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The Men (AKA Battle Stripe) (1950) - Overview, Synopsis, Critique

bud brock ellen leo

Principal social theme: disabilities

National. No MPAA rating. Featuring: Marlon Brando, Teresa Wright, Jack Webb, Everett Sloane, Richard Erdman, Dorothy Tree, Howard St. John, Arthur Jurado, Virginia Farmer, Nita Hunter, Cliff Clark, Ray Teal, John Hamilton, Jim Backus, Virginia Christine, DeForest Kelley. Written by Carl Foreman. Cinematography by Robert de Grasse. Edited by Harry Gerstad. Music by Dimitri Tiomkin. Produced by Stanley Kramer. Directed by Fred Zinnemann. B&W. 85 minutes.


The Men is an intense film focusing on the rehabilitation of soldiers suffering from spinal injuries during World War II and the Korean conflict. In terms of authenticity, the production was filmed at the Veteran’s Hospital in Birmingham, Alabama, and forty-five members of the cast were actual paraplegic patients at the facility. The script focuses on the treatment and recovery of a single patient, played by Marlon Brando in his screen debut.


The Men opens with a battlefield sequence showing the wounding of a soldier, Ken “Bud” Wilchek (Marlon Brando). After he is shot, the scene cuts to his bedroom in the VA hospital in Birmingham. It is night and Bud cannot sleep. The scene shifts again to the next day, as Dr. Gene Brock (Everett Sloane) delivers a lecture to about twenty-four women relatives, wives and friends of soldiers undergoing treatment for paraplegia. It is a blunt presentation, stressing the importance of accepting the condition. In almost all cases, walking will never be possible and neither willpower nor medical science is capable of repairing spinal cord injuries. The doctor discusses bladder control and sexual function, which can differ from patient to patient based on the location of the injury. Finally, he discusses the psychological impact on the patients, who often suffer from depression and other problems in adjusting to life in a wheelchair. After the meeting, Ellen (Teresa Wright) asks his help because Bud, her fiancé has refused to see her since his injury.

Later that day, Brock leads a team of physicians on a round of the paraplegic ward. (One of the doctors is played by DeForest Kelley, who later played Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy in Star Trek .) Brock questions the patients about their various physical problems. The beds are usually laid out in groups of four. Brock spends a lot of time with one particular group, which includes Leo Doogin (Richard Erdman), a sharp wit who acts as a bookie, Norm Butler (Jack Webb), an intellectual who acts as local head of the PVA (Paralyzed Veterans of America), and Angel Lopez (Arthur Jurado), nicknamed “Tarzan” due to his devotion to exercise. The fourth bed is empty as the previous patient was recently discharged. Brock plans to move Bud from his private room to this bed, figuring the feisty example of the others might do his embittered patient some good. Bud is very hostile at first to the others. Leo, a classical music buff, plays his radio louder and louder until Bud throws a glass of water at it. Norm responds by throwing his water at Bud, telling him to “cool off.” Later that evening, when the other patients attend a wedding reception for one of the patients, Brock slips Ellen into the empty ward to confront Bud. Angry at first, Bud sinks into a fit of self-pity. He mellows, however, when Ellen explains how much she needs him. Touched by her openness, Bud agrees to let her visit him regularly. Soon, Bud becomes motivated to work out and build up his strength so he can become more self-sufficient.

Each of the men in the group suffers a setback. Leo is disappointed that his father only visits when he desires a cut from his son’s gambling receipts. Norm, who had previously proclaimed that it is impossible for a paraplegic to have a successful marriage, falls in love with Laverne, a girl working at the local drive-in. After borrowing nine hundred dollars, she dumps Norm and heads off to Canada. Bud thinks he has some feeling returning to his legs, but Dr. Brock conducts a test that demonstrates that it was only a phantom sensation. He tells Bud he must accept the fact that he will never walk again. Angel suddenly becomes seriously ill. A shell fragment lodged near his spine has become infected, leading to meningitis. His unexpectedly quick death demoralizes the others, who considered Angel the healthiest man in the ward. Seeing their depression, Brock becomes enraged, saying they must never stop fighting.

Bud learns to drive a specially modified car, and frequently leaves the hospital on dates with Ellen. She sincerely wishes that they get married, and Bud finally consents. When Ellen’s parents learn of her plans, they try to discourage her, saying they want grandchildren. Dr. Brock counsels her that some paraplegics are capable of having children while others are not. In Bud’s case, the doctor is simply not sure. Nevertheless, Ellen decides to go ahead with the wedding, which is held in the hospital chapel. Bud insists on standing for the ceremony, but he starts to collapse when he lets go of the altar railing. That evening, when the couple move to the small apartment Ellen prepared, they both become tense and argumentative. When Bud asks if she is sorry that she went through with the marriage, she says she is. Angry, Bud leaves and returns to the hospital. The next day Ellen visits to apologize, saying that she is sure they belong together. That evening, Bud gets into a car accident after he and Leo visit a bar. The local PVA board meets and recommends that Bud be discharged from the hospital. Bud appeals to Brock, who refuses to intercede on his behalf. He tells him that medically, he no longer belongs in the hospital. The doctor tells him about his own wife, a paraplegic who died many years ago, and how every day he wishes she were still alive. He believes that Ellen feels the same way about Bud. Hearing this revelation convinces Bud to give his own marriage a real chance. He drives back to see Ellen, who is waiting for him and greets him warmly.


Although part soap opera, The Men provides a serious and accurate portrayal of the challenges facing a paraplegic, particularly in recovering his own sense of identity, dignity, and worth. The case of Bud and his three ward companions, Leo, Norm, and Angel, provide a solid cross-section of different attitudes and results. Ironically, Angel, who had the most positive attitude, is the one who failed to survive. In a sense, this demonstrates that willpower and conviction can take one only so far. Blind luck is also an important factor in the struggle. Norm and Leo represent alternate concerns. They both prefers to kibitz and sit on the sidelines, but Norm becomes involved in the Veterans association and even takes a chance dating Laverne. Leo prefers to gamble on everything—except on his own emotions.

It is basically the strong cast that makes the film successful. Most of the attention centers on Bud, an excellent performance by Brando, who conveys the angst and torment of his situation quite credibly, never seeming forced. Jack Webb is equally excellent as Norm, who manages to see Bud’s problems quite clearly but knows that lecturing his friend will do no good. His deciding vote when the PVA board recommends that Bud be kicked out of the hospital is in many ways the climax of the film. Richard Erdman and Arthur Jurado are superb in their supporting roles. Everett Sloane, as Dr. Brock, is both brittle and crotchety, yet his final session with Bud is extraordinary. Teresa Wright, however, is less persuasive as Ellen, particularly in the awkward and artificial scene in which she seems to reject her husband on their wedding night. In regard to the medical and psychological aspects of paraplegia, the script is fine, even brilliant, especially by highlighting Brock’s frank lecture at the very opening of the picture. The screenplay excels by showing how other individuals are either skilled or insensitive in dealing with the paraplegics. Character actor Jim Backus, for example, is magnificent in the scene in which he approaches Leo and Bud in a restaurant, attempting to be gracious while actually demeaning the men with his superficial bluster. Bud, drunk and hostile himself, is unable to let the unintended insult go and slugs the man. Later, he and Leo get into a car accident driving back to the hospital. This scene is well thought out by demonstrating the degree of accountability that handicapped individuals must bear for their own actions, a crucial point since rights and responsibilities are intertwined. The handicapped cannot hide behind their condition if they wish to merit the respect to which they are entitled. Overall, The Men is both daring and very perceptive in presenting this case study.


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