As part of a long-term campaign to modernize the state hospital system in Texas, the foundation presented its own vision for mental health services in April 1956, with the release of In a Strange Land.
The 30-minute documentary film was written by program officer Bert Kruger Smith and produced by the foundation with support from the film department at The University of Texas and the Texas Jaycees.
Shot entirely at Terrell State Hospital, the film dramatically portrayed the life of people with mental illness, both inside and outside the state’s mental hospitals. Made with the cooperation of the board of Texas State Hospitals and Special Schools, the film highlighted improvements but lamented the crowding of 14,000 patients into six hospitals that could only accommodate 9,000.
The film’s presentations of mental health and mental illness were artifacts of an optimistic but flawed vision that was characteristic of the postwar mental health movement. The language of “full recovery,” so prevalent in the film, reflected the predominant thinking of the postwar era, which focused on treatable forms of mental illness at the expense of chronic and serious conditions that required long-term care.
Thus, while the film purported to call for improvements to the hospital, it also implied that the hospital was not an appropriate setting for full recovery. Moreover, the film’s depiction of a woman who returns home from the hospital omitted any mention of treatment services in the community, reinforcing a notion of full recovery reminiscent of the “cures” offered by 19th-century proponents of the asylum.
Amid images of a happy return to 1950s suburbia, the film called upon viewers to extend “the hand of friendship” to patients who had been cut off from “normal” everyday life and trapped in the “strange land” of the hospital (and illness itself). They could demonstrate that friendship even further, the narrator suggested, by contacting their legislators to demand more funding for hospitals.