The continuing farce of offscreen controversy surrounding Bethune: The Making of a Hero has tended to overshadow the movie itself. But now that the film has finally been completed, it has a life of its own, independent of the filmmakers who battled over its creative custody. And as it turns out, the epic about Canadian battlefront surgeon Norman Bethune is neither the monumental triumph that its creators had hoped for nor the disaster that some movie industry insiders had expected.
The movie has obvious flaws. Hobbled by multiple surgery, its narrative zigzags between continents and decades with a jarring rhythm. Secondary characters are thinly developed, and the romantic subplot is weak. But Bethune offers an experience rarely found in a movie theatre. It dramatizes an age of revolutionary politics with passion, authenticity and detail. It has an extraordinary story, and the kind of hero that Hollywood would never dare create—a charismatic yet obnoxious Canadian doctor whose communism becomes his most endearing trait. He is a hero for what he does rather than what he is. Portraying him with obsessive conviction, Canadian actor Donald Sutherland gives the performance of his life. It is a deeply felt, sharply focused portrayal, in which the actor seems genuinely possessed by the character’s spirit.
The action begins and ends with Bethune’s funeral procession in China’s Wutai Mountains. Most of the movie traces the surgeon’s remarkable two-year odyssey into the heart of the Chinese Revolution, culminating in his death from blood poisoning in 1939. Flashbacks reconstruct his earlier years, from his crusade in Montreal for socialized medicine to his mobile blood-transfusion work in the Spanish Civil War. The various threads are stitched together, documentary-style, with narration and interviews by a fictional journalist named Chester Rice (Colm Feore)—a character based largely on screenwriter Ted Allan, who had a rocky friendship with Bethune.
Working as a surgeon in a Montreal hospital during the 1920s, Bethune is a flamboyant rebel, exasperating his superiors with innovative adventures in surgery. A wealthy physician, he turns his attention to treating the poor and the unemployed during the 1930s. And in campaigning for socialized medicine, his frustration finally converts him to communism. Bethune’s personal politics are slower to
mature. A compulsive womanizer, he mistreats his wife, Frances—played by an unusually vacant Helen Mirren. He divorces and later remarries her, only to neglect her again while his close friend Alan Coleman (Ronald Pickup) steals her affection. Bethune reaches his nadir on the battlefields of Spain in 1936 and 1937, where his heavy drinking and renegade behavior persuade party officials to send him home, labelled as a “bad Communist.”
Venomous: He finds salvation in China, where he offers his services to Mao Tse-tung. But it takes a while for him to lose his Western arrogance. With venomous sarcasm, he berates his Chinese hosts for their primitive medical facilities, and then forges ahead with the construction of a permanent teaching hospital, ignoring warnings that it will be destroyed in guerrilla warfare. But Bethune finally learns humility from the Chinese. “The fascist that I failed to struggle with I did not recognize,” he says. “It is that fascist that lives within each of us—and within myself.”
China saves Bethune; Bethune saves China. He becomes a hero only after he stops trying to act like one. The transformation takes place late in the movie. Until then, as a fire-eyed foreigner patronizing the Chinese, Bethune plays the prima donna. But no matter how disagreeable he becomes, his unflinching can-
dor makes him consistently compelling.
The doctor’s personality overshadows all others in Allan’s script. There are, however, some fine supporting actors. As Coleman, Pickup lends life to the Montreal sequences. And as Dr. Chian, Bethune’s gentle interpreter and colleague, Chinese actor Goa Da delivers a subtle and moving performance. But Bethune lacks an adequate foil. There is no contest between him and his wife. His romantic interlude with a Montreal woman named MarieFrance seems a poor excuse to find some screen time for French actress Anouk Aimée—to fulfil a co-production deal with France. And Helen Shaver’s role, as a Protestant missionary whom he tries to seduce in China, seems superfluous.
Bethune appears to have been assembled rather than directed—the producers excluded director Phillip Borsos from the final editing. But behind the drama’s distracting framework, there is magic in Borsos’s strongly composed images, especially those of China. Like its imperfect hero, Bethune is a scarred fabric, wounded by contradictions. But through the bandaged mesh of creative compromise, the illuminating and complex spirit of its subject shines with singular clarity.
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