a Navy hospital, posing as a sailor suffering combat fatigue.  Distribution of the film, like many military training films, was restricted.  In the case of the Kelly film, its audience was limited to combat fatigue patients and the health care professionals working with them.  For almost seven decades, the film has been sitting in the files at the National Library of Medicine.

Its first public screening occurred this past Saturday in New York Academy of medicine at the all-day Festival of Medical History and the Arts. A second screening, free and open to the public, will take place as part of the History of Medicine Lecture Series at the National Library of Medicine (Lister Hill Auditorium, Bldg. 38A, 8600 Rockville Pike, Bethesda, MD), on November 19, 2013, beginning at 2:00 P.M.)

Fascinating information on the history of the film and the place of psychiatry in the war effort is available in a blog post from the National Library of Medicine: 

The chief of the History of Medicine Division at the National Library of Medicine, Jeffrey Resnick, contacted our colleague Kerry Kelly Novick about the rerelease of this film which though unknown is an important and impressive example of her father's work.

The film is definitely worth watching.  It's a riveting combination of the absolutely current and the archaic.  In 1945, what we now call Posttraumatic stress disorder was known as "combat fatigue."  Although it focuses on symptoms of anger and irritability, the film portrays a wide range of symptoms and consequences of combat related psychological trauma:  depression, withdrawal, the toll of helplessness, the benefit of a "band of brothers" (and the ill effects of the absence of one), survivor guilt, and alienation from civilians back home.

Seaman Bob Lucas, the character played by Gene Kelly, is the survivor of a ship sinking who witnessed the violent deaths of his crewmates.  A compassionate psychiatrist helps Lucas understand that his symptoms are due to "something underneath" and that to get well, he has to face the demons and painful feelings he has buried—guilt, fear, and loss of self-worth.  The symptoms of combat fatigue, the psychiatrist insists, are always due to buried feelings underneath that the person has to face. The psychiatrist shows Lucas and his fellow patients how talking about unbearable experiences and feelings, especially in the presence those who have been through something similar, leads to "solving problems" and ultimately return to a healthy life, with the ability to love and work.

A showing of this film would be a great focal point for a psychoanalytic society program for the public on PTSD and/or military homecoming.

Prudy Gourguechon, M.D.