If the old adage that God works in mysterious ways is true, then there’s no reason why the Holy influence should be absent from a military mental institution. Mark Fraser looks back at a truly quirky American movie in which insanity and violence appear to be necessary evils on the path to redemption.
WARNING: This review contains a few spoilers.
While watching The Ninth Configuration it is sometimes difficult to reconcile the fact its writer-director – William Peter Blatty – is also the man who penned The Exorcist. Although both stories, which started their respective lives as novels in 1966 and 1971, contain obvious similarities, their differences are ultimately quite stark – even when they touch upon the same thematic concerns.
Unlike William Friedkin’s 1973 cinematic adaptation of The Exorcist, which really doesn’t contain a humourous vein in its sombre celluloid body, the film version of The Ninth Configuration does – during its first half at least – display moments of genuine wackiness as it explores the metaphysical anxieties that are obviously close to Blatty’s heart.
Be it the insistence that God exists; an acknowledgement of man’s need to sacrifice himself for the greater good; a recognition of the spiritual angst caused by the ongoing battle between good and evil; or the fear of death – all of these issues are explored in the 1980 movie sans the assistance of demonic shock tactics, profane histrionics or a personal appearance by The Devil.
Rather, they are played out against the eccentric backdrop of a secret isolated military insane asylum in America’s Pacific North West, which has been set up by the US Government to (in Blatty’s words) look into “the unusually high percentage of American servicemen” who have “suddenly manifested symptoms of psychosis” towards the end of the Vietnam War.
In particular, the authorities are keen to treat Colonel Vincent “Killer” Kane (Stacy Keach), a former US marine who has been sent to the institution under the illusion he is going to be its head psychiatrist.
Unbeknown to the troubled officer – whose murderous tours of South East Asia have projected him into a state of heavy self-denial – he is destined to become its most infamous inmate beside traumatised astronaut Captain Billy Cutshaw (Scott Wilson), admitted to the place after suffering a major meltdown and circumventing his mission to the Moon.
Despite their own idiosyncratic bouts of madness which, when combined, oscillates between the seriously introverted and outright theatrical, this pair of verbal sparring partners seems right at home amongst the other loopy residents – some of whom, the script suggests, are cunning enough to be faking it.
Their unhinged co-habitants include lieutenants Reno and Spinell (Jason Miller and Joe Spinell), a couple of wannabe theatre producers intent on putting together a William Shakespeare play starring a cast of dogs; the silently fuming Captain Fairbanks (George DiCenzo), who sometimes dresses up as a nun and has convinced himself he can walk through walls (albeit with the assistance of a small sledge hammer and crash helmet); the comically flamboyant and seemingly harmless painter Lieutenant Gomez (Alejandro Rey); the Al Jolson-imitating pilot Lieutenant Bennish (Robert Loggia); as well as Major Nammack (Moses Gunn), whose plan, it turns out, is to play Superman in a production of Julius Caesar. Even Blatty enjoys a small – and quite amusing – role as Captain Frome, a fraudulent doctor.
Meanwhile, trying to keep all of these crazies in line is Colonel Fell (Ed Flanders), the head of the medical staff who has a strong personal interest in helping Kane recover; the seriously uptight Major Marvin Groper (Neville Brand), whose continual barking of orders seems to have little impact on the men he is yelling at; and the quietly methodical Sergeant Krebs (Tom Atkins).
When thrown into the narrative mix, this ensemble of characters shows it can well and truly pull off absurdist comedy when it wants to. By the movie’s final act, however, a darker reality has set in which takes some of the boys – and the story – along a different path.
Another noticeable difference between Blatty’s screen adaptations of The Exorcist and The Ninth Configuration is the fact the latter work is pretty much completely devoid of women, whereas the 1973 film is, to a significant degree, about the strong relationship between a single mother (Ellen Burstyn), her prepubescent daughter (Linda Blair) and the family’s personal secretary (Kitty Winn), and how these bonds are almost destroyed when an incarnation of Lucifer decides to move in with them.
Not only are there no nurses in the military asylum (except for a couple of patients dressed in drag), but the inmates don’t seem to have too many female-related issues, their verbal preoccupations instead focusing on broader philosophical matters involving insanity, existential fear, guilt and death.
Furthermore, when some women do eventually turn up, they come in the form of a couple of bikie moles (Marilyn Raymond and Marilyn Keach), both of whom Kane kills during the climatic bar room brawl, when the deranged officer is violently goaded into single handedly decimating the “Chain Gang” as part of his overall mission to rescue Cutshaw. (Another interesting point about this scene is the fact the bikies’ two leaders Stanley and Richard – as played by Steve Sandor and Richard Lynch – act kind of gay, suggesting that like the mental institution, the motorcycle gang can also exist sans any significant female presence.)
Having said this, there is a genuinely funny moment in the film which touches upon the issue of sexual frustration (and adds a mild dose of misogyny) when Groper complains to Kane about a lurid bulk mail-out that has been sent to the local women in the area from one of the inmates, but signed in his name.
During this exchange, the major inadvertently reveals some of the targeted subjects had “happened to come here today”.
“Happened?” Kane asks somewhat incredulously.
“Well sir, I asked them – the ones with the nice voices,” Groper replies.
“And … they’re ugly, sir. Ugly as sin!
“And I think that the bastard who wrote all those letters needs some kind of punishment and restriction, sir.”
It’s at this point one realises that the strict disciplinarian Groper – who yells and acts like a drill sergeant from any given Vietnam War movie – is also guilty of the kind of rule bending he seems so vehemently against. In effect he’s just another lunatic who is helping run the asylum. Given this, it’s obvious the hospital really is in desperate need of a Nurse Ratched.
One of Blatty’s more unconventional methods of looking at the polarising effect of internal conflict can be seen in the way he infuses Nazi Germany into the story. About half way through The Ninth Configuration, Kane decides to “indulge the men” as part of their therapy – an undertaking which involves a restaging of John Sturges’ 1963 Word War II epic The Great Escape and sees the guards getting dressed up in black Gestapo uniforms, complete with red swastika arm bands.
While donning this prisoner-of-war-camp look, the colonel is again confronted by an argumentative Cutshaw, who demands he rationalise the need for suffering.
“Maybe God can’t interfere in our affairs,” Kane says, “because to do so would spoil his plan for the future – some evolution of man, and the world, so unthinkably beautiful that it’s worth all the pain of every suffering thing that ever lived.”
A bit later: “If we’re nothing but atoms, molecular structures no different in kind from this desk or that pen, then we all ought to be rushing irresistibly, blindly, towards serving our own selfish ends.
“So how is it that there is love in this world – I mean love as a God might love, and a man will give his life for another?”
Beauty, goodness and personal sacrifice being poetically touted by a black-shirted Gestapo officer – surely this must be an intentionally macabre joke on behalf of the author? The fact the authorities allow a Third Reich-related concept to be included as part of the therapy process is, in itself, also an interesting statement about the system’s precarious state of mind.
This theme is touched upon again later in the movie when the members of the motorcycle gang which attacks Cutshaw and Kane wear the Luftwaffe Cloth Eagle – one of the better known Nazi uniform badges – on their jackets.
Once again this Third Reich presence is somewhat ambiguous given the soldier’s eventual violent rescue of the astronaut from the thuggish bikers ultimately leads both men to their respective spiritual salvation. In this regard the German eagle does not necessarily represent Nazi/bikie supremacy; rather, it figuratively carries its self-assured troops into a trap – one which most of them don’t escape.
While the tenor of The Ninth Configuration is ultimately optimistic, Blatty nevertheless goes to great pains to make a few things clear regarding the inherent hurdles one faces when it comes to dealing with the affirmation (or reaffirmation) of faith.
His Road to Damascus, for instance, is fraught with difficulties and contradictions – so much so that to travel upon it involves (at least in the case of “Killer Kane”) some kind of major violent catharsis. Secondly, it seems Blatty’s idea of the healing process must embrace the use of shock tactics which, in Kane’s view, are “curative”.
Finally, goodness can be found in the most profane of places – from whacko military mental institutions for Vietnam War veterans which look like Dracula’s castle to roadside bars infested with bikie vermin.
Looking back, it’s arguable that very few other American movies have managed to explore such a broad range of philosophical issues within their brief running times as The Ninth Configuration.
The fact it was competently orchestrated by a writer (it marked Blatty’s first work as a director and is one of just two films he has made to date*) – and wonderfully acted by his entire cast – helps make this work all the more remarkable.
Taking this on board, it’s fair to say The Ninth Configuration is a worthy coda to the best of 1970s’ Hollywood cinema.
*Aside from producing The Exorcist, Blatty also wrote and directed The Exorcist III (1990).
Words by Mark Fraser
Top 10 Films reviewed The Ninth Configuration courtesy of Second Sight which released the film on DVD and Blu-ray April 25 2016.
***Article updated Sep 27, 2017 to correct a mention of Billy Cuthsaw being the only non-military patient admitted to the institution. Thanks to Ian Gilchrist for spotting it.***