Jacob’s Ladder – Analysing the meaning

The 1990 film Jacob’s Ladder directed by Adrian Lyne and starring Tim Robbins is the story of a Vietnam war veteran who is “plagued by bizarre and violent hallucinations” (Jacob’s Ladder, 1990).
The film for me is one of the very best representations of mental illness and in particular Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in film. Even though Jacob’s symptoms are the result of something other than PTSD, the paranoia, confusion and darkness that Jacob experiences on his decent into hell is probably the closest to my personal experiences of mental illness.

Jacob’s Ladder begins as a “Vietnam” film, titles in the opening scene inform us it is set in 1971 in the Mekong Delta. We see the protagonist Jacob Singer (played by Tim Robbins) and his unit “attacked”, and then a confusion of bloody, convulsing bodies in what is later revealed as a drug induced psychosis and the subsequent fallout. Jacob then wakes on a subway train in 1975 and the film moves to Jacob’s life post Vietnam where he is suffering hallucinations and the symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD): “nightmares, recurrent recollections and flashbacks or physiological distress” (Wedding, Boyd and Niemiec, 2009:19). A sign on the wall of the subway train “Hell – That’s what life can be doing drugs” alludes to what is about to come and what the film is really about, connecting Hell with the drugs given to the soldiers in the film.

Initially the film appears to be a traditional Vietnam veteran film in a style similar to The Deer Hunter (Cimino, 1978) or First Blood (Kotcheff, 1982) but quickly the direction begins to change as Jacob’s hallucinations and flashbacks become worse. The Vietnam war is used as a device to tell a story that is about spirituality and death hidden within a narrative about mental illness and war, although this is made intentionally ambiguous, by jumping around different story lines.

There are three story lines running concurrently, through intercutting, in Jacob’s Ladder; Jacob’s life before Vietnam, the events during his service in Vietnam and his life after Vietnam. Cinema of the Occult (Fry, 2008) discusses similarities to Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, where the main character is shown the past, the present and a possible future, but in Jacob’s Ladder the film moves from one story to another in flashback or dream like sequences, only coming together in one scene where Jacob is thrown into a bath of ice water. “As the narrative progresses, the past of Vietnam and the present of New York have roughly equal status, and it is difficultly to know which is the hallucination and which the reality” (Ruffles, 2004:193).

Jacob is on a journey throughout the film, the train and train tunnel at the beginning of the film, driving the postal van, a car chasing him down an alley way, strapped to a hospital trolley being pushed through corridors in the hospital, the taxi journey and finally arriving at his destination and climbing the stairs with his son; a metaphor for Jacob’s journey through Hell and to what is revealed at the end of the film as his death. Writer Bruce Joel Rubin explained that “Jacob’s Ladder is the story of a man killed in Vietnam [and his] journey into death” (Building Jacob’s Ladder, 1991) the journey through the hospital is Jacob’s “Journey into Hell” (ibid).

The film’s story is constructed from various theologies of death “overlaid on the Christian imagery is an essentially Buddhist philosophy” (Ruffles, 2004). “The film’s symbolism derives from literary and biblical allusions and at the outset, these references suggest both to the viewer and to Jacob, that we are in Hell” (Cinema of The Occult, 2008). The film’s title refers to the biblical story of Jacob’s Ladder, the dream of a connection between the earth and heaven by the biblical Patriarch Jacob in Genesis 28:10-19. An alternate title to the film is “Dante’s Inferno” (IMDB, 2018) a reference to Inferno, part of The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri, “Adrian Lyne has used Dantean material to shape his cinematic vision of the Hell of a disordered mind” (Iannucci, 2004:11).
In the film Jacob is seen looking at images of demons by Gustav Doré in The Divine Comedy. Inferno refers to Hell as nine circles of torment within the earth, the realm of ”those who have rejected spiritual values by yielding to bestial appetites or violence, or by perverting their human intellect to fraud or malice against their fellowmen” (Barolini, 2014). In Jacob’s Ladder “bestial appetites and violence” refer to the violence in Vietnam: to his relationship with Jezebel, his “human intellect” the doctorate that he has replaced by working in the post office; Jacob’s chiropractor, Louis (played by Danny Aiello), mentions that Jacob “spent six years getting a PHD and then went to work for the post office” (Jacob’s Ladder, 1990). Purgatory is defined by the Catholic Church as: “All who die in God’s grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after death they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven” (The Vatican, 2017). Louis, refers to what Jacob is experiencing in a similar way quoting Christian theologian Meister Eckhart  to Jacob:

“Eckhart saw Hell too. He said: “The only thing that burns in Hell is the part of you that won’t let go of life, your memories, your attachments. They burn them all away. But they’re not punishing you”, he said. “They’re freeing your soul. So, if you’re frightened of dying and you’re holding on, you’ll see devils tearing your life away. But if you’ve made your peace, then the devils are really angels, freeing you from the earth” .

Louis in this scene is shown from Jacob’s perspective as he lies on the chiropractor’s couch, a light behind Louis’  head like a halo, symbolising his role as Jacob’s guardian angel or spirit guide, Jacob even suggests this by saying “You know you look like an angel, Louis: an overgrown cherub” (Jacob’s Ladder, 1990). Even the role of a Chiropractor fits with part of the Biblical story of Jacob in Genesis 32:35 of a dream in which he wrestles with God or an Angel “and the hollow of Jacob’s thigh was out of joint as he wrestled with him”

Jezebel (Elizabeth Peña) burns Jacob’s photographs, she physically burns away all his memories, his attachments. Lyne explains the story is about “Jacob holding onto what he remembers, holding onto his guilt, holding onto his pleasures, his desires, everything that makes us hold onto life in an everyday experience, holding on to your breath, to your identity, to your sense of self” (Building Jacob’s Ladder, 1991).

The religious symbolism continues throughout the film, many of the characters have biblical names; Jacob, Sarah (the wife of Abraham), Jezebel, in Christian lore “she misleads my servants to be sexually immoral” (Revelation, 2:20), Michael, who also acts as a guardian angel to Jacob, pulling him away from an exploding car, was an Archangel, the neighbour Sam (Samuel) was a biblical prophet who worked under Eli, Eli and Jed (Jedidiah) were prophets as explained in the film by Jacob to Jezebel “they’re biblical names. They were prophets” (Jacob’s Ladder, 1990).

At the end of the film the audience is left with Jacob lying on a field hospital bed, one of the medical staff commenting “he looks kind of peaceful” and “he put up a Hell of a fight though”. A conclusion that could be made, is that New York was Jacob’s mind attempting to make sense of his life as he died in Vietnam. Screenwriter Rubin explains “ The horror of the movie would be in the revelation that hope is Hell’s final torment, that life is a dream that ends over and over with the final truth, that life was never real, that we are all creatures trapped in eternal suffering and damnation” (Building Jacobs Ladder, 1991). However Jacob knowing details about the use of “The Ladder” on soldiers in Vietnam cast doubt upon this scenario and suggests that perhaps that too, was part of Jacob’s hallucinations: “If New York is a death reverie, then Michael’s information is part of it (…) it is a part of Jacob’s imagination. But the ladder’s reality means that New York life is real as well, throwing into doubt the final image of Jacob dead in the field hospital” (Ruffles 2004:195).

The final touch to ensure an ambiguous end to the film is the closing message about the use of the drug BZ in Vietnam. In the Horrors of War (Miller 2015:93-94) Thomas Robert Argiro describes the real world effects of BZ poisoning “Deterioration in the level of consciousness, hallucinations and coma occur subsequently (…) the individual becomes delirious and in that state is unable to distinguish fantasy from reality”, perhaps everything in the film is Jacob’s “deterioration”. Jacob’s Lawyer even accuses him of making up his whole situation “I checked with the Army’s Bureau of information, you never even went to Vietnam”.

The film also has a political message about the US Military’s treatment of its soldiers in a theatres of war and outside of them. It dramatises “the real horrors of war” (ibid:103) . Drug testing on soldiers and the plight of PTSD “which is also frequently accompanied by psychotic hallucinations, among Veterans of Vietnam and other conflicts”. The Doctor in the film significantly always absent, reflecting “the problem of veterans failing to receive the necessary counselling or therapy” (ibid).


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