film history

6 films about Mental Illness

As the second Monday in May starts mental health awareness week, we thought he’d find six films that show what Hollywood thinks about mental illness.  This list may expand as time goes on, but we feel these are most representative of the way society changes its views.

The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920)

From the beginning of the twentieth century until 1960 (Psycho), the mentally ill were often portrayed as inherently dangerous and incurable, and often even untreatable.   The age of eugenics saw genetic mental illness as a burden to society.

While many people might say this film showed the madness of Hitler, with his ability to hypnotise his followers and turn them into murderous zombies, the followers of Hitler would have seen this film as proof that the weak minded were dangerous, and could have further incited them to have the mentally ill eliminated.

The mentally ill were eventually sent to concentration camps in Germany, and faced forced sterilisation elsewhere.   A greater percent of the population was forcibly institutionalised in the first half the twentieth century than at any other time in history, including many people who were no threat to themselves or others, and who may not even have suffered from any form of mental illness whatsoever.

The Cabinet of Dr Caligari helps us understand the philosophy behind locking away “potentially dangerous” individuals, and it is also considered a work of art.  However, we can also see it as a condemnation of those who would abuse people who suffer from mental illness.

King of Hearts, Roi de Coeur (1966)

The was one of the last films shown by the Aberystwyth Film Society.

In the mid twentieth century, filmmakers and society in general were changing the way they saw mental illness.   People who had previously been institutionalised were being let loose, barbaric practises like chaining the mentally ill, lobotomies, and electroshock therapy were being phased out and outlawed in some places.  Against this background, the mental illness institution became a metaphor for society at large.  Also, as this process was slow, some films could be seen to be a form of activism, to improve the lives of those who were locked away.

The purpose of this film, according to its trailer, seems to be to show that war is madness.  The soldier ends up in a madhouse, but those people are less crazy than the society that sent them there.  This theme seems to be repeated in other films, like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s nest, but I think King of Hearts is superior in both entertainment value and in its understanding of human nature.


My Sister’s Keeper (TV movie)  (2002)

This should not be confused with the 2009 film of the same name.  This one is written by Susan Tarr, based on a book by Margaret Moorman.

Probably the most sensitive film about mental illness.  The primary character (Judy, played by Elizabeth Perkins) has to look after her older sister (Christine, played by Kathy Bates), who has bipolar disorder.  Their mother has recently passed away, turning the younger sister into the responsible party.  Christine has been institutionalised for most of her adult life, and is more interesting to watch, but the main storyline seems to be from the younger sister’s viewpoint.

This film is more about acceptance than what it is to live with mental illness.  Most people with mental illness are not institutionalised, and do not hallucinate like the older sister in this film does.  And, some of the bizarre activities of the older sister may be more down to personal eccentricity than mental illness, as this film implies.

However, it is still interesting to watch, and may be helpful to carers who find catharsis in seeing others in the same situation.

Loving Vincent (2017)

Here what we normally call “depression” is called Melancholy.  It is shown as the motivation for Vincent’s erratic behaviour.

Vincent Van Gogh is already dead at the start of the story, so we see things in flashback, as told by the characters from his paintings.  This allows the filmmakers to explore multiple possibilities, which is not only interesting to the historian, but also creates a mystery for the audience to solve.

Vincent’s therapist is a relatively major character, as he is a witness and we start out hearing about him as crazy, but end up seeing the full person.  It seems more to be a modern view of depression rather than a historical view of melancholy, but it is surprising to see the similarities in between the two.  Before the madness of the first half of the twentieth century, psychiatrists at least were more sensitive to mental illness, even if society itself would shun someone like Van Gogh and force him out of town.

The Mercy (2018)

While no one mentions mental illness in this film, it appears that the South Seas play with a man’s mind.  The hero hallucinates, and eventually appears to commit suicide.  This is brought on partly by guilt, but when he hears the voices, we think it’s more than just guilt.

From a historical point of view, The Mercy seems to be little more than conjecture.  This doesn’t help the story become any more interesting, as we are stuck with the most boring character, a man stuck alone on a boat, who unlike life of Pi doesn’t have a tiger or even see that many interesting forms of sea life.  Even his hallucinations seem rather boring, and we feel that the writer was assigned to this story and not well paid for it.  This is a pity, because the first half of the film is interesting, but it just lags after Colin Firth’s character starts lying.

Storywise, I think the flashback mystery of the Van Gogh movie would have worked better here.   No, there wouldn’t be a lot of experts, but we could examine the evidence, and create theories, rather than making up a dull past.

While it’s not great for the general viewer, The Mercy does seem to be based on how our society sees mental illness.  As a historical document,  interesting because it seems informed by our current view of mental illness rather than a historical exploration of the actual events.

Sweet Country (2018)

This is not a fun film to watch.  Sure, the goodguys are instantly likeable, and the bad guys easy to despise, but there is little sense of hope or justice.  It is set after the first world war, when Aboriginal Australians were still extremely poorly treated.

This film seems to document the worst abuses, to the point of almost looking like anti-Australian propaganda.  Perhaps the wise cracking missionary, the only truly decent white person in this film, is the Oskar Schindler of the film, but unlike holocaust films there is no epilogue to show eventual justice being served.  We get the feeling that life in Australia is still like that.

While it portrays missionaries in a good light (unlike many American films), its portrayal of mental illness seems to revert back to the days of Psycho.   This film seems to say that worst abuses of racism is not down to individual choice, or a cultural problem, but a form of collective mental illness, where the mad are free to roam and get away with whatever they want.

“The white fella is mad,” says the victim of terrible abuses, and husband of the victim of even worse abuses.

“You’re not right in the head,” the decent white person says to a soldier bent on vengeance.

Although mental illness is not mentioned as such, the characters attribute violence to be a sign of madness rather than evil.  Incredibly violent individuals are called “mad” even when they are guilty of attempted murder, enslaving others, and other violent acts that give this film a 15 rating.

Without this commentary, we might think that the primary villain, who the village people wrongly see as a murder victim, is driven by hatred, selfishness, and the ability to get away with anything.  But, the character commentary, and perhaps some of the editing techniques, suggest otherwise.  According to The Conversation, “the roots of his pathological thirst for cruelty appear to lie in the deep psychological damage caused by years spent fighting in the nightmarish trenches of the first world war.”

However, one of these “mad” characters is shown to potentially reform, or at least appear capable of decency after hearing the full facts in a court of law.

There is no one who is struggling with mental illness in this film, only sane victims and mad villains.

Like King of Hearts, you might see Sweet Country as an anti-war film, or a film about the evils of racism, but it does reveal that many people still see the mentally is as generally dangerous individuals.

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