On this day in 1973—some forty-seven years ago—I caught a brief glimpse of what television could be, if only the powers in charge didn’t have their heads stuck firmly up one another’s rectums. The occasion was the showing of something called Sticks and Bones, a tv adaptation of a play written by a Vietnam vet about, well, the treatment of Vietnam vets on their return home. The play depicts the return of a blinded veteran, David, to the home of his parents, Ozzie and Harriet, where his younger brother Ricky—who plays a guitar—still lives. (The evocation of a certain typical fifties American family is deliberate.) Angry and haunted by visions of the war he left behind (epitomized by an Asian girl he was apparently close to) he fails to fit in with his family, who want him to conveniently forget what he’s been through. In the end the family does manage to unite—in order to help the returned veteran slash his own wrists.
The play was first performed in 1969, and the first professional production (by Joseph Papp) was staged in 1971. CBS reached a deal with Papp for a tv production in 1972—and that’s when things started to go very wrong. CBS censor Tom Swafford (whose notions of ideal programming consisted of shows like My Fair Lady and Dawn Patrol) insisted on cutting all “scatological profanity” changing the name of the main characters, and not showing too much blood during the wrist-cutting scene. Even so, an early screening of this eviscerated version inspired many CBS affiliates to refuse to run it, claiming that “the mood of the country” (whatever that was supposed to mean) would not support it. America, apparently, was not in the mood to hear what this Vietnam vet had to say either.
Portland station KOIN had been among the affiliates refusing to run Sticks and Bones but by August had changed its position, much to the disgust of Oregonian reviewer Francis Murphy. Taking time off from railing about the moral degeneracy of including so many gay and bisexual characters in television offerings, Murphy thundered “this amateurish juvenile attempt to shock viewers has received 10 times the publicity it deserves. … Without the advance publicity, most viewers would soon sicken of the depressing, surrealistically horrid characters with their blatant racism and selfishness. But the controversy which has raged since the network originally canceled showing of the play in March undoubtedly will bring it high ratings and may encourage the screening of similar depraved dramas.”
And so it was that at nine o’clock on 17 August 1973 I tuned in to KOIN to see the supposedly controversial drama. In an ideal world I would be able to share my initial reaction to the piece from my journal, or from contemporary notes, but this particular episode falls in a gap in my records. For whatever reason—frequent moves, bouts of indifference or carelessness, occasional purging in the throes of depression—large chunks of material from (say) 1971 to 1973 have disappeared, or possibly were never recorded in the first place. So what I have to say is going to be dependent pretty much on unaided memory.
The scenes that stood out for me were the opening and final bits, which were cold as fuck. (Conveniently Francis Murphy singled them out for abuse, thus confirming my memory.) At the beginning an army officer arrives at the door to announce that he is there to deliver a blind veteran to them, like a delivery person indifferently leaving a parcel that had to be signed for. He has lots of other blind, maimed, and injured veterans to deliver, and can’t stop to chat about this one. The family marvels about how different the returned veteran seems as the officer leaves. And at the end of the drama the family gathers around the blind man, his younger brother telling him that it would be better for everyone if he just slit his own wrists. He offers to help, while their mother thoughtfully arranges pans to catch the blood. The credits run over a shot of the veteran’s body in a trash bag out front, waiting to be hauled off. I found the piece gripping, powerful, and funny—in a grim ironic sort of way. As an indictment of America’s treatment of its disposable veterans—something I’d witnessed for myself—it burned like a brand of shame for the nation.
Or maybe not. In an ideal world I would examine the film nearly half a century later and see how it held up—what I thought of it now. But that also appears to be impossible. Although there do appear to be copies of it held by private collectors, as far as I can tell it has never been released for general circulation—or even shown again after the one time I saw it. Perhaps I would find it obvious, trite, overacted, or juvenile, if I could see it now. I don’t know. What I do know is that at the time it gave me some hope for tv, in that it had been at least made and shown. Its suppression, by the same token, showed that there was still a long way to go before television could achieve what it was capable of. So—a mixed bag at best.
Francis Murphy, “Broad Limits Seen for TV Profanity,” Oregonian, 13 March 1973, p. 19.
Francis Murphy, “Stations Downplay ‘Sticks and Bones’” Oregonian, 17 August 1973, p. 44.
Sticks and Bones at Letterboxd.