Brando’s The Men – Hollywood’s First Look at Paraplegia

Sixty years ago a relatively unknown actor named Marlon Brando helped Hollywood introduce to the general public a relatively unknown segment of society–paraplegics. The unveiling of Hollywood newcomer, Brando, and these newest members of society took place on the Big Screen in the 1950 hit movie, The Men.

The Men served to launch Brando’s film career but, more importantly, introduced movie-goers to the men–the earliest survivors of a catastrophic injury that most people had never heard of–spinal cord injury (SCI). Indeed, fellow actor and co-star, Richard Erdman (Leo in The Men) admits to asking a leading doctor of SCI at the time, Dr. Ernest Bors, why Erdman had never heard of a paraplegic–the very role he was about to play. The answer: there were none. At least until the war when doctors like Bors, with the discovery of antibiotics, helped keep spinal cord injured World War II veterans as well as civilian paraplegics alive longer than their pre-war life expectancy of eighteen months.

There are countless movie reviews of The Men on the Internet and elsewhere; copies of the movie are also available there.

The movie itself takes place at the Birmingham VA Hospital in Van Nuys, CA. Interestingly, approximately forty-five actual paraplegic patients take part in the movie–mostly as extras but a number with speaking/acting parts. Speaking of ‘firsts’, the movie-going public is also introduced to a newly-formed veterans’ organization–The Paralyzed Veterans Association (PVA). In 1946, paralyzed veterans were organizing what would eventually evolved into one national organization–known today as the Paralyzed Veterans of America, with chapters in SCI centers in the Birminham VA, the Bronx VA, East Halloran General Hospital (Staten Island, NY), Saint Albans Naval Hospital (Long Island, NY), Hines VA Hospital (Chicago area), McGuire VA Hospital (Richmond, Virginia), Kennedy (Memphis, TN) and Cushing (Framington, MA).

In February 1947, delegates from seven of the existing chapters (Cushing couldn’t finance the trip) met at the Hines VA Hospital Vaughan Unit for the first convention of the Paralyzed Veterans Association of America. PVA pioneer Gilford S. Moss (Vaughan Chapter) who sent out a letter calling for the formation of a national organization became the group’s first president. Also present among PVA’s ‘Founding Delegates’ were Robert Moss (no relation to Gilford, who would follow as PVA’s second president), Donald P. Coleman, Joseph Gusmeroli, George Holmann, Fred Smead, Walter Suchanof, Alex Mihalchyk, Harold Peterson, William Day Jr., Marcus Orr, Kenneth Seaquist, Eldred Beebe, Joseph Gillette, Alfred Gore, and Harold Sharper.

The birth of PVA, along with connecting paraplegics from across the country, also served to bring them together through the organization’s national magazine, the Paraplegia News. Every PVA member from New England to Southern California received this monthly periodical with information on everything from new medical breakthroughs to legislation concerning benefits for these newest battlefield survivors to news from other chapters of PVA.

The four principal paraplegic parts in The Men were played by able-bodied actors Brando, Erdman, Jack Webb (of TV’s Dragnet fame) and paraplegic Arthur Jurado. Interestingly, The Men, using paraplegics to play the part of paraplegics would be a novel idea–if it took place today. Sadly, some segments of society still have to wait in ‘the back of the bus’.

Besides Jurado, hospital patients who had speaking/acting rolls in the firm included Pat Grissom (himself), Randall Updyke III (Baker), Tom Gillick (Fine), Carlo Lewis (Gunderson), Ray Mitchell (Thompson), Pete Simon (Mullin), Paul Peltz (Hopkins), Marshall Ball (Romano), William Lea Jr. (Walter), Obie Parker (The Lookout) and Sam Gilman (uncredited). Bud Woziak (who, according to Turner Movie Classics, was used as the model for Brando’s character) joined Ted Anderson, Pat Grissom, Pete Simon and Herbert Wolf as the film’s technical advisors.

For those who haven’t seen The Men: boy (Lieutenant Ken ‘Bud’ Wilozek played by Marlon Brando) meets girl (Ellen played by Teresa Wright), boy goes off to war–but not before proposing to girl, boy takes a bullet in the back while on patrol, boy finds himself paralyzed, boy shows up in Birmingham VA SCI unit still unable to deal with his paralysis one year later, girl who is still waiting for boy to ‘recover’ asks to see him, boy and girl resume dating ritual, boy marries girl and they move into their own home, boy and girl have marital issues and boy returns to hospital to live, boy lashes out and fellow patients–PVA Board members –vote to kick his butt out, boy and girl reconcile and live happily ever after…maybe.

The film enlightened movie-goers in 1950 and still has unique educational value today. Many of the situations dealt with in the movie still apply: adjusting to a catastrophic injury, rehabilitation, relationships–or lack thereof, camaraderie and veteran helping fellow veteran, and the sometimes difficult reality of rejoining a society that only recently appears ready to accept its differently-abled citizens. Unless you are a paraplegic or quadriplegic, have a family member or friend with SCI, or work in the rehab field, chances are you’ll gain a substantial amount of understanding from viewing The Men.

Aside from dealing with most issues that newly injured paraplegics (and quadriplegics–no distinction in the movie) are faced with today, what would become of the men? Although Brando’s character makes his way out of the safe confines of the Birmingham VA Hospital and starts a new life in a world not yet ready to receive him, what would become of the others? We know that Angel (Arthur Jurado’s character), the super para who was preparing for discharge to rejoin his family, tragically takes ill and dies. What of the others? In 1950, no one knew. Many assumed a cure would certainly be found.

Those who viewed The Men may have gotten the impression that all the paraplegics would finish rehab–except for those who died from their injuries or an isolated illness–and be discharged into the world that Brando’s character showed was not prepared to accept them.

The film shows how difficult it was for the first paraplegics to rejoin society. Leaving the hospital and going out into the ‘real’ world was, with no blueprint or path to follow, an unimaginable challenge–even for the good shape paraplegic. What about the quadriplegics, paralyzed from the chest down, sometimes with limited or no use of their hands and arms? Wilozek, at least, was a low-level para able to function independently–almost–with a few physical hurdles (steps) to overcome and a loving wife to support him. What about those paraplegics and quadriplegics who lived in the Northeast or Midwest? How many barriers besides steps and cold weather did they have to overcome? These were the true pioneers–the men who would take charge in uncharted waters and lead the way.

The earliest battlefield survivors of paraplegia were being treated and given therapy in the infancy of this new and challenging area of medicine by, in most cases, doctors, nurses, and therapists with relatively no prior experience in the field of SCI. Paraplegia was as new to the hospital staff as it was to their newest patients.

Despite the best efforts of the newly-formed veterans service organization, including securing automobile and housing grants for its members, slow progress was being made in crucial areas. A cure for SCI proved elusive. Although some paras and quads were fortunate to live in warmer regions of the country that were also more accessible than those where stairs and cold, oftentimes snowy weather, made getting out and about extremely difficult. Sitting in a wheelchair looking out the window at a foot of snow along with freezing temperature for months can be quite depressing. Not to mention the fact that, for so many young men who rehabbed successfully, once the snow cleared and the weather warmed, there where few places to go that didn’t have steps. Architectural barriers remained in place for years. Attitudinal barriers even longer! The uncomfortable stares from strangers that Brando’s character experienced in the restaurant scene were commonplace back then. Human nature? Societal change and ‘acceptance’ came slowly for most disabled citizens. But for wheelchair users, the most obviously disabled, it took longer.

It’s no wonder that so many paralyzed veterans–especially the more dependent quadriplegics–rarely left the hospital and never went home. Who would care for them? What about those whose families lived on the second floor of a multi-family tenement?

Options for a life after SCI for many were limited. For every independent paraplegic Bud Wilocek type who lived in Southern California there was a caregiver dependent Christopher Reeve type quadriplegic stuck in a Hines VA hospital in the Windy City looking out the window wondering about the future.

Twenty years after the release of The Men, there were still “homesteaders”, as some discharged paras and quads referred to them, living in VA hospital SCI centers–many patients who never went home or ever intended to!

As the PVA continued to evolve, chapters were being formed from Puerto Rico–as far from PVA’s birthplace of Chicago’s Hines VA Hospital as could be imagined, to serve the many veterans who sacrificed so much in Uncle Sam’s Army–to Guadalajara, Mexico for the many spinal cord injured veterans who were wiling to ‘roll the dice’ and leave behind snow, cold weather and staring out the window, wondering.

While many injured veterans lived out their final years wasting away in VA hospitals afraid to face the outside world, a number of the men decided to explore the exotic notion of checking out this place in Mexico that a number of their hospital buddies spoke so highly of. By the mid-1950’s, there were reports of and by paraplegic veterans exploring and visiting places in Mexico. Although most of these initial stories appeared in articles in PVA’s Paraplegia News, word of mouth spread in VA hospitals and civilian care centers from New England to New York to Chicago and on to Southern California where a steady pipeline of wheelchair users–both veteran and non-veteran men and a few women–continued to swell the ranks of those desperate and/or adventurous enough to gamble their future happiness–or lack thereof–on this intriguing ‘South of the Border’ option.

By 1964, there were so many paraplegic and quadriplegic veterans now living in and around the city of Guadalajara that they petitioned national PVA for a chapter in Mexico. The Mexico Chapter would go on to serve veterans, non-vets and the local community for the next twenty years.

Thanks to the ground work laid, and selfless sacrifice of so many paralyzed veterans over the last sixty-five years, the Paralyzed Veterans of America is today a first class veterans service organization with thirty-four chapters operating throughout the United States and Puerto Rico.

For anyone interested in an entertaining and educational film about the earliest survivors of a catastrophic injury whose cure has eluded the world’s top medical researchers for decades, you just might want to take another look at The Men.