For my final entry in the Forgotten Hollywood series, I would like to draw attention to a film that is similarly about transitions. Based loosely on a true story, Captain Newman, M.D. (1963) is about Capt. Josiah Newman (Gregory Peck), the head of the neuro-psychiatric ward at a military hospital during WWII. Throughout the film, he and his staff treat a range of patients dealing with posttraumatic stress disorder and other mental ailments. It’s an episodic structure, one that would have lent itself well to a proposed television adaptation.
This setting allows for the supporting actors to indulge to the expected histrionics, chewing the scenery in their respective scenes while Peck falls back on his reliable movie star charisma. These are the performances that garnered critical attention and an Oscar nomination of Bobby Darin as Cpl. Jim Tomkins. However, there is an exception. A relative newcomer at the time, Robert Duvall plays Capt. Paul Winston, who spends much of the film in a catatonic state until one of the final scenes.
I will not spoil the specifics of this moment, but it becomes clear that we are witnessing the birth of a new generation of actor, the type who would dominate the next decade of Hollywood. He goes small rather than big. He whispers were others had projected. His pain and shame are internalised rather than put on display. Instead of a brightly lit room surrounded by an audience of orderlies and nurses, this scene takes place in the shadows and in close-ups, with only him and Peck. Especially when compared to his co-stars, Duvall’s performance reveals a transition not only in dominant acting styles but also in how we remember WWII.
WWII is fading from living memory. Soon, we will be left with nothing but shadows and flickering lights in the likeness of the dead. The heartbreak of I’ll Be Seeing You and the cautionary tale of None Shall Escape are losing their immediacy. The names of Sessue Hayakawa, Preston Sturges, and Anna May Wong are being forgotten. The treatment of Japanese Americans at home and abroad is being elided from our shared memory. With this series, I had hoped to help revitalise interest in these stories and storytellers, a Sisyphean task. They too are fading.
Beyond cinema, I reflect on my time here at the 2AD Memorial Library, on how we memorlise WWII. Scrawled notes on scraps of paper. Faded photographs. Names in a roll of honour. If we do not preserve these stories, they will be lost. How will we remember this time in history? How will we share these stories with others? For this, I am grateful for institutions like the 2AD Memorial Trust. We have a responsibility to keep these stories alive, even as the style of their telling changes over time.
If you want to learn more about the story of Captain Newman, you can reserve a copy of Leo Rosten’s Captain Newman, M.D. (1961). The film adaptation is available on DVD at the Norfolk and Norwich Millennium Library.