SPECIAL REPORT/ENTERTAINMENT

OF MYTHS AND MEN

BETHUNE BECAME A BATTLEGROUND FOR DUELLING OBSESSIONS September 10 1990
SPECIAL REPORT/ENTERTAINMENT

OF MYTHS AND MEN

BETHUNE BECAME A BATTLEGROUND FOR DUELLING OBSESSIONS September 10 1990

OF MYTHS AND MEN

SPECIAL REPORT

ENTERTAINMENT

BETHUNE BECAME A BATTLEGROUND FOR DUELLING OBSESSIONS

For Ted Allan, the long march was over. In 1942, the Canadian screenwriter, now 74, pitched an idea for a movie. Last week, at the Montreal World Film Festival, Bethune: The Making of a Hero was finally unveiled. Addressing the audience before the Montreal première, Allan said, "I've been waiting 48 years to say this—I hope you enjoy the picture.” But while he spoke, in a hotel room across town Bethune’s Canadian star, Donald Sutherland, undercut the writer’s triumph with scalding comments in an interview with Mac-

lean ’s. The actor, who had refused to appear onstage with the writer, charged that none of Allan’s scripted dialogue reached the screen. “Ted’s script was pretentious and two-dimensional and unplayable,” said Sutherland, claiming that an uncredited writer from British Columbia, Dennis Clark, wrote the movie. Later in the week, Allan lay bedridden in a Montreal hotel, his heart condition aggravated, he said, by Sutherland’s attacks on him in the media. Accusing Sutherland of “meanspirited egomania,” he added, “I still think he deserves an Oscar—he’s a great actor and a puny human being.”

It was another bizarre twist in Canadian cinema’s longest-running soap opera: the battle for Bethune. The movie is the most expensive, ambitious and controversial in the country’s history. An $ 18-million epic, it tells the story of Canadian battlefront surgeon Norman Bethune, who died a martyr of the Chinese Revolution in 1939. After four years of tortured production spread over three continents, it is due to open in theatres across the country next month. Despite some widely acknowledged flaws, it was warmly received in Montreal. Local critics expressed surprise and relief that, after all its troubles, the movie is as good

as it is (page 70). Some foreign commentators, intrigued by its unorthodox hero, seemed impressed. Sheila Benson of The Los Angeles Times calls Sutherland’s portrayal of Bethune “deeply dimensional.” And former prime minister Pierre Trudeau shouted bravos, saying later, “I feel like wiping away my tears.”

Acrimony: But even at its moment of glory, Bethune could not shake the controversy that has cursed it since its inception. The project became a battleground for duelling obsessions, with Allan and Sutherland both challenging each other’s fidelity to Bethune’s spirit. Even the issue of whether Allan had had an affair with Bethune’s wife contributed to the acrimony. Meanwhile, the movie’s production was afflicted by delays, firings, crew mutinies, technical disasters, bad debts, quarrels between international co-producers and a budget that spiralled from $11 million to $18 million. And after the shooting ended, a bitter dispute left Bethune’s director, Phillip Borsos, shut out of the final editing process.

In Hollywood, such havoc is often just part of a day’s work. But in the delicate context of Canada’s publicly funded movie industry, it is a luxury that film-makers cannot afford. And the epic misadventure of Bethune has had deep

repercussions (page 67). It has certainly been a chastening experience for the federal funding agency Telefilm Canada, which has undergone a radical change in personnel and attitude over the course of the Bethune saga. Bankrolling Bethune “was a mistake to begin with,” said Peter Katadotis, Telefilm’s national director of production and development, adding that the agency has recently concentrated on subsidizing smaller movies.

“Let’s try to forget those man-of-wars,” he said.

“Let the Americans make their big galleons that cost millions of dollars.”

Demons: It seems unlikely that Telefilm’s investment in Bethune will pay off, at least in financial terms. The movie—a coproduction with China and France—has been sold to European distributors for about $1.6 million. And the movie’s producers are still trying to nail down an American distribution deal. Said critic Peter Rainer, Benson’s colleague at the Times. “It would be an extremely tough sell in the United States.” A jury member of the Montreal film festival (where Bethune was shown, but not as part of the competition), Rainer added, “It’s the sort of subject that usually gets covered in a mini-series.”

But, in Canada, where local heroes are in short

supply, Bethune has to double as a big-screen epic and a mini-series. The CBC is now assembling a four-hour program from Bethune footage that it plans to air in two instalments in December, 1991. The movie was primarily conceived, however, as a big-screen epic in the Lawrence of Arabia tradition. More modest in scale and pedestrian in style, Bethune is no Lawrence. But, like Lawrence, it is about a

troubled romantic who exorcises his demons in the fires of a foreign revolution. And Bethune’s expatriate heroism seems to strike a deep chord in Canadian culture.

After watching the movie at the Montreal festival, Trudeau declared it to be “wonderful.” Wearing an Oriental white silk shirt, he had just returned from a one-month vacation in China with two of his three sons, Justin, 18, and Sacha, 16, who also accompanied him to the première. At a reception after the screening, Trudeau chatted with CBC chairman Patrick Watson, who first cast Sutherland as Bethune 16 years ago in his CBC series Witness to Yesterday, in which Watson interviewed actors portraying historical figures. “You must be delighted,” the former prime minister I commented to Watson. “This film is I your dream come true. I was amazed g by its frankness—it’s Bethune, it’s I socialized medicine, the clenched fist, the singing of The Internationale in Montreal in the 1930s.” Added Tru-

deau: “It makes me wonder how it will

be seen by the Americans.”

After last year’s massacre of Chinese students in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, marketing a movie about a Canadian Communist doctor who goes to China became a bold proposition. Even at the best of times, it would be difficult. But popular historian Pierre Berton, who privately screened Bethune in Toronto, hailed the movie for defying commercial formulas. “Hollywood always thinks it can do better than history,” he said. “The Bethune story does not need to be glamorized. It’s pretty good the way it is.” Added Berton: “It flies in the face of American anti-communism. But I also wonder how the Chinese are going to take it, because we’re taking one of their saints and bringing him down to earth.” Bethune is a tragic hero on a Shakespearean scale. He was a lady’s man, a heavy drinker and an arrogant show-off who finally purified himself in China, where he died from an infection caused by a scalpel cut to his finger. In China, Bethune became more honored than any foreign visitor since Buddha. But he is perhaps more interesting as a pathologically Canadian hero—a dreamer unsatisfied with the drama in his own country.

Puritanical: In making Bethune, Allan and Sutherland became rival heirs to Bethune’s legacy. Allan served as a comrade-in-arms with the surgeon in the Spanish Civil War. That was when Bethune began drinking too much, to Allan’s dismay. “I was a young, puritanical Communist,” the writer recalled last week in Montreal. “And hell hath no fury like a disillusioned hero-worshipper.” Added Allan: “He I was my surrogate daddy. I loved him; I hated I him.”

1 Sutherland, who has also portrayed the surI geon in one CBC TV production since Witness to 5 Yesterday, tends to defend Bethune’s honor as if it were his own. The actor charged that Allan

A TROUBLED ROMANTIC EXORCISED DEMONS INA FOREIGN REVOLUTION

betrayed Bethune during the Spanish Civil War by advising Communist party officials to send him back to Canada. Sutherland also said that Allan once claimed to have written Bethune’s poetic dispatch from China, the essay “Wounds,” and bragged to him in the early 1970s that he once had an affair with Bethune’s

wife, Frances. “He was using Bethune to glorify Ted Allan,” said Sutherland. “It’s that kind of scrabbling up the ladder—saying anything to achieve personal notoriety for himself—that I have problems with.”

Allan acknowledges that he did fall in love with Frances after Bethune’s death, but contends that he did not have an affair with her. “Donald should not take it personally,” said Allan. “I never laid a hand on her.” He added, however, that he may have given the actor a different impression. “I’m writing my autobiography now,” he said, “and I’m calling it a fictional autobiography, because I’m discovering that I’m never sure what happened—the reality versus the fantasies.” But Allan vehemently denies that he betrayed Bethune in Spain—or took credit for writing “Wounds.” “That charge is

really chilling,” said Allan. “The man has gone off his head. Apparently, he thinks he’s Bethune.”

Although their marriage of convenience was destined for a stormy divorce, Allan and Sutherland needed each other to realize their common dream: making the movie. Allan owned

the story; Sutherland owned the character. Allan staked his claim in 1942 by selling a 180page Bethune outline to 20th Century-Fox. Over the years, various studio executives and Hollywood stars—including Warren Beatty, Robert Redford, Paul Newman and Dustin Hoffman—expressed interest in it. But Hollywood was not about to glorify a Communist during the Cold War. The project also made the rounds among various Canadian filmmakers, from Norman Jewison to Ted Kotcheff. Finally, in 1985, two inexperienced Montreal producers, Nicolas Clermont and Pieter Kroonenburg, revived the project with the help of Julie Allan, the screenwriter’s daughter.

But the Canadian government became the key player I by signing an unprecedented I co-production deal with China in 1987. In a spirit of Oriental á glasnost, China was open for

business, and Bethune served as the flower in Ottawa’s diplomatic lapel. Accepting Allan’s script, China agreed to contribute $6 million worth of goods and services to the movie’s budget. The rest came from the CBC, the French co-producers, private investors and Telefilm, which promised $3.7 million. By the time the movie was completed, Telefilm had bailed out the project, more than doubling its contribution to $8.5 million.

Inadequate: The producers had grossly underestimated the cost of their ambitious venture. Following in Bethune’s footsteps, they filmed in remote parts of China, including the Wutai Mountains, where making a phone call meant driving for 12 hours. The food and facilities often proved woefully inadequate. Exposed film had to be sent to Vancouver for processing, then back to China. Canadian and Chinese crews had trouble understanding each other’s methods. There were endless delays. And the Chinese were especially perplexed to see the script that they had approved changing daily until it was unrecognizable.

After four months of shooting in China during the summer of 1987, financial problems halted production for a year. By then, bitter quarrels over the script had split the filmmakers into two camps: Sutherland and director Borsos versus Allan and the producers. With a new boost from Telefilm, shooting was completed in Montreal and Spain. But then, the feud shifted to the cutting room.

In September, 1989, nine months after shooting ended, the producers rejected the version that Borsos had been working on. Along with Telefilm, the CBC and the movie’s sales agents, they told the director that it was unacceptable. Borsos now says that his cut was incomplete, lacking vital narration. But the producers hired a new editor and decided to completely recut the movie without the participation of Borsos. Rejecting the director’s chronological narrative, they chose to construct the movie as a series of flashbacks.

Impunity: But that required yet more money, and suddenly the political climate had changed with Tiananmen Square. Before the massacre, Telefilm was under political pressure from Flora MacDonald, then communications minister, to make the movie at any cost. “Flora wanted this film,” said Telefilm’s Katadotis. He added that ministry officials “didn’t want any embarrassment with the Chinese. But after Tiananmen Square, it was amazing how quickly [the government’s] ardor faded. One minute it was going to be a national shame if we didn’t do it, then it would be a shame if we did.” Added Katadotis: “There was a point where I could have said, with impunity, ‘Listen, it’s too much hassle, it’s too much money— let’s call it off.’ ”

Instead, Telefilm provided another $2 million—for a total of $8.5 million—to complete the movie. Communications Minister Marcel Masse, who took over the portfolio from MacDonald in 1989, denies that there were political pressures to kill it. In an interview with Maclean’s after the première, he said: “If we hadn’t continued it would have been a catastro-

phe. When you start an experiment, you have to finish it.” Added Masse: “I think the result speaks for itself. It’s a film of international stature.” Telefilm executive director Pierre DesRoches echoed the minister’s praise, but said that the agency’s decision to finance the movie “could not have been made today—the structure of the movie and the script would have to be different.”

The Montreal première was like a wedding that brought together opposing sides of a family feud. Dennis Clark, one of three uncredited writers hired to revise Allan’s script, flew in from tiny Mayne Island,

B.C., where Borsos also has his home. In an interview, the writer maintained that he had entirely rewritten Allan’s script. “Contractually, I shouldn’t be talking to you,” he added, “but the producers haven’t paid me for my last year of work, so I have no qualms about it.”

The writer said that he is still owed $30,000 and that both he and actress Helen Shaver had to pay their own way back from China.

Palpitations: Producer Clermont dismissed Clark’s claims as “totally ridiculous” and advised him to either file a union grievance “or shut up.” He said that, while some dialogue was revised, the basic story and structure were faithful to Allan’s script. “How could it not be?” he asked. “The movie is the story of Bethune and Ted Allan.”

Meanwhile, Borsos, conspicuous by his absence at the Montreal première, says that there were 33 drafts of the screenplay. He maintains that Clark wrote most of the scenes scenes that

were filmed, with help from himself and Sutherland. In fact, the star and the director worked closely together reworking scenes, often the night before they were shot. Katadotis said, “It was the case of an inexperienced director with a star who was running the show.” Borsos disagrees. “Donald always said he was there to provide material which can be used or not,” the director told Maclean’s. “He had so many terrific suggestions, why would I not listen to him?” Concluded Borsos: “It was a film driven by government financing. They set the agenda. And that is where the problems started.” While clearly dissatisfied with the movie that bears his name, Borsos said that he had no desire to enter the current fray of invective. He also stressed that he was proud of his work. “Everything was gone about in the wrong way,” he said. “But the film got made because of an impassioned Ted Allan, an impassioned group of producers, an impassioned actor—

and, I might add, an impassioned director who wanted to make a film about a remarkable subject. Nobody did it for the money.”

The Bethune passions proved too strong for some at the première. Suffering from heart palpitations, Allan went to bed immediately after introducing the film. Clark walked out before the end of the movie, enraged by how the producers had cut the footage. Sutherland, planning to visit the theatre at the end of the movie, stayed in his hotel room, tried in vain to find the Expos baseball game on TV and then ordered a room-service sandwich. He has not

seen the finished movie, but that is not unusual—he first saw the 1971 thriller Klute, in which he starred opposite Jane Fonda, only recently. However, he said that he did watch the producers’ version of Bethune on video, turning it off after 20 minutes. “No matter how good people think it is,” he declared, “it is not as good as it could have been.”

Sutherland expressed his unforgiving contempt for Allan (“He has left a bruise on the back of my head”) and his undying admiration for Borsos (“Directors make films, and I work for directors”). But he also talked about the subject of his obsession, and why he agreed to do the movie under such adverse conditions. “I could not live my life without doing it,” the actor said. “Norman Bethune represents to me what is fundamentally good about the Canadian character. I think he was sitting in the heart of Elijah when he did his Meech Lake number.” Later, Sutherland's friend Watson showed

up at his hotel room. They shared a limousine to the theatre. The actor asked the driver to stop two blocks from the building, where photographers lay in wait under the marquee. As the limousine idled by the curb, Sutherland and Watson passed the time trading jokes. The actor told one about a Nova Scotia ice fisherman who drills a hole in a skating rink. Watson used an Irish accent to tell one about a gambler and a sea captain. Finally, it was time. Deciding that discretion is the better part of glamor, Sutherland dismissed the limousine driver and walked the remaining distance to the theatre

with Watson. Inside, the star stood by the popcorn stand as the audience watched his character die. Then, as the final credits rolled, warm applause turned into a standing ovation as Sutherland marched down the aisle and walked into the light of the screen.

Stepping up to a microphone, Sutherland made a short but impassioned speech about the necessity of a publicly funded movie industry in Canada. “You can’t begin to believe how important it is for this country that Telefilm Canada exists,” he said. The audience had just seen Sutherland’s Bethune preaching socialized medicine from a stage in Montreal. Now, on another Montreal stage, the actor who played him was extolling the virtues of socialized culture. And, with the briefness of an eclipse, the elusive legacy of Norman Bethune slipped into focus.

BRIAN D. JOHNSON