Celebrating Mental History Awareness Month with HEROES

One of the most effective films about post-Vietnam PTSD.

In many ways, the late 70s were a hotbed of movies which attempted to analyze and criticize the Vietnam war. Titles like Apocalypse Now and Coming Home took aim at the war before going on to become classics in their own right. But while those titles explored the visceral experience of war and its imprint on returning to life before it, respectively, few films tackled the mental toll those who fought would go on to live with. The Deer Hunter remains one of the lone notable exceptions to this as it delved head first into the fragile mentality soldiers find themselves in as a result of war, becoming a title that was acclaimed, financially successful and has now become a continued classic in American cinema. But even as the war and its various effects were becoming more accepted as the subjects of various feature films, the notion of PTSD remained a topic very few other post-Vietnam titles felt comfortable exploring. The 1977 drama Heroes was one of them. As a title which enjoyed varying degrees of critical and financial success, the film sensitively and honestly illustrated the condition of PTSD in one of the most cinematic and involving ways it could during that time.

In Heroes, former Vietnam veteran Jack (Henry Winkler) escapes the mental ward of a New York VA hospital and hits the road, determined to make it to California where he can realize his dream of opening up a worm farm. Despite the various obstacles he faces, as well as his unresolved feelings about the war, Jack hopes the business will be a solid partnership between him and his fellow former soldiers, including Ken (Harrison Ford). Along the way, Jack meets Cathy (Sally Field), a young woman headed to Virginia as a means of escaping her upcoming wedding and who finds herself curiously taken by her odd traveling companion.

As a character, Jack is hands down the most dynamic figure within Heroes. The calm within every storm in each passing scene, Jack is a true flurry of energy. Director Jeremy Kagan’s film is a largely quiet one with a calmness that best symbolized a Vietnam-weary America. But Jack is a bundle of wildness; feeding off of an adrenaline he undoubtedly developed during the war which became part of his psyche. Oftentimes, Jack is seen holding court by giving fellow travelers a ribbing and generally being the equivalent of an adult class clown. It’s that mental state which has played with his ability to fully exist in the world he came back to. For Jack, that world is scary and new, but because of his heightened state of mind, he remains mostly undaunted by it. A regular escapee from mental hospitals, Jack clings to his idea of a worm farm and the kinship he shared with the men he served on the battlefields with in order to function. But there’s a real self-awareness to Jack. He knows he’s damaged; he knows he’s fundamentally not the same man who went away to war. The times when he cannot help but acknowledge his current state, such as in a motel room with Carol, features some of the movie’s bravest and most genuine moments. In an era where nostalgia was thriving thanks to movies like Grease and TV shows like Happy Days (where Winkler earned fame thanks to his legendary character, Arthur Fonzarelli), having such a damaged yet endearing protagonist like Jack was one of the boldest and most important moves for any studio to attempt.

As for its female star, Heroes came along at a transitionary period in Field’s career. Like Winkler, the actress was still trying to shake her TV persona. But while her iconic performance in the television movie Sybil had helped in this endeavor, feature film acclaim and position still alluded her. Most of Field’s roles in features during this period saw her playing “the girl,” or some kind of cute misfit, almost always serving as second fiddle to the movie’s male lead. It’s because of this that the character of Carol is such a revelatory one for both the actress and Heroes. Initially painted as another stock female character, Carol is someone whose layers are present and are slowly revealed as fate forces her on Jack’s journey. There’s a sense that, like so much of post-Vietnam America, Carol had tried to forget the war as well as the division and upheaval it caused by becoming someone so far removed from who she was while it was happening. We see Carol as a well-to-do polished young woman; a bride to be who harbors a fear of the life she’s about to walk into. Although she immediately finds him annoying, Jack brings to mind the girl she once was. “I was against the war,” she tells him upon immediately finding out he’s a former soldier. The way she says it with such earnestness shows a desire to for her to remember it just as much as she wants him to know it. The more Carol is pulled into Jack’s world filled with all his hopes and dreams, she’s reacquainted with the person she once was and slowly starts to embrace her.

There could have been any number of ways for Heroes to approach its delicate subject matter. Kagan and writer James Carabatsos could have littered their film with flashbacks and moments of Jack waking up screaming in the night. Instead they choose the route of showing their main character go about everyday life, living with the damaging effects of his war experience embedded deep within his psyche. We see Jack be carefree and embody a kind of maniacal whimsy, which he inflicts on every person he encounters. It’s a consistent behavior spurred on by a fear that if he slows down, he has to face the darkness he carries within him. We see Ken deal with his war experience in a similar fashion by embracing a daredevil attitude, which includes, among other things, car racing. Yet Ken’s semi-solitary existence indicates wounds which are different than Jack’s, yet just as real. When Jack’s PTSD is shown, it’s done in such a manner that’s positively devastating, immediately followed by a sequence which although it ventures into the kind of territory one might assume a movie like this would, it’s in such stark contrast to the overall quietness and subtlety that’s been its tone thus far. As “overblown” as some might call the ending considering what’s come before, it’s a fitting conclusion to Jack’s story in regards to the horrors living within his own mind and his ongoing struggle to exist beyond them.

All of the performances here are phenomenal. Winkler is heartbreaking, while Field exudes empathy in the most naturalistic of ways and Ford gives a hint at the kind of magnetic energy that would eventually make him a star. While the movie isn’t considered a high point for any of the actors among their fans and critics, it certainly should be. The movie’s subject matter makes it almost an impossible feat to pull off for those in front of and behind the camera. Yet pull it off they do, creating a well-made tribute to a generation of men who gave so much. Perhaps the most telling aspect of Heroes is its title. So many who came back from the war were hailed as heroes by the older generation and children. Yet it’s hard to find too many of those men who would consider themselves to be genuinely heroic due to the fact that not only did they never seek out such a moniker, but also because the label so quickly whitewashed the long lasting scars, physical as well as mental, which would remain with them forever.

For more information about caring for former service men and women struggling with mental health issues, please visit the Rosalynn Carter Institute’s Operation Family Caregiver program as well as rallypoint.com.

Heroes is now available on Blu-Ray and DVD from Mill Creek Entertainment.

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