Disabled Vets on the Silver Screen

By Norden, Marty | VFW Magazine, April 2003 | Go to article overview

Disabled Vets on the Silver Screen


Norden, Marty, VFW Magazine


Few of us would question the idea that movies have contributed strongly to the public's perception of veterans. In some cases-particularly the portrayals of vets suffering from PTSD-the images are among Hollywood's most egregious and hateful on record. (Taxi Driver, anyone?)

In others, the depictions are relatively sympathetic and supportive. The movie images of physically disabled veterans tend to fall into this latter category, perhaps for the simple reason that the characters' sacrifices for their country are so readily apparent to the camera eye.

Indeed, favorable portrayals of severely injured veterans have been finding their way to the silver screen ever since the movies flickered into existence in the 1890s.

Veterans on Parade

The earliest films were extremely brief newsreel-like fragments that showed Civil War veterans marching in parades. The first may well have been McKinley Inaugural Parade, produced by Thomas Edison's company and first shown in theaters in May 1897.

Its segments included "Grant Veterans-G.A.R." and "Amoskeag Veterans, New Hampshire," each of which took less than a minute. to present its titular vets on the march.

Even shorter was American Mutoscope's Veteran Zouaves, produced in 1898. Barely a half-minute long, it showed a unit of the flamboyantly outfitted Civil War veterans passing a Decoration Day reviewing stand in Manhattan, N.Y.

Though these fragmentary films are presumed lost, there is little doubt that they included disabled veterans. Consider, for example, the Lubin Company's catalog description of its 1898 film, Grand Army Veterans of Philadelphia:

"Here we see Philadelphia's own G.A.R. veterans about to decorate the graves of their fallen comrades. Can anything be more touching than to see bands of gray-haired warriors, some with only one leg or one arm, marching proudly to strew flowers on the graves of departed ones? They seem to ignore all sorts of weather in order that they may pay tribute to those who defended their country at the cost of their lives. This is a grand and brilliant picture:'

Despite the appeal of such short "actualities" filmmakers soon learned they needed to tell stories to sustain audience interest. Within a few years, these mini-documentaries began giving way to slightly longer narrative films featuring actors playing wounded veterans.

One of the first was The Empty Sleeve, or Memories of Bygone Days, a 1909 film released in late May to coincide with Memorial Day. Running about six or seven minutes, The Empty Sleeve showed an elderly Union veteran and his wife flashing back to 1861, when the veteran was a young officer.

He leads his troops up a hill to silence a Confederate battery, and they succeed, but he loses an arm during the attack. After a nurse (his soon-to-be wife) attends him, the two return to the present and encounter many of the same men he had led or fought against more than 40 years before.

He takes command once again, this time leading his fellow veterans to a grandstand where he makes a Decoration Day speech.

A reviewer for Moving Picture World praised this long-lost film for the "great dramatic power" of its "numerous thrilling scenes" and observed that "the veterans, the speech, and finally the fraternal handclasp of the Union and Confederate soldiers are -all strong features and add interest to the picture."

Movies produced before World War I were thus off to a promising start, even. if they contained an unfortunate unstated message: disabled veterans are only worth considering when they are on public display in parades and other holiday events.

Wounds as Badges of Honor

The Empty Sleeves Brooklyn-based production company, Vitagraph, was at the forefront of companies that created sympathetic portrayals of disabled veterans during the Great War-era years later.

Among its films were Womanhood: The Glory of the Nation, which included a soldier blinded by the conflict, and Dawn, a 1919 production that drew upon the recently passed Veterans Rehabilitation Act by showing the establishment of a vocational school for blinded vets. …

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