Program Notes: Captain Newman, M.D. (1963)
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Everyone recognizes Robert Altman’s 1969 film M*A*S*H.
That anti-establishment landmark made savage fun of the military mindset by portraying a group of madcap U.S. Army surgeons who cope with the horrors of the Korean War by rebelling against God and country at every opportunity. Though the film is set in Korea, everyone watching it was thinking of the Vietnam conflict then raging. And of course the movie spawned one of the most beloved TV comedy series of all time.
M*A*S*H is a classic. Captain Newman, M.D., on the other hand, has been all but forgotten.
And yet in 1963 – nine years before M*A*S*H – this comedy/drama from no-name director David Miller had very much the same premise.
With his unit chronically understaffed and underbudgeted (you get the impression that military leaders weren’t so sure that the mental problems of fighting men were genuine), Newman schemes to better serve his patients by allowing his assistant, Corporal Liebowitz (Tony Curtis), to pull various scams on the military brass and their stingy bean counters.
Among the battle-weary men in his care are a highly-decorated-but-suicidal combat pilot (Eddie Albert), a corporal (pop singer/actor Bobby Darin) emotionally crippled by the horrors he has seen, and a captain (Robert Duvall, who later would be in M*A*S*H) rendered impotent by his wartime experiences.
Newman even has a love interest, a nurse played by Angie Dickinson.
Leo Rosten’s source novel was inspired by the wartime service of his friend Ralph Greenson, one of the first psychiatrists to link post-traumatic stress disorder with combat. Among Greenson’s famous peacetime patients were Marilyn Monroe, Frank Sinatra, Tony Curtis, and Vivien Leigh.
The major difference between Captain Newman, M.D. and M*A*S*H six years later is one of tone.
Miller and his cast and crew are careful to treat the armed forces with respect. After all, when this movie came out American military might was all that stood between us and nuclear annihilation at the hands of the Soviets.
Moreover, memories of Sen. Joe McCarthy’s anti-communist witch hunt were still fresh. Stanley Kubrick’s iconoclastic Dr. Strangelove, with its full-force assault on the madness of the Cold War and the world’s growing nuclear arsenal, wouldn’t be released for another year.
Plus, a more cautious approach nicely matched Peck’s screen persona. In the wake of Mockingbird the actor for a few years became the nation’s father figure – decent, principled, caring, and generous. Some of the best qualities of Atticus Finch transferred easily to the concerned therapist Peck was portraying.
In the end, Captain Newman, M.D. is more rueful about war and the military than it is angry. Within a few years, though, America’s attitude would change. We were about to find ourselves in a wildly unpopular war that would turn inside out conventional attitudes about our armed forces.
The film was a box office success and landed three Academy Award nominations: Bobby Darin for supporting actor, best sound, and best adapted screenplay.
Director Miller had a career that spawned five decades, but most of his two dozen credits are unremarkable. His most noteworthy films are Billy the Kid with Robert Taylor (1941), Flying Tigers (1942), Lonely Are the Brave, a haunting modern Western with Kirk Douglas (1962), and the controversial Executive Action (1973), which asserts that leaders of the military-industrial complex were responsible for the John F. Kennedy assassination.
Most would agree that with its blend of heartfelt compassion and oddball humor, Captain Newman, M.D. was his finest hour.
Other films in the series “50 Years Ago at the Movies”
Saturdays at 1:30 p.m.:
- January 5: Lilies of the Field (1963) Not Rated
- January 12: Hud (1963) Not Rated
- January 19: Tom Jones (1963) Not Rated
- January 26: Captain Newman M.D. (1963) Not Rated
- February 2: Charade (1963) Not Rated
- February 9: Bye Bye Birdie (1963) Not Rated
- February 16: The Birds (1963) Not Rated
- February 23: The Great Escape (1963) Not Rated
Admission to these films is free.
About the Author
Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com. He joined the Library's Public Affairs team in 2012.