People Need People


Harry Wilmer
Salado, Texas, USA
Inter-Regional Society of Jungian Analysts

What happens when Hollywood makes a movie from your book? My book, Social Psychiatry in Action (Charles C. Thomas, Publisher, Springfield, Illinois, 1958), was a report of my introduction of the Therapeutic Community concept at the U.S. Naval Hospital, Oakland, California, during my tour of duty during the Korean War. I entered the service in 1955 as Lieutenant Commander and was discharged in 1957 as Captain in the Medical Corps Reserve. I was thirty-seven years old.

I was assigned the admission ward at the Naval Hospital. The surgeon general issued orders for me to travel for one month in England to study the therapeutic communities which were an outgrowth of the military rehabilitation centers in World War II. I would introduce this concept in the United States.

I took the best of Max Jones’s Social Rehabilitation unit for psychopaths at Bailment, Tom Main’s therapeutic community for neurotic patients at the Cassel Hospital using psychoanalytic concepts, and T. P. Rees’s large state hospital atWarlingham Park for psychotic patiens. These were all unlocked facilities.

I set up a special program on my admission ward in Oakland when I returned with the radical idea that a therapeutic community could be created on one ward of thirty-two beds in a general hospital, treating a random sample of patients who were neurotic, psychotic, and psychopaths. Jones and Main said it could not be done, but Rees was confident that I could do it.

With an unsolicited research grant from Admiral Bartholomew Hogan, U.S. Navy Surgeon General, I was able to recruit anthropologist Gregory Bateson to serve as our consultant and write a report for my book.

My ward was a thirty-two-bed unit where all the Navy psychiatric casualties from the West Coast and Pacific area were admitted. I eliminated all restraints, and the use of seclusion in the Quiet Room, and instituted daily community meetings of all the patients and staff every morning after sick call. Over the first year, 1,000 patients passed through this unit, each staying for a ten-day period before being transferred to other units in the hospital. The success in elimination of violence, and the cooperation of neurotic, psychotic, and psychopaths was dramatic. The fellowship in community led to each patient taking care of the others.

I worked with the corpsmen and nurses in the post group critique in my office where I drew a seating map and wrote out the psychological theme and continuity of dialogue. Dennie Briggs, an outstanding psychologist; Joseph Concannon, social worker; charge nurse Bethel Green; nursing supervisor Lina Stearns; and a resident, Captain Bohland, composed my professional staff, and had the complete support of Captain Gaede, chief of psychiatry.

I disregarded the hospital regulation of writing suicidal orders because I felt it was counter-productive, intensifying the observation of certain patients and placing a responsibility on the nurses and corpsmen which had previously led to the frequent use of the Quiet Room and excessive sedation. The staff was told that all patiens were potential suicides and that the primary care would be all of the patients having the responsibility for the care of one another. I told Dr. Graede what I was doing and he did not order me to follow the regulation, but said if there was a suicide he would not remember what I had told him and I might be court marshalled.

The community meetings, led by me, were a great success in open and free dialogue. In 1955 group therapy was rarely used in California, and community meetings were unheard of. There were also small groups in the afternoon.

The therapeutic effectiveness of the ten-day intense therapy attracted much attention when I reported our work at the Nothern California Psychiatric Society. The ward had visitors on Fridays from various state hospitals, Standford University, the University of California Langley Porter Neuropsychiatric Institute, and the San Francisco Psychoanalytic Institute. The Commanding Admiral of the hospital took a special interest because of the unusually controlled beheavior, and the lack of broken furniture and disciplinary actions. He visited the group on two occasions, and then invited Admiral Chester Nimitz to also visit our ward. Nimitz, now at Yerba Buena Island, had taken a keen interest in the Oakland Naval Hospsital, where all the casualties of the Pacific which he commanded were treated.

The Pacific Combat Camera Crew photographed all meetings for one month and accumulated 133,000 feet of 32mm film. I was transferred to the National Naval Research Institute in Bethesda, Maryland, for the second year of my two-year tour of duty, to write a book and edit the film.

Tragically, this unique documentary film’s sound track was so flawed that the Navy would not preserve the film and destroyed it, despite my plea to let me narrate a voice-over continuity. This would have been one of the all-time great psychiatric documentary films. I did manage to save one reel of film converted to 16mm that was shown to the actors in the movie and the screen writers who incorporated parts of it in the docudrama.

After the book had been released, I received a telephone call from a psychologist in Los Angeles asking if I would be agreeable to having a movie made of my experience. ABC Public Affairs Department would make a docudrama, and Henry Greenberg, a Hollywood screen writer, was asked to write the film dialogue. For eighteen months, he and I worked once a week on the script. The one expected sour note in the film was Henry Greenbergs’s credit, which read, “Henry Greenberg, screen writer, from his story,” when the stories and words came from my book.

When Fred Astaire was going to host and narrate the ALCOA Premier film series on ABC-TV, my film was selected by the William Morris Agency for the opening program. The film was produced by Revue Studio at Universal Studio in Hollywood in 1961.

I was on the set the entire time, along with my five children. I had the authority to censor or propose change that varied from the truth. This was requested by the Navy because of their support of the film. Dr. Gaede, then a Rear Admiral, was present in uniform to represent the Navy during the filming. I vetoed two wild ideas of the director, Alex Siegal, a brilliant film and theater director. But he was right several times when he deviated from the script.

I declined the producer’s request to play my own role, so they asked Henry Fonda, who declined because he was committed to make another film. Jeff Chandler was asked and accepted, but died suddenly. The Broadway actor Arthur Kennedy agreed to play Dr. Wilmer. While all the actors asked me about the real sailor whom they were playing, Kennedy refused to talk with me because he wanted the freedom to play Dr. Wilmer as he read the script. The music of the film was composed by Johnny Williams.

The star role was a violent homicidal and suicidal marine played by Lee Marvin, who we selected from a large casting photograph album of actors and actresses. I knew nothing about Marvin except that he played on “M Squad.” Clearly, his face fit the role, and he turned out to be a great choice, having been a marine who was wounded on Saipan. He was carried out on a stretcher and evacuatd to a waiting ship, where he was immediately offered ice cream by a nurse as music played over the ship loudspeakers. He only thought of his buddies, bloody and dying on Saipan. In fact, the rest of his platoon was killed, giving Lee a haunting guilt feeling and the irrational belief that was a coward. Marvin’s personal life history, including his parents, was close to the character he played. Lee said that this film, called “People Need People,” was the most important film in forming his career as a superstar because it made him feel free to act himself, independently of any controlling director. He and I maintained a close friendship until his death.

The episodes in the film are true, but selected from over the span of one year and carefully written into a dramatic ten-day period. Because there were about 1,000 patients passing through admissions in one year, I calculated that by requiring every patient to stay for a ten-day period, we would avoid the bad practice of the previous ward director, who would transfer the most violent patients off the ward as soon as they were able, leaving the ward composed of rather passive and depressed patients.

The film was such a powerful recreation of my experience that it was difficult, or painful, to watch it for several years. When the studio showed the first preview for the actors, producers, director, screen writer, guests and me, they first asked me for my reaction. I stood up but could not speak. I was given a copy of the film but was unable to bring myself to show my copy to a public audience for five years.

The film was nominated for five Emmy Awards and received rave notices, and no negative criticism. Shown on the BBC, the British Medical Journal, The Lancet, said, “It was the most remarkable psychiatric film shown on any screen in ths country. It showed with singular effect and accuracy the group rehabilitation of psychotics in the USA by Dr. Harry Wilmer.”

The program was viewed by twenty million people. The Oakland Tribune, under a banner heading, “Standing Ovation,” said, “The new ‘ALOCA Premier’ anthology series started last night with a play that was by far the most compelling hour on television this year. It was called ‘People Need People, ’ a dramatization based on treatment given by Oakland Naval Hospital psychiatrist Dr. Harry Wilmer, using group therapy and ‘the human being approach’ with violent mental patients. Lee Marvin gave an absolute electrifying performance as a homicidal Marine Corps sergeant, and Arthur Kennedy was superb playing Dr. Wilmer.”