William Peter Blatty is best known for being the architect behind The Exorcist (1971). Blatty would first write the novel and then adapt it into a major motion picture for Warner Brothers in 1973, co-producing off his own screenplay with William Friedkin directing. The Exorcist became a cultural force that is still very relevant in film and pop culture today. It was the first horror film to ever be nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards and is one of the highest grossing films of all time. The Ninth Configuration (1980),written-produced-directed by Blatty based on his novel of the same name from 1978, is a psychological drama centered on mentally ill vets being housed in a castle-made-hospital near the end of Vietnam. William Peter Blatty didn’t receive as much commercial success with The Ninth Configuration (or any other project) as he did with The Exorcist, but the film is worth a second look.
The ensemble cast is a big part of The Night Configuration’s strength. There are a few Blatty regulars in the production: Jason Miller (The Exorcist), Scott Wilson (The Exorcist III), and Ed Flanders (The Exorcist III). The ensemble is led by Stacey Keach as Col.”Killer” Kane, a marine who had killed at least 30-50 people with his bare hands that we know of, suffering from a splintered personality wherein he sees himself as the twin brother psychiatrist of Col.”Killer” Kane. It’s the only way he can deal with the atrocities that he has seen in war. Scott Wilson excels, replacing Michael Moriarty (Law and Order, Q: The Winged Serpent), as astronaut Billy Cutshaw. Cutshaw abandoned his post just seconds before being launched into space as part of a NASA mission. He is the only one of Col.Kane’s patients that is not suffering from post-traumatic stress induced by combat or fear of combat. The film slowly but surely pits Cutshaw and Kane as frenemies, arguing such weighty topics as the existence of God and man’s place in the universe…struggling to find meaning amidst the chaos and confusion of a bloody war with no clear intention and no real strategic or moral victory.
Neither the audience nor the other patients at the mental ward are let in on William Peter Blatty’s secret: that Dr. Kane is really the same person as his supposedly deceased twin brother Col.”Killer” Kane. In fact, he isn’t a doctor at all. He is a patient there just like everyone else under the watch of Col. Richard Fell (Ed Flanders) masquerading as Kane’s chief medical officer. Kane is actually Fell’s brother. He just can’t remember him since his psychotic break. Fell is following Kane’s progress as he is the actual hospital psychiatrist. The only way Kane allows himself to atone for his sins in war is treating/helping the soldiers deal with the many ways in which they have retreated into themselves to seek refuge from the same nightmares during Vietnam they have witnessed themselves.
Lt. Frankie Reno (Jason Miller) is obsessed with the stage. He puts on Shakespearean adaptations for other patients in the ward with all of the roles being acted out by his dogs. Joe Spinell (Maniac, The Godfather) plays as Lt. Spinell, a soldier with multiple personalities including a wise cracking nun and a hammer-wielding “doctor.” Robert Loggia (Lost Highway, Innocent Blood)‘s Capt. Fairbanks is all spit and fire, convinced the enemy is just outside and his men need orders and they needed orders yesterday. Moses Gunn (Rollerball, The Never-Ending Story) as Maj. Nammack is convinced he’s his own version of Clark Kent/Superman. If you can’t be a hero in a world full of madness, why not pretend to be a character that stands up for “truth, justice, and the American way.” Those are all the things Gunn and the rest did not fully understand and could not uphold because Superman’s ethos didn’t cut it in Vietnam.
Throughout The Ninth Configuration, Dr. Kane attempts to help each and every one of these afflictions by indulging in their own neuroses. Kane even goes so far as to obtain extra funds to recreate the set of the classic Hollywood WWII film The Great Escape (1963), SS uniforms for the hospital staff and all. Throughout all of this, Kane gets little flashes and indications that somewhere buried deep down he knows who he truly is and the heinous things he is responsible for. The film is filled with old Hollywood iconography actually. As the hospital is set up in an old castle, there are posters of Bela Lugosi as Dracula (1931) adorned about the cavernous rooms. As other William Peter Blatty works do, the film also is filled with religious iconography. Shots of medieval Christian imagery overcut weighty conversations about theology and philosophy.
The Ninth Configuration, like its creator, is a film that firmly believes, yet is constantly questioning, the existence of God and is riddled with the idea of original sin. The “ninth configuration” itself refers to the amount of protein molecules that came together to form the earth and the improbability based on mathematics that the earth was created by chance based on the billions of protein molecules that had to come together in order to create this “madness.” When explaining this in the film, Kane said he finds this fact to be “way more fascinating that believing in God.” That’s what William Peter Blatty seems to be largely driving at, God and science as one entity misunderstood to be separated by society.
The film’s climax sees Cutshaw break down after learning that all the help he had received from Kane had actually been from another patient and not from a psychiatrist. He steals a car and leaves the hospital to get drunk at a local biker bar. He is spotted by some bikers who remember the astronaut’s very public and high-profile meltdown. They begin to humiliate and physically assault Cutshaw, and then Kane alike, when he comes rushing to try to defuse the situation. The berating and beating Kane receives, finally awakens the “killer” part of his personality he has been suppressing and he unleashes pure Hell on all of the bikers in the bar, killing several before fleeing back to the castle where he commits suicide.
In all of the lofty discussions, of the meaning of life, the existence or lack thereof of God throughout the film, it is clear that Kane is supposed to represent faith and acceptance of the order of the universe while Buckshaw is supposed to represent questioning the order of things and the omnipotence of God. No one ever really out right calls into question the existence of God in the Judeo-Christian sense at all throughout the entirety of The Ninth Configuration. What is called into question is the audacity of God to expect to be worshipped as omnipotent when atrocities like Vietnam and the physical and mental destruction that wars like it leave in their wake. How can God be all loving and all-knowing when he allows mankind to kill himself? These are the topics that the religion-obsessed William Peter Blatty addressed in The Ninth Configuration as well as all his works throughout his life until he passed away in January 2017 at age 89.