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Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in the Movies and in Real Life

Today PTSD is pressing and vital issue. Be wary of Hollywood for enlightenment.

Key points

  • Throughout the years, films have portrayed veterans suffering from PTSD in a negative light.
  • When the military commissioned a documentary that showed the mental anguish of some former soldiers, the film was confiscated.
  • PTSD is real, and as soldiers return from Afghanistan, we must do our best as a society to welcome them warmly.

In the 2005 movie The Jacket, a troubled Gulf War vet named Jack Starks gets framed for a murder he didn’t commit. He’s sent to a psychiatric institution in lieu of prison due to his Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). The movie is a bit of a stretch from reality, but Starks, played by a brooding Adrien Brody, is encased in a straitjacket, pumped full of hallucinogens, and tossed into a mortuary drawer by the nefarious Doctor Becker (Kris Kristofferson). Dr. Becker explains this technique is designed to “adjust, maybe even reset his violent proclivities, peel away some layers of hate.” The rationale being that you can’t break something that’s already broken.

PTSD is one of the most misunderstood and alarming conditions any person can endure. According to the US Department of Veterans Affairs, it occurs when someone is subject to a “catastrophic stressor,” such as combat, and afterward suffers from intrusive thoughts, numbness, and panic. It was only in 1980 that the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) recognized PTSD as a disorder, and back then it was considered a “controversial” diagnosis. Many people did not see it as “real.” Today, PTSD is an accepted and better-understood condition, although sadly there is still a high-degree of stigma and mystery attached to it.

Movies depicting troubled soldiers acting out and getting thrown into horrifying asylums date at least to the Second World War. In High Wall (1947) a WWII veteran named Steven Kenet suffers from a combat-related head injury and returns home to find himself accused of murdering his wife. He confesses, but when the police doctor recognizes that he is mentally damaged, he is sent to the asylum rather than to prison. The fact that the film needs his trauma to be physical and not mental in origin signals the resistance to the very real impact of combat stress on mental processes. At the Hamelin County Psychiatric Hospital, suitably introduced at night and surrounded by the eponymous high wall, we learn that Kenet has a “subdural hematoma of the left frontal lobe” that has caused “both physical and emotional changes.”

Kenet breaks out of the asylum, and with the help of Dr. Lorrison (a woman who duly falls for him), he finds out that the real murderer is his wife’s boss with whom she’d been having an affair. With the help of “narco-synthesis” (truth serum), Kenet gets the man to confess. The film’s strained sodium-pentothal-based plot did not pass muster with the New York Times, whose critic called it, “morbid and socially cynical,” before concluding it was, “just the thing for your holiday entertainment—unless, of course, you are sane.”

Mistreating soldiers who have been mentally injured by wartime experience is an ongoing social issue in our history. Popular culture at times enforces the stigma, at other times derides the mistreatment of veterans, and, more often, lingers salaciously in veteran pain without coming down on any particular side. The Jacket seems to take this route—offering up a sympathetic veteran who undergoes heinous torture for the entertainment of the horror movie audience.

But sometimes, a little truth gets through. In the documentary Let There Be Light, legendary director John Huston delivered a compassionate look at sufferers of PTSD. Commissioned by the U.S. Army in 1945, the 58-minute film tells the story of a cohort of veterans at the Mason General Hospital, a massive psychiatric facility in Long Island. The camera focuses tightly on faces, as veterans lose their speech, wobble on unsteady legs, and stare off into the void. The narrator tells us that these men are the “human salvage” of the war, “born and bred in peace, educated to hate war,” and, “overnight plunged into sudden and terrible situations.” They feel, “hopelessness and utter isolation.” The documentary, the first of its kind, offered a new look at an asylum as a place of healing and understanding. Even “scary” treatments such as sodium amatol are presented as gentle cures. In group analysis, the men talk about their childhoods and get hypnotized into recalling moments of battle horror.

Unfortunately, Huston’s film was out of step with the Army’s agenda. It was confiscated by the Military Police and hidden from the public until 1980. According to Huston, “They wanted to maintain the ‘warrior’ myth, which said that our American soldiers went to war and came back all the stronger for the experience, standing tall and proud for having served their country well.” PTSD was not something the Army wanted acknowledged. Hollywood mainly followed the line, presenting brave soldiers unaffected by the horror. Notable exceptions, like The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), were few and far between.

As veterans today return from Afghanistan, the issue of PTSD remains in the public eye, if muted by the sheer exhaustion of a twenty-year, and apparently failed, war. The traumatized “human salvage” includes, of course, not only Americans, but also the countless people traumatized in that country. Wars unleash waves of pain, with ripples spreading out over decades, haunting the survivors and undermining their capacity to cope with everyday troubles. Treatment in hospitals is only part of the answer. It’s up to us, the greater society, to lend our hearts and our sympathies to those with wounds invisible to the eye.


Friedman, M.J. "PTSD History and Overview." Department of Veterans Affairs.