War is hell. We all agree on that. But the real hell doesn’t only happen during the conflict but also when the latter is over. Cities are destroyed and have to be rebuilt, countries are poor, families have lost relatives, and the soldiers who survived are mentally affected and/or badly hurt physically. That last case scenario interests us as I am participating in the Disability in Films Blogathon, the first blogathon hosted by Robin from Pop Culture Reverie. That blogathon is not a usual one. It looks at a more delicate subject. The participants will explore the world of movies that include a character who suffers from a physical disability, a disability he or she could probably never get rid of. For the occasion, I’ve decided to write about The Men, a film that explores the world of war paraplegics.
The brilliant Fred Zinnemann (High Noon, From Here to Eternity, Oklahoma !) directed The Men, released in 1950. It’s the first film starring Marlon Brando (who began his acting career on Broadway). Even if The Men isn’t Brando’s most well-known film, it was a promising one as it gave him the potential to show his great acting abilities. That is the first Marlon Brando film I’ll be writing about on this blog, so it was about time as he is one of my favourite actors! The film also stars Teresa Wright (another favourite of mine).
The main action of The Men takes place in a military hospital for paraplegic cases. Kenneth Wilchek (Marlon Brando) has been badly hurt during the war (the 2nd one). His chances of ever walking again are desperately low. He’s been in that hospital for a few years, but it is not the first one he « visited ». Kenneth can’t get over the fact that he could never walk again. He is isolated from the other soldiers. His mood is gloomy. He doesn’t want to talk to anybody, especially not his fiancée, Ellen (Teresa Wright). But luckily, when he’ll accept to listen to her, she’s the one who’ll make him want to live again and take charge of his life.
As I’ll mostly be talking about the character’s evolution in this film, I must warn you that this article contains many spoilers. As you know, I usually don’t want to include spoilers in my reviews, but now I have to make an exception to the rule. Of course, Marlon Brando isn’t the only paraplegic character in the film. Still, as he is the main one (and the most interesting), he’s the one I’ll be focusing on.
At the beginning of the film, Kenneth (Marlon Brando) is presented in all his glory. He’s a soldier on the front, leading the troops. He is Lieutenant Kenneth Wilchek. When the camera reveals him, he stands tall, proud, serious and full of charisma. He seems to know what he’s doing, and we can read courage on his face. That scene takes place during the opening titles. We can hear military music, mainly composed of drums. The music grows in intensity, which announces the drama to come. Marlon Brando’s glorious moment as a brave soldier is abruptly interrupted when a German soldier shoots him. His spine is badly hurt, so that’s how he develops paraplegia.
That scene, on the front, acts as a flashback. As we go back to time zero, Kenneth is in the military hospital, lying in his bed, alone in the dark. We can hear his thoughts in connexion with the past events. “It’s funny, I was afraid to die. Now, I’m afraid to live”. That illustrates Kenneth’s mental situation well at the beginning of the film or, more precisely, since his hospitalization.
A pretty important scene in the film takes place not long after the latter. The soldiers’ relatives, all women (mothers, wives, girlfriends), are having a meeting in the hospital chapel with Dr Brock (Everett Sloan). He takes care of paraplegic patients. He’s there to explain to them how things are going for the soldiers, what kind of situation they are in, their symptoms, what are the cures, etc. The women are worried and ask him many questions (which is perfectly normal). We know they want the best for their men. Young Ellen (Teresa Wright) listens in silence. She then goes to the doctor to talk to him alone. Ellen is Kenneth’s fiancée and desperately wants to marry him. She doesn’t care if he has paraplegia. Dr Brock is suspicious. He’s not sure if she can handle the situation, but he’s ready to help somehow.
We then discover that not all the patients are in the same mood as Kenneth. As he is in a lot of pain, he is in an isolated room. However, that’s not the case for all patients. Most of them are in a big common room. Dr Brock visits them to see how things are going and evolving. Even though they might never walk again, we discover that most of these soldiers know how to appreciate life. They socialize, talk, and play games. Some even make jokes (which is an excellent example of black humour). It’s a bunch of handsome young men we see here. As they can’t walk, their main objective is to train their arm muscles for being, at least a minimum strong. Of course, Kenneth can’t avoid the doctor’s visit even if he wishes to be left alone.
Kenneth says it himself “I’m a bad patient”. He’s arrogant, aggressive, unhappy and, mostly, doesn’t want to see his fiancée. If we relate that to real life, I guess it can represent reality. More precisely, it shows us that some soldiers accepted their faith more quickly than others, but everybody is different. Dr Brock thinks it’s about time for Kenneth to meet the other soldiers. So, he brings him to the common room.
Norm (Jack Webb), another paraplegic soldier, welcomes him, but Kenneth is not very responsive. He’s not exactly ready to socialize. He tries to sleep, but he’s constantly annoyed by Leo (Richard Erdman), who teases him with his comments and music. When Kenneth decides he has enough, he throws a pot at him, but Norm corrects him by pouring a pot of water on him, making him understand that this is not how things work in this place.
As we know, Ellen biggest wish is to marry Kenneth, but she first has to see him to make him understand that. Dr. Brock arranges things so she could see him while the other soldiers are away to celebrate a wedding. Ellen arrives in the big room. Everything is dark. She quietly goes to Kenneth’s bed. As we all expected it, he is not really happy to see her and wants her to go. But she refuses. She stays and wants him to accept the fact that she cares for him. This is an emotional moment for both of them. After being very aggressive, Kenneth sorts of calm down. He understands that she believes in him and needs him and that he needs her. From now on, things will change.
The following morning, Kenneth listens quietly to a discussion between the soldiers. They debate about the fact that a woman could never love someone like them. What is Kenneth thinking? That’s what we mostly wonder about after having seen this first scene between him and Ellen. Our biggest wish is that those soldiers won’t spoil everything with their discussion about hopeless love.
But Kenneth hasn’t say his last word. Not long after, he decides to take the lead. He first tries to sit on his bed. This is a big effort for him as he has lost strength during his days in the hospital. Norman helps him and we, the spectators, are mentally encouraging him. Of course, we want the best for him. Kenneth decides to get stronger, so he starts to train himself. We also see him using the wheelchair for the first time. He does physical exercises with Angel ( Arthur Jurado) the “athlete” of the gang. He’s in less good shape than him, but as the days go by, he becomes stronger.
Things have changed and Kenneth is not the same man (in the good way). We see him outside under the sun with Ellen. They smile and seem happy. He talks to the other soldiers and finally socializes with them. Leo, who used to annoy him, is now a friend. This shows us that hope is never in vain. The main reason why he is happier is because he feels he might walk again. He says it to Ellen (him and her are the only ones to know about him). He’s happy by this glimpse of hope, but he wishes he’s right.
Unfortunately, these short moments of joy are abruptly interrupted by two dramas: the death of Angel (which obviously affects Kenneth) and the fact that Kenneth could never walk again, even if he thought he might. Of course, this is a big deception for him. Kenneth is sad again and refuses to listen to Dr. Brock’s encouragements. This one explodes and claims that he’s not a magician, but only a doctor.
When Kenneth and Teresa go to the restaurant together, we can see how people from the world outside the hospital behave with him. A servant makes them skip the line and brought them to a table. Of course, Kenneth is highly embarrassed, which is understandable. We know he wants to be treated like everybody and that’s probably what we would want to if we were in his situation. As for the other clients, they observe him, judge him (well, that’s what we feel by seeing the look on their face). They probably wonder what Ellen is doing with a man like him. What a way to behave! Of course, Kenneth can’t stand it, so they decide to go.
Kenneth certainly is affected by Angel’s death, but, luckily, Ellen knows how to make him happy. She loves him deeply and really wants to marry him. However, her parents don’t really approve of this potential marriage. They, especially her father, want to bring her back to reality. They have doubts about her love for Kenneth and, most of all, wonder if they could have a grandchild. Ellen doesn’t listen to their rubbish talk and is ready to marry Kenneth anyway. She, of course, talks about the children question with the doctor, but he can’t really give her clear answers.
For the wedding, Kenneth wishes is to spend the ceremony standing on his own feet. He trains himself at the hospital. Once again, we see him with Ellen. They are happy again. He even drives a car! On the wedding day, he stands and everybody holds their breath, but the scene is abruptly interrupted when he loses his balance.
After the ceremony, Kenneth and Ellen arrive to their new home. The atmosphere is tense. They don’t have much to say to each other. Ellen doesn’t really know how to behave with Kenneth, which obviously annoys him. Have they made a mistake? Kenneth, who can’t stay one more minute in this home, goes away to the hospital. Here, everybody is, of course, surprises to see him. Being in an aggressive mood, Kenneth makes his anger go out by breaking some windows. He’s obviously far from being satisfied with the way his wedding to Ellen has started. In a bar, with Leo, his aggressiveness is shown again when he punches a man who obviously annoys him. He then provokes an accident by driving drunk.
However, Ellen is not ready to give up and Kenneth’s friends at the hospital are ready to help in in their own way. While Ellen is back to the hospital to convince a not very enthusiast Kenneth to come back, some other patients vote on if he should stay or go. He has to go. Of course, Kenneth is angry and believe they have no rights to throw him outside of the hospital. He complains to Dr. Brock, but this one can’t do much for him. However, he encourages him to go in the “real world” and it’s those wise words that encourage Kenneth to make the best decision.
We are then almost at the end of the film. Kenneth is driving his car and has a determined look on his face. We can guess that what the doctor just told him had a great impact on him. He then arrives at Ellen place. Her mother’s tell her and she goes on the porch to welcome him. He comes to her with his wheelchair, but has to stop due to some steps that lead to the house. He invites her to go to the movies, and she proposes him to help him going up the stairs. He accepts and they go in the house together to start a new life.
I think the moral of this story would be that, if you are in bad shape, but have people around you who love you, you might not be physically cured, but there’s certainly more hope for some happiness. In this story, Ellen has a great role to play. It’s precisely her love and hope for Kenneth that makes him change for the best. We really wonder what would have happened to him if she wouldn’t have been here.
For his first on-screen role, Marlon Brando gave everything he had to make the most credible performance. To prepare his role, he spent a month in a veteran hospital, lying in bed. During the shooting, Marlon Brando was staying in a wheelchair to get accustomed to his character. He stayed in this chair when they were filming, but even when they weren’t. With his first role on screen, Brando proved us he was capable of doing more than what he was asked to and that he certainly was a promising actor.
The Men gives us another type of vision on the world. It might not be one of the most famous films about physical disability, but as for the evolution of the concern character, I think it would be one of the best examples.
I, of course, want to thank Pop Culture Reverie for hosting this blogathon. It was something different from the blogathons we are normally used to, and it was worthy.
I invite you to read the other entries for this blogathon: