In this training film, recently digitized and made available by the National Library of Medicine, Gene Kelly plays a Navy enlisted man suffering from “combat fatigue irritability.” During WWII, psychologists first established a strong presence in American military hospitals, and the military began to recognize “combat fatigue” as a normal and common psychological response to the stress of war. This film reflects both of these shifts.
In this role, Kelly doesn’t dance a step. His character, Lucas, is a fireman who works in his ship’s engine room. Lucas feels helpless when the ship is torpedoed: “How the hell you going to do anything about it when you’re just standing there, twisting a little valve?” But when he ends up in the water as the ship sinks, he finds himself strangely relieved, happy to be out of the confined space and away from the limited scope of his job. His guilt over that feeling hits him when he sees the rest of the crew, some dead or injured, floating around him in the water.
The reaction to stressful and traumatic combat experiences has had many names over the years. While we often think of people suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder as having a particular set of symptoms—bad dreams, anxiety, distance from loved ones—this film showcases a different reaction to trauma. The snappish Lucas marinates in anger and annoyance. “Seems like I’m always mad, running off at the mouth,” Lucas says, as he picks fights with his parents, a bartender, his girlfriend, and the kindly Navy psychologist who eventually helps him through his feelings.
In his post about the movie for the National Library of Medicine’s blog, historian Michael Sappol notes that Kelly researched the role by going undercover at a naval hospital. Somebody took a picture of him, and a newspaper incorrectly reported that the actor himself was suffering from combat fatigue. In actuality, Kelly spent the war working for the Naval Photographic Unit in Maryland, before returning to his career in Hollywood.