The making of ‘War Neuroses’

The history of one of the most important and disturbing films in the history of psychiatry is covered by an excellent article in the latest edition of the Journal of the History of Medicine.

The piece concerns the 1917 film of soldiers affected by ‘shell shock’ during World War One. It was called ‘War Neuroses’ and was filmed at Netley and Seale Hayne hospitals. You can now watch the entire footage online

The full text of the article is locked behind a paywall but the pdf has found its way online.

The history of the film turns out to be very interesting. Although it has become iconic for images of ‘shell shocked’ soldiers it was also made with the promotion of producer and medic Arthur Hurst’s career in mind.

Hurst turns out to be a curious figure and not necessarily a good representative of what was happening with regard to the home treatment of traumatised soldiers – as he isolated himself physically and professionally from the wider community of professionals working on treatments.

Despite working at Netley, Hurst made no attempt to integrate himself within the wider community of shell shock doctors. By the end of 1916, Maghull and the Maudsley had become the main centers for experiment into treatment, run respectively by R. G. Rows and Frederick Mott, but Hurst worked independently of them and their staff. In part, this was because he saw himself as a general physician, rather than a medically qualified psychologist, bringing a knowledge derived from neurology and infectious disease to the question of neurasthenia, hysteria, and shell shock.

As a charismatic leader, Hurst was more comfortable running his own hospital than becoming part of a network of shell shock doctors—many of whom explored hypotheses borrowed from psychoanalysis, anthropology, and psychology. Significantly, no motion pictures were shot at either Maghull or the Maudsley, though both were recorded in still photographs.

Another curious detail is that Hurst made the film to demonstrate the effectiveness of his treatment, showing before and after treatment footage of the soldiers.

However, some of the ‘before treatment’ footage has clearly been re-enacted as the surroundings and personnel don’t change position. This was apparently common in documentaries of the time and was probably justified by Hurst as being an accurate depiction.

Nevertheless, apparently this was not only an attempt to make his treatments look more effective but the footage itself was also used to demonstrate to patients the extent of the change they’d experienced.

Anyway, the whole article is full of fascinating background, so well-worth checking out.

Also, if you’re interested in reading more about ‘shell shock’ and its effect on mental health treatment the June edition of APA Monitor has an article by the same historian, Edgar Jones, on how it was first taken seriously.

Link to article in journal site.
pdf of the same.
Link to film on YouTube.
Link to APA Monitor article on ‘shell shock’.

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