Making A Legend

Brian D. Johnson August 10 1987

Making A Legend

Brian D. Johnson August 10 1987

Making A Legend


The setting, at least, is idyllic. The cameras stand in the courtyard of an abandoned Buddhist temple in a remote valley. Carved dragons jut from its pagoda rooftops, looking out over the green terraced slopes of the Wutai mountains. About 250 km southwest of Beijing, the Wutai range includes one of China’s five holy mountains. Dotted with ornate monasteries, the area is a mecca for pilgrims, from Tibetan monks in sienna-colored robes to Japanese Buddhists in baseball caps. But the film crew at the temple courtyard has come on a secular mission: to make a big-screen legend of Canada’s Norman Bethune, the battlefield surgeon who became a hero and martyr of the Chinese Revolution in these same

mountains half a century ago.

On the set, however, there is scant evidence of the Buddha’s proverbial patience. The director, Toronto’s Phillip Borsos, quietly fumes as another delay stalls filming. “Why does everything take so f— ing long?” he finally shouts to no one in particular as an interpreter chalks Chinese calligraphy onto a blackboard. The writings are highlights of a lecture that Bethune will give, through an interpreter, to medical workers at a makeshift field hospital. Meanwhile, the star, Donald Sutherland, rehearses the speech— about “good and bad technique”—before a squad of grey-uniformed Chinese, who listen in rapt incomprehension on the temple steps.

Suddenly, Borsos points at some ex-

tras portraying wounded soldiers in the background. “Can’t we do something about those guys,” he asks. “It looks like they’re lounging around at Malibu. Their uniforms and bandages are too clean.” A crew member begins to streak the soldiers’ uniforms with dirt, but the Chinese coproducer angrily intervenes: he does not want anyone sullying the image of China’s revolutionary army. He gives an order, and another production assistant goes to work removing the dirt.

Poisoning: That jarring sense of misunderstanding between East and West deeply pervaded what has become one of the most ambitious, expensive, traumatic—and heroic—adventures in the history of Canadian film-making. Tentatively titled Re-

thune: The Making of a Hero, the $16-million movie is China’s first coproduction with the West on a major feature. Although more filming is scheduled for Montreal and Spain this fall, the movie is set principally in China, where Bethune worked for almost two years before dying of blood poisoning in 1939. The Chinese plan to release a dubbed version of the film. For the first time, capitalism and communism have collaborated to portray a piece of shared history through the same lens—and it has not been easy.

This week, after four gruelling months in remote locations, the 35member Canadian crew finally due to finish its China shoot. About 2,000 Chinese extras, drawn from Wutai villages, have been ordered to converge on the location for Bethune’s climactic funeral scene—

not far from where he actually died. But retracing Bethune’s footsteps presented the ill-prepared Canadian producers with technical problems on an epic scale. They worked in rugged, isolated areas that had been closed to Westerners for decades. Meanwhile, a last-minute overhaul of the script turned the Bethune legend into a subject of intense controversy. The production became a saga of conflict and compromise, a clash between styles of film-making—and different concepts of heroism and history.

But the mere fact that the movie is being made is something of a miracle. Bethune is the product of deep-rooted obsessions: screenwriter Ted Allan, coauthor of the 1952 Bethune biography The Scalpel, the Sword, spent 45 years trying to bring the surgeon’s story to the screen. And Sutherland, who portrayed Bethune in three TV productions, has talked about starring in a Bethune movie since the early 1970s. One of Hollywood’s most versatile talents, the mercurial actor is known for his bold career moves (page 30). In fact, he accepted the role despite serious doubts about the health of the production. “But because I am Canadian,” Sutherland told Maclean's, “I couldn’t have lived with myself if I hadn’t done it.”

Now, after multiple setbacks, the

film’s future seems relatively secure. Last month Bethune's producers signed a $3-million distribution deal with Hemdale Films Corp., the Hollywood-based independent studio that produced last year’s Oscar-winning hit Platoon. Hemdale has guaranteed to distribute the film to 700 screens across the United States next year, an unusually wide release for a Canadian movie. The CBC has agreed to broadcast an extended version of the movie as a four-hour mini-series in 1989. But Bethune’s largest potential audience is in China. Said James Burt, who helped develop the CBC series, “It will be their Anne of Green Gables.”

Afraid: The story itself has a

quintessentially Canadian ring to it— an idealistic doctor who becomes national hero for one billion Chinese while remaining an obscure enigma in his own country. But until recently it was assumed that only a Hollywood studio could make a movie on the scale of the Bethune story. Allan first sold a 180-page biography of Bethune to 20th Century-Fox in 1942. Over the years executives at both Columbia Pictures and Warner Bros, have taken a run at producing it, and stars such as Robert Redford, Warren Beatty, Richard Dreyfuss and Sean Connery have expressed interest in playing the lead. But in the end, said Allan, Hollywood “seemed politically afraid of making an epic about a Canadian Communist doctor.” The project died.

Then, in 1984 Filmline International Inc., a Montreal-based production house, revived it. Filmline producers Nicolas Clermont and Pieter Krooner-

burg began to arrange a complex web of financing. Telefilm Canada, the federal funding agency, supplemented private investment with a record contribution of $3.7 million. A Paris-based studio, Belstar Productions, contributed another $2 million. Meanwhile, China’s cultural officials had approved Allan’s script—and agreed to back Bethune with goods and services worth an estimated $6 million.

China’s new openness to the Westoriental glasnost^-has sparked an influx of Western film-making. Last spring Italian director Bernardo Bertolucci shot The Last Emperor within the ancient walls of Beijing’s Forbidden City. And Hollywood director Steven Spielberg recently filmed scenes in Shanghai for his $40-million movie, Empire of the Sun. But they both had lavish budgets and well-equipped Western crews, and Bertolucci even flew in fresh pasta from Rome daily. As a coproduction, Bethune entailed considerably more hardship. It teamed Chinese actors and crew with artists and technicians from Canada, France and Britain. The ordeal of negotiating and translating creative decisions consumed precious hours of shooting time each day. And although Bethune is one of the most expensive Canadian movies ever made, its $16-million budget is threadbare for a three-location epic with a five-month shooting schedule— about half the budget that Hollywood spends on such pictures.

Deposits: The spirit of East-West co-operation that looked so promising on paper soon wilted in the heat of the shoot. The coproduction deal had

called for the Chinese to process the film, but the Canadian producers discovered early that sand in Beijing’s water supply was leaving deposits on the negatives. After that, they shipped all footage to Vancouver for processing. The Chinese were also supposed to provide transport, but their trucks proved inadequate for a fully equipped Western crew. Said coproducer Clermont: “I think the Chinese misjudged the kind of film we intended to make.”

Ill: Most upsetting for Western crew members was the quality of food, accommodation and hygiene. At the remote city of Ping Yaou, 450 km from Beijing, the production ran out of bottled drinking water for two days in May, while temperatures hovered near 38°C. Meanwhile, food that they found almost inedible made the crew physically ill.

Midway through the shoot, in the town of Yenan —the cave-pocked site of Mao Tse-tung’s guerrilla headquarters, the crew finally mutinied. They formed a “Bethunion” and halted production for a one-day strike. Coproducer Kroonenburg admitted that he

had been naïve. “I expected the crew to make some of the same sacrifices as Bethune,” he said later. ‘T told them it was going to be tough, but I never an-

ticipated they would take it so badly.” The producers tried to improve conditions by hiring a New York caterer and a general practitioner from Toron-

to, Frances Gorzalka. When production manager Jean Gérin appeared to be suffering a heart attack, he had to be flown to Beijing—and in the ambulance ride to the airport he received oxygen from a large inner tube. (He recovered in Montreal.)

Curious: The shoot strangely echoed Bethune’s experiences. Just as he cajoled his hosts into accepting a transfusion of his expertise, the Canadians making Bethune tended to overpower their Chinese partners with techniques considered standard in North America—such as synchronized sound. China’s movies are dubbed after they are shot, which .nade it difficult for the Chinese crew to understand why they had to be quiet on the set while the cameras rolled. In some locations,

hundreds of curious onlookers made matters worse.

Special effects were another source of aggravation. One scene called for an artillery attack on a mule train. Toronto-based special effects co-ordinator Neil Trifunovich said: “The Chinese couldn’t understand why we would not blow up a real mule. They wanted to put explosives on the side of the animal’s head.” Trifunovich says that he had trouble obtaining the most basic materials in China. Even gunpowder was unavailable—in the country that invented it. His Chinese counterpart, whose specialty was demolition not special effects, preferred to use TNT.

Blame: But despite his frustrations with the Chinese, Trifunovich blamed most of the film’s problems on the Canadian producers’ poor organization. “Everyone tends to blame the Chinese,” he said. “But we’re trying to do a Western movie in an Eastern place. And East and West just don’t meet.”

Late morning. In a dusty chamber of the Wutai temple, the crew prepares to shoot a scene of Bethune performing surgery. The day is already hours behind schedule, and Borsos is upset because a large syringe is missing from the props. “Where’s the turkey baster?” he asks a bewildered interpreter. Next, Sutherland complains that the operating table is too low for him. Borsos offers to have it raised. The actor tells him to forget it and adds, “I’m sick of wasting time because things have not been organized.” The star and director argue, until Borsos orders the table propped up with boxes. Finally the cameras are ready to roll, and a Canadian crew member screams, “An jingf' (Silence!) The shouted command is relayed to the crowd of peasants staring at the temple from across the creek. Later, story editor Don Miller arrives at the set with the revisions that Borsos has requested in the next day’s dialogue. Sutherland objects to the changes, which he finds inconsistent with Bethune’s character. The star and director quarrel again.

But it is like a lovers’ tiff. The two are, in fact, closely collaborating. The real rift lies between them and screenwriter Allan in Toronto, who has been fighting changes in his screenplay. Both Borsos and Sutherland have expressed dissatisfaction with Allan’s original script.

One key issue was whether Bethune’s character should change from arrogance to saintliness near the end of the film. Allan argued that it should; Sutherland disagreed. “Bethune doesn’t change,” he said. “He is like a Giacometti sculpture. Things

just get shaved off. Within him is a fine, bright, white iron rod.” The unenviable task of mediating fell to Miller, a Los Angeles writer hired as script doctor halfway through the shoot. Exasperated by the conflicting demands placed on him, he told Maclean's: “This is the most complex, confused interpersonal situation I’ve ever been in. It’s like a Chinese puzzle.”

The last-minute revisions caused confusion and consternation among the Chinese coproducers, who had given their official approval to Allan’s original script. In China, scripts are finalized a year before filming starts. But as late as last month the Chinese

were receiving fresh pages of Bethune to approve and translate the same day the scenes were to be shot. “It has been difficult,” said Chinese director Wang Xingang. “But no matter how we change the script, if we show the correct image of Bethune—his love for the people and his hatred of the fascists—it will be all right.”

Refused: While the Chinese worried about the message, the Canadian director fretted about visual details. One scene called for a Japanese warplane to strafe Bethune’s caravan. Unable to find a plane of the right vintage in China, Borsos finally found one in Canada. But the Chinese said that none of their pilots could fly it, and they refused to let a foreign pilot fly over a region considered militarily sensitive. Instead, they offered to provide a model plane.

The model, promised for January, arrived in July: a camouflage-painted

wooden Zero with a two-metre wingspan and a pink-faced doll for a pilot. As the film crew gathered around the cardboard runway, the radio-controlled plane took off on a test flight. It left the earth, climbed about 165 feet, then stalled and crashed into the trees, ripping holes in the wings and fuselage. Sutherland turned and walked away with his head in his hands. It was hard to tell whether he was overcome by mirth or grief. But on regaining his composure, he declared, “Thankfully, the pilot was unhurt.” Bridged: For the Chinese, the episode resulted in a loss of face—and the coproduction’s delicate ecology de-

pended heavily on saving face. Bethune had become an exercise in diplomacy between two insecure cultures sharing a single hero. Canada keeps its heroes at an equivocal distance and questions their motives; China’s heroes are larger-than-life, welded into the frieze of history. As film-makers from both countries searched for Bethune’s soul in the Wutai mountains, they briefly bridged that difficult gap.

One afternoon a wizened 81-year-old Chinese man who lived in the abandoned temple sat smoking a pipe on the edge of the courtyard. He had never seen a movie, or even a photograph of himself until a crew member snapped a Polaroid. The man stared in amazement as the snapshot developed before his eyes. It revealed the face of a China that, over centuries of intrusion, has learned the art of patience.