Bethune: The Making of a Hero
|Keywords||Abortion, Acculturation, Alcoholism, Art of Medicine, Asian Experience, Caregivers, Catastrophe, Cross-Cultural Issues, Death and Dying, Developing Countries, History of Medicine, Hospitalization, Human Worth, Impaired Physician, Individuality, Love, Marital Discord, Medical Advances, Obsession, Patient Experience, Professionalism, Public Health, Rebellion, Sexuality, Society, Suffering, Surgery, Survival, Technology, Trauma, Tuberculosis, War and Medicine|
Canadian surgeon Norman Bethune, 1890-1939, (Donald Sutherland) journeys 1500 miles into China to reach Mao Zedong's eighth route army in the Wu Tai mountains where he will build hospitals, provide care, and train medics. Flashbacks narrate the earlier events of his life: a bout with tuberculosis at the Trudeau sanatorium; the self-administration of an experimental pneumothorax; the invention of operative instruments; his fascination with socialism; a journey into medical Russia; and the founding of a mobile plasma transfusion unit in war-torn Spain.
Bethune twice married and twice divorced his wife, Frances (Helen Mirren) who chooses abortion over child-rearing in her unstable marriage. By 1939, Bethune had been dismissed from his Montreal Hospital for taking unconventional risks and from his volunteer position in Spain for his chronic problems of drinking and womanizing. As his friend states: "China was all that was left." Even there, Bethune confidently ignores the advice of Chinese officials, until heavy casualties make him realize his mistake and lead him to a spectacular apology. The film ends with his much-lamented death from an infected scalpel wound.
Bethune has long been a hero in China. Perhaps for reasons of politics and personality, however, his fame in North America lagged far behind. The film explores the complexity of a character who could be narcissistic, petty, and cruel with those who loved him, yet capable of heroic generosity and creativity for those whom he scarcely knew.
It was a Canada-China-France co-production, which by the time of its release had become the most expensive movie ever made in Canada. The production had been dogged by controversy over funding, politics, location, revenue, and a dispute over the script between the author, who had been with Bethune in Spain, and the leading actor who had already played Bethune in other venues.
Some scenes are tinged with humor and Bethune's speeches about universal access to humane medicine have an uncanny appeal more than half a century later. With its beautiful backdrop of Chinese landscapes, Montreal snow, and 1930s nostalgia, the film is an evocative memorial to a fascinating figure in surgery's past. Medical students love it.
|Leading Actors||Anouk Aimee, Helen Mirren, Donald Sutherland|
|Studio||Telefilm Canada, Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, FR3 TV France, China Film Co-production|
|Running Time||116 minutes|
|Video Source||Nova Home Video|
|Miscellaneous||Based on the book by Ted Allen, The Scalpel and the Sword; Allen also wrote the screenplay.|
|Annotated by||Duffin, Jacalyn|
|Date of Entry||10/31/96|