The social issue film can often prove to be a contentious space of filmmaking one that delves into narrative misdirection by either focusing too deeply on one issue or grazing over the subjects in very troubling terms. When you add the subject of disability into this particular construct things become even more frustrating in their lack of proper execution, a genre that suffers heavily from exploitation of characters, while also proving a place for actors to assure Oscar wins for being able bodied in a disabled role. Essentially, while I do find Daniel-Day Lewis' performance in My Left Foot to be absolutely astounding, I am also aware that this role could have been provided to a truly disabled individual and achieved a tangible reality. All this aside, I find it a considerable challenge attempting to locate films that focus on disability without it becoming an act of overt, privileged sympathy or a space for actors to grandstand in hopes of receiving accolades. The Men, the film known for launching the career of Marlon Brando, does have moments where his Stanislavsky influenced method acting does result in broken glass and growling on the then still evolving actor, however, considering that it manages to situate itself almost entirely in the space of a Veteran's Affairs office, it takes time to delicately touch upon the identity, and more importantly, the embodying of a disabled self. Wherein other works on this subject purposefully shy away from acknowledging issues of self and other, able and disabled, The Men constantly makes this a reality, lingering on the immobility or struggled movement of the bodies whose legs, while still present, are entirely inoperable. Taking on even more layers, the film notes how longing and gendered desire factor into the disabled self and how even when dealing with a person struggling with disabilities a moments hesitation can carry dire consequences. Furthermore, were these all not justifications enough to adore this movie, which is stunningly shot and compose, it includes a young Jack Webb rocking a beard and at one point drunkenly reciting Shakespeare and these are pretty much the very things that compose my dreams. The Men is a masterpiece in social realism that deserves mention in the same space as To Kill A Mockingbird.
The Men centers on a group of soldiers who are shown engaging in combat, specifically Ken (Marlon Brando) who are injured while in the line of fire. Ken is indeed shown writhing in pain as he slowly loses feeling in his legs. The narrative then jumps to Ken in a dark room of a hospital bemoaning his very existence, refusing to even acknowledge a possibility of rehabilitation and projecting anger at the world around him. Ken, of course, is not the only member of the hospital, which is full of other disabled veterans, all overseen by the optimistic and stern Dr. Brock (Everett Sloane). The other members of the hospital include the horse gambling aficionado Leo (Richard Erdman) and the soft spoken Angel (Arthur Jurado) whose particularly agility despite being a paraplegic has earned him the title of Tarzan. Furthermore, the group includes the leader of a Disabled Veterans Activism Group named Norm (Jack Webb) who approaches the issues of his specific community with unwavering optimism. Between advocating for his patients continually working in rehabilitative therapy, Dr. Brock also attempts to lecture the families of paraplegics in the issues they will face once reintroduced into a non-disabled friendly world. During one lecture, Dr. Brock is approached by Ellen (Teresa Wright) who purports to be a former girlfriend of Ken, admitting to having followed him to various hospitals only to have him refuse to meet with her, clearly ashamed of his disabled body. While Dr. Brock initially sides with Ken's choice, he seems to realize that Ellen could prove to be the exact point of inspiration necessary to push through physical therapy. The angry Ken appears dismissive at first, but when Ellen proves persistent, he agrees, hoping that he can make it through enough therapy to stand on his own during their wedding. This challenge is also faced with the loss of patients to death and a continual awareness of the ways in which disability is severely limiting. It is not long after their wedding, that Ellen has a moment of hesitation when Ken becomes frustrated, resulting in his leaving in a fit of rage, becoming AWOL in the process. Through dedication on the part of Dr. Brock and some stern decisions on the part of Norm, Ken is able to have a last minute wake up call returning to Ellen and accepting her as a beneficial force in his life.
The way in which this film works with disability is fascinating in both a historical and theoretical framework, attempting to deconstruct the ways in which both intersect in the world. Given that it is situated in a veteran's hospital affords it, in the context of 1950, a decidedly masculine twist, taking on feelings of lack and castration which are drawn upon, when the various characters forced those with privilege and ability to acknowledge their lack. Indeed, when individuals like Ellen and other women invade the space it is almost out of curiosity and desire in a point of similarity, as opposed to unrestrained desire for the privileged able body. The camera seems equally curious to consider how one desires the disabled body, resting on the fit and attractive body of Brando as he swings across parallel bars or simply lies in his bed severely immobile. Brando can be desired and gazed upon in a unique way that would not quite work in the ways it would in later films, here lacking the desire of drag or queerness, but instead being a hyper-masculine figured incapacitated. More contemporary works on this subject, mostly in the documentary sense seem to have reappropriated the masculine through sports, indeed a place where many disabled men are able to find their maleness again, thus finding shades of normalcy in the process. This notion is perhaps most evident in the captivating documentary Murderball. It is not small accident that Ken comes to rediscover his legitimacy through playing sports with his fellow patients, thus again asserting masculine prowess. Yet, The Men seems hesitant to make this the ultimate answer to how to deal with disability, also offering outlets through embracing intellectualism as does Norm, whose quick mind and wit seem to be his method of confronting his lack. For both men, however, failure still arises and their lack is still a reality, the closing moments of the film move into a decidedly melodramatic space, wherein Ken awakens to his, to borrow a term from Linda William's bodily sickness and it is his acceptance that Ellen is a force of aid that he moves to a new awakening. Ken will always internalize his paraplegic self, but according to The Men, those willing to help should not be ignored, particularly those doing so out of the deepest feelings of love.
Key Scene: Jack Webb drunk reciting Shakespeare. Perfection.
Buy this movie, it should be more widely seen.