War Movie Mondays: ‘The Ninth Configuration’

This week’s pick is the 1980 release of William Peter Blatty’s The Ninth Configuration which is a Gothic, thriller, comedic, war picture.  The film stars Stacy Keach (Col. Hudson Kane), Scott Wilson (Capt. Billy Cutshaw), Jason Miller (Lt. Frankie Reno), Ed Flanders (Col. Richard Fell), Neville Brand (Maj. Marvin Groper), George DiCenzo (Capt. Fairbanks), Moses Gunn (Maj. Nammack), Robert Loggia (Capt. Bennish), Joe Spinell (Lt. Spinell), Tom Atkins (Sgt. Krebs), Steve Sandor (Stanley), and veteran actor Richard Lynch (Richard).

The Ninth Configuration is a film unlike any other.  It’s a film which blends many different genres together and delivers a truly comedic and frightening film at times.  The film’s protagonist is that of Capt. Cutshaw (Wilson), an astronaut who aborted his space launch out of fear of dying.  Cutshaw is remanded to a secret government facility housed in an old castle in the Pacific northwest region of the United States during the tail end of the Vietnam War.  The purpose of the facility was to see if certain individuals were faking psychosis in order to avoid combat duty in Vietnam.

The arrival of a new commanding officer is played by Stacy Keach (Col. Hudson Kane).  Maj. Groper (Brand) assembles the group of patient misfits to greet the new shrink and welcome him to the facility.  The inmates amuse themselves by reciting famous lines from famous movies like Victor McLaglen in The Informer or one of the bandits from Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Col. Kane is greeted by one man who refers to himself as Dr. Frome  (Blatty) and is grateful for any help a psychologist can bring.  Groper sounds off a role call and asks where Frome is.

Two Marine guards escort Frome back inside and the real doctor, Col. Fell (Flanders) introduces himself.  Kane looks at Fell with curiosity and believes that the two have met someplace before.  Fell says that he has no recollection of ever meeting Col. Kane before.

Fell begins to show Kane around the hospital and to tell him what his daily routine will be.  Kane announces an open door policy in which any of the men can see him whenever and that it may help in easing their psychosis.  Kane’s first encounter is with Capt. Fairbanks, another astronaut who believes that he can walk through walls merely by hammering a small hole through the castle walls.  Kane believes that his theory is sound but the flaw lies in the properties of the hammer.  Kane asks to keep the hammer for further study and that he will return it to Capt. Fairbanks just as soon as he is finished. One of many well done scenes in the film.

Kane’s primary interest is within Cutshaw who tests the relevance of god in a world confronted with such evil.  The film takes a huge turn towards philosophy and theology once Kane and Cutshaw are introduced.  Cutshaw announces himself by opening up Col. Kane’s office doors with such force, that it slams into the walls.  Cutshaw begins to test Col. Kane’s abilities by being difficult and particularly loud during their visit.

Kane begins to examine Cutshaw’s file and reads out loud the situation which landed him in the mental facility.  Kane then asks Cutshaw why he is afraid of going into space.  Cutshaw avoids the question by demanding to be given an inkblot test.  Cutshaw gives random answers and Kane agrees with him.  Cutshaw storms off and begins to smirk that he has in fact fooled the new shrink into believing he is insane.

In one other later scene, Cutshaw tries to convince Kane that god is dead and that man was meant to endure pain and sadness.  Kane tries to convince Cutshaw that god does exist and is everywhere and in everything.  Cutshaw demands that one example be made.  Kane shows an example in a soldier who throws himself on a live grenade in order to protect the other men in his squad from being hit.  Cutshaw declares it to be nothing more than a “reflex action”.  Kane then explains that two people are adrift in a life boat.

One realises that they have typhoid and goes over the side to certain death in order for the other not to contract the disease. Cutshaw says that “the only thing about suicide is that you don’t get to collect on the insurance”.  Cutshaw asks Kane to take him to Sunday church services to make up his mind whether god is infallible or is he merely an all knowing powerful foot.

Other notable performances in the film are Jason Miller (Lt. Reno) who is trying to adapt Shakespeare’s plays for dogs.  He asks the col. whether or not it would be considered favoritism if he were to cast a Great Dane in the role of Hamlet?  Robert Loggia plays Capt. Bennish, an Air Force officer who was also an astronaut who suffers from nervous exhaustion.  Joe Spinell (Lt. Spinell) stars as Lt. Reno’s casting director who selects most of the dogs to star in the plays.  Lt. Reno snaps at Spinell who acquires two female dogs to play Rosencrantz & Guildenstern.  Lt. Spinell assures Lt. Reno that no one will ever bother to check their licenses.  The real standouts in the film are definitely Keach and Wilson who work off of each other superbly in the film.

My favorite scene is when Col. Kane allows for “Play therapy” to help the patients indulge in certain fantasises.  Cutshaw asks that the guards and hospital staff dress in German Gestapo uniforms and the inmates dress as Allied POWs who are tunneling their way to freedom.  Maj. Groper feels that the charade has gone on long enough and is very uncomfortable wearing a Nazi uniform.  Groper angers Kane to the point of hysterics and threatens him that if he tries to take off the Gestapo uniform, he’ll die in it.  Groper leaves terrified and is accosted by Cutshaw who enters Kane’s office with a Frankenstein mask on.  Groper is knocked to the floor and Cutshaw places one leg on him while holding a flag and says “I claim this swamp for Poland”.

The film’s twist arrives shortly towards the end of the film and is very suspenseful. The Ninth Configuration was a huge bust at the box office, but Blatty was awarded with a Golden Globe for Best Director for the film in 1981.  The film moved around from various distributors and was eventually picked up by Warner Bros. who Blatty had sued over certain rights for his 1973 horror masterpiece The Exorcist. Veteran character actor Tom Atkins was quoted in January 2009 about his experiences on the set of the film.

“I have always believed that a movie about the making of that film would have been much better than the actual movie turned out to be.  It was kind of a zoo from the very beginning.  William Peter Blatty wrote and directed it and financed part of it by selling a home that he had in Malibu.  His idea of getting a good ensemble effort from his actors was to take people over to Budapest for two months-the part I had might have taken two weeks in the states but he had us all over there for two months.  All he ended up getting was 22 really upset, angry and drunk actors who had a lot of trouble showing up for work.

I thought that the script was wonderful but I don’t that Blatty ever got what he wanted up on the screen.  I think a lot of us weren’t working.  He decided that he would put up the call sheet for the next day at midnight so that you couldn’t go anywhere.”  Movie critic Leonard Maltin wrote that The Ninth Configuration was “Hilarious yet thought provoking with endlessly quotable dialogue and an amazing barroom fight scene.”

The Ninth Configuration is available on DVD through Warner Bros. Home Video and can be rented through Netflix.

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