Borderstan Movie Fan: Health Care Options at the Movies

by October 7, 2009 at 9:36 am 2,244 3 Comments

Cameraby Mary Burgan

This week Mary the Borderstan Movie Fan makes some recommendations about health care movies. Mary’s column will run every two weeks and her next one is on high school musicals.

There has been so much debate about health care recently that I decided to seek enlightenment by reviewing movies about hospitals and doctors. I ordered Sicko, for example, even though Michael Moore’s documentaries always make me uneasy.

In addition, I also took out the 1971 Paddy Chayevsky/Arthur Hiller film The Hospital. Although the two are almost thirty years apart, they point to similar problems, but they do so in different ways.

The Hospital opens with a swirling scene from a big-city E.R. and then introduces us to the George C. Scott character, an over-worked and conscience-stricken doctor, trying to cope with it all. Before it becomes a fantastic murder mystery, the film reflects many of the health care problems that people face today: over-crowded ERs, very few non-specialist docs, reliance on part-time medical staff who hardly know the history of their patients, nursing staff tried beyond their endurance. M*A*S*H, the other notable medical film from the same period, features equal chaos in a medical setting, but it had better surgeons, whose irony is seasoned by their skill in actually saving lives.

Sicko seems less self-righteous than Moore’s other films, letting the health-care situation speak through those who have suffered through it. Sicko doesn’t have the energy or the black humor in The Hospital, but it makes almost the same case. It has its provocations, but the “fact check” entry for the film by CNN suggests that although Moore takes some liberties, he really doesn’t stretch things out of all proportion.

Finding only a few good doctors in these films (there are more on TV), I began to wonder where I first got my sense that most doctors are humanitarian do-gooders rather than bureaucrats or grafters. I then realized that when I was a kid, back in the day, I saw a number of movies that portrayed physicians as gallant, self-sacrificing, humane, and often POOR.

My father, a coal-mine doc in West Virginia, was like that. I think he was motivated by the spate of doctor films that came out in the 1930s when he was starting out.

Arrowsmith (1931), Yellow Jack (1938), and Young Dr. Kildare (1938) and its sequels all show valiant physicians fighting to cure ordinary people against all odds. These entertaining films might be worth viewing nowadays because they may be one source of the “how it used to be” that we hear so often in the town hall meetings.

The old days were replete with quacks and get-rich docs, and a lack of science in medical practice that would be horrifying today. But, the romance of the selfless Doctor who refuses to let bureaucrats come between him and his patient lingers on.

The current debates often involve a lot of denigration of the health care systems in other countries, especially European ones. The doctor movies of the thirties do not make such invidious comparisons. They show the French Louis Pasteur, well dramatized in The Story of Louis Pasteur (1938), the English Dr. Andrew Manson in The Citadel (1938) from the novel by a Scots doctor, A.J. Cronin, and the German Paul Ehrlich in Dr. Ehrlich’s Magic Bullet (1940)–a film that risked controversy by centering on the effort to isolate the syphilis bacterium and tackle it with “606” or Salvarsan.

These 1930s bio-pics were generally accurate, and they paid homage to the success of science in medicine without any jingoism.

There are, of course, horror stories from abroad. Anyone who wants to sample one of the most devastating should see The Death of Mr. Lăzărescu (2006), a Romanian film about a responsible nurse in Bucharest, trying to find a hospital to treat her dying patient before his end. She doesn’t make it. Then again, who’s to say that plot couldn’t happen in the U.S.A. even today?

Next week: High school musicals


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