Academic journal article Journal of Literary and Cultural Disability Studies

"No Place to Go, See": Blindness and World War II Demobilization Narratives1

Academic journal article Journal of Literary and Cultural Disability Studies

"No Place to Go, See": Blindness and World War II Demobilization Narratives1

Article excerpt

This article examines the social, medical, and military contexts that shaped the cycle of World War II demobilization films released in the United States between 1946 and 1951. The focus is primarily on the ways in which loss of sight, experienced through combat, was dramatized and narrativized in demobilization films. The discussion specifically concerns two films at either end of the demobilization cycle, Pride of the Marines (1946) and Bright Victory (1951), both of which were adapted from literary texts. Written accounts of war injuries were frequent as sources for demobilization films, partly to lend authenticity to the narratives, but also, in the case of these two films, to offer symbolic freight through which the ontological and medical dimensions of blindness could be explored. The article discusses the ways in which cases of blindness highlighted the problematic of place and home in the mid-1940s. Although the narrative trajectory of many demobilization films moves toward the reintegration of the blinded veteran in post-war society, the article argues that this does not simplify the representation of the troubling medical and social experiences of many World War II soldiers.

Toward the end of the Warner Brothers film Pride of the Marines (1946), blinded war veteran Al Schmid journeys home to Philadelphia after being badly wounded by a Japanese attack while serving on the frontline at Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands in August 1942. Schmid is taken to the Red Cross Naval Hospital in San Diego and undergoes surgery on his damaged eyes. During the long road to rehabilitation he struggles with his self-worth; he believes he will be a burden to his friends and he even asks a Red Cross nurse to write to his fiancée to tell her not to come in the hope she will forget him. When other wounded soldiers talk of returning to family and friends, Schmid bitterly pronounces that he will never return home to Philadelphia: "I've got no place to go, see." Given that he is totally blind in one eye and severely limited in the other, the irony of the colloquialism 'see' is startling. Schmid's injury not only makes it impossible for him to 'see', but pushes him into an existential space where it is also difficult for him to 'be.'

Schmid is located within what Martin Norden has called a "cinema of isolation," in which disabled characters on screen are often visually isolated and sidelined from social interaction. Isolation in Pride of the Marines derives both from Schmid's blindness and his loss of hope. Both his comrade Lee Diamond and the Red Cross nurse Virginia Pfeiffer realize that Al is mired in his condition and needs to draw on the resolve of a marine in combat. "Don't stop fighting Al, don't," utters Virginia as Al leaves San Diego on a journey back to Philadelphia to collect a Navy Cross for his "extraordinary heroism" as machine gunner for his part in one of the most significant Pacific battles of World War II.

Despite the help of his colleagues, volunteers and professionals who impress upon him the importance of going home, Al can only see pitying hands trying to help. His fiancée Ruth (whom he first meets in a black-out due to power failure, which foreshadows his later blindness) remains steadfast. Just before Schmid boards the train for Philadelphia the camera cuts to a lonely picture of Ruth praying in church: "He's got to come home where he belongs, he's got to know he's wanted," she soliloquizes, perhaps inspired by the US army and navy chaplaincy pamphlet War-Time Prayers for Those at Home issued in February 1943. The fact that biological families are largely absent in Pride of the Marines, and that Al lodges in a boarding house, suggests that home is as much a state of mind as a place of emotional security. The film makes clear that if Schmid has been unlucky in suffering a permanent injury, then Ruth has also suffered profound loss, but she is courageous in helping Al to realize that he needs to return home for full rehabilitation. …

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