Shock Corridor is one of the greatest films of the 1960s — perhaps one of the greatest films ever. It is widely regarded as a great film by a certain kind of cinephilia — my kind — the kind who loves substance and style done in an idiosyncratic way — where more creativity was spent than money. But everyone should love it. And I think I understand the reason that it doesn’t get as much respect as it deserves: it is seen as a message film. While it is indeed a message film, it is far more than that. And it is not primarily a message film regardless.
The reason people think of Shock Corridor as a message film is because it was written, produced, and directed by Samuel Fuller. And he is still seen as primarily a message filmmaker, even while people applaud his great technique and brilliant eye. It’s probably because he was liberal and anti-war. John Milius is never considered a “message filmmaker,” even though his films are noted for pushing messages clumsily. But he’s a conservative. He was never in a war. He did not experience anything as life changing as the liberation of a concentration camp at the end of World War II, as Fuller did. Apparently, we are supposed to dismiss only films with messages when they are trying to make the world better.
Shock Corridor is a pure Greek tragedy. And it needs to be viewed that way. The main character is Johnny Barrett, a journalist on a mission for fame in the form of a Pulitzer Prize. If that sounds like an ignoble beginning for movie about a reporter, it is. Barrett is not very likable, even though what he wants to do to get the prize is noble. There was recently a murder at the local insane asylum. But because the witnesses are all insane, as was the victim, the police just let the case slide. So his intention is to pass for crazy, get inside, and solve the case. What could go wrong?
Barrett’s stripper girlfriend, Cathy, is critical to the plan. But she thinks it is literally crazy for Barrett to do this. She alone sees that Barrett’s goal of the Pulitzer is superficial and wishes him just to have a regular life with her. So, posing as Barrett’s sister throughout the film, she acts as the conscience of the film and as the representative of the audience. Because Barrett is crazy — not so much in his actions, but in his desires. To risk your life to help others is one thing, but to risk your life for something as meaningless as fame not.
Once inside the hospital, Barrett is in the world of Homer — specifically, The Odyssey. There are three patients that he must meet and penetrate the fog of their insanity. The first is Stuart, scarred by his captivity in the Korean War, he now imagines that he is Confederate General JEB Stuart. Then there is Trent, an African American whose experience being one of the young people to desegregate a southern college make him now believes he is a KKK member who starts race riots in the hospital. And finally, there is Boden, a scientists so filled with guilt about his work on nuclear weapons that he has reverted to a child.
In the brief periods of clarity, each man takes Barrett a step closer to finding the murderer. And in the end, he finds the murderer, makes him confess, and writes his story that wins the Pulitzer Prize. But all along, Barrett’s sanity has been slowly slipping away. After achieving his goal, he goes cantatonic. The film ends with Cathy sobbing as she tries to get him to react to her. And we see the hallway that started the beginning of the film, although it is filled with patients now — Barrett included. And the film closes with the Euripides’ quote it began with, “Whom God wishes to destroy he first makes mad.”
Even today, the ending is extremely powerful. The solving of the mystery doesn’t matter. Like a Classical tragedy, Barrett is doomed from the start by his own hubris and lack of depth. We are left, as is Cathy, to watch helpless as the events play themselves out. Shock Corridor is a great film that must be seen.
 To be fair, John Milius apparently wanted to join the army but was refused for medical reasons. On the question of wanting to go to war, I refer you to this quote. But I would hope that he would have a more mature worldview had he gone to war.