VIFF: Bethune resurrected for a new audience

My very first article for Hollywood North Magazine was a review of the classic 1985 christmas fantasy One Magic Christmas by director Philip Borsos. The BC native helped put the province on Hollywood’s radar with his stellar feature debut The Grey Fox in 1982, still considered to be one of the finest Canadian features ever produced. With a reputation for pushing the envelope of what Canadian film could accomplish, it was only five years later that Borsos would team up with Donald Sutherland to make an epic $18 million feature on the most famous Canadian of all time…..famous in Communist China that is.


With a title more befitting a documentary than a narrative fiction, Bethune: The Making of a Hero concerns the exploits of one Dr. Norman Bethune (Sutherland). A talented surgeon based in Montreal during the great depression, he has grown weary of the economic status quo of the medical profession that keeps those in need from accessing adequate medical care. Not satisfied with merely refusing to charge those unable to pay at his clinic (much to the chagrin of his socialite wife Frances played by Halen Mirren), Bethune calls upon his colleagues and the Canadian government to socialize medicine, ultimately joining the Canadian Communist Party.


Failing to gain much traction in his homeland, and with the spectre of fascism looming over every corner of Europe, Bethune crosses the Atlantic to aid in the Spanish Civil War. Although he saves countless lives by insisting on performing blood transfusions at the battlefront, he ruffles a few too many feathers with the local governance and is promptly sent packing.


“I suppose China was all that was left to him” muses a former colleague as the story promptly shifts to Bethune’s appointment to Chief Surgeon for the Chinese Eighth Route Army during the Sino-Japanese War. Effectively introducing modern medicine to far-flung rural China, Bethune treats many civilians as well as soldiers during the army’s nomadic trek. His dedication and selflessness earns him the respect and admiration of Mao Zedong and the Chinese people. His story would ultimately pass into legend long after his passing.


You really have to hand it to Canada to take an epic story with a budget to match and still have the end product resemble a made-for-TV effort (funny enough, the film was ultimately re-purposed as a mini-series on CBC). Much of the runtime is taken up by talking heads as the film’s narrator Chester Rice (Colm Feore) interviews Bethune’s family, friends and colleagues. Fortunately these figures are blessed with a fine cast to portray them. Sutherland was born to play Bethune, instilling just the right mix of passion, abrasiveness and vulnerability that the part requires. Mirren shines in the role of Bethune’s long suffering wife (“He said he’d make my life miserable, but he’d never bore me” she recalls). Colm Feore and James Pax fill out the supporting cast with fine form. Also, bonus points to the film for finding a near-doppelganger to play Mao Zedong in the form of Ke-Yaw Zhang.


There was allegedly an uneasy balance between screenwriter Ted Allen and Borsos over how Bethune should ultimately be rendered. He may have been a hero in the operating room, but was a notoriously alcoholic womanizer outside of it. While it’s largely left up to the audience to form their own opinions of the man, a student of history can’t help but notice the irony of a man saving lives in the service of a Communist regime that ultimately brought about the deaths of millions of people.


It really is a shame that a solid biopic like this has gone largely unnoticed by the Canadian population (not unlike the man himself). While it has so far failed to garner a DVD release, a successful disentanglement of copyright issues has resulted in several festival screenings across Canada this year and an upload to Cancon treasure-trove, the Encore+ YouTube channel. Borsos has the right idea when he said he wanted to push the envelope of Canadian cinema. I sincerely hope new generations of filmmakers take up the mantle.





As mentioned, Bethune can be legally viewed on the Encore+ YouTube channel here.

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