by Ron Burnett
IN THIS SUMMER of discontent in Quebec with the Mohawk crisis and Meech Lake foregrounding a whole variety of political and cultural conflicts, the premiere of Bethune: The Making of a Hero at the World Film Festival in Montreal seemed to offer an occasion to celebrate. Unfortunately, the film could neither overcome nor deflect the seriousness of the battles of the last four months.
The atmosphere in Montreal has been heavy with argument and anger. The divisions between English and French have become acute, heightened by crass assertions in the French media that if you supported the Mohawks you were most likely anglophone. The Meech debacle had already done enough harm, and it was as if the threat posed by the Mohawks evaporated any real concern on the part of politicians and editorialists to situate the events of the summer in some sort of historical perspective.
My hope was that Bethune, which is about a special moment in Canadian history and whose story transcends the narrowness of provincial boundaries and the claustrophobic presumptions of nationalism, would somehow open this tightly closed window. I guess I expected the film to highlight the importance of historical knowledge, or at least to suggest an entry point for thinking about a man whose story bridges some of the most important decades of the 20th century. Unfortunately, although the film is visually beautiful and often well written, it remains locked in precisely the kind of stereotypical thinking that has characterized this past summer in Montreal.
Bethune is a film with a production history that almost overshadows the final result. It is as if this one film has become the site for all that is both contradictory and brilliant in Canadian cinema. Thirtyeight years ago Ted Allan and Sydney Gordon published The Scalpel and the Sword, a profoundly poetic book on the life of Norman Bethune. In a culture unaccustomed to national heroes, and which has always had difficulty sustaining the very idea of a hero, Allan and Gordon achieved something quite extraordinary. I would not describe their book as fiction, biography, or history, but as a hybrid of the three. This hybridization, with its elliptical style and staccato-like movement from one time period to another, transformed the story of Norman Bethune into myth. It is a style so oriented toward the imagistic that the book virtually begs to be made into a film. Yet it took Ted Allan all of 35 years to find a producer willing to risk using it as the basis for a film.
Clearly it was Allans belief in the strength of the story that finally prevailed. When he eventually got his project off the ground in the mid- 1980s, he immediately encountered problems. Most epic films are carefully structured and tend to be very linear. From Lawrence of Arabia to Gandhi, epic films reflect the supposition that to be successful, they must follow a formula of historical consistency and veracity encapsulated in a traditional narrative. Postmodernism has yet to strike the epic genre. But Allan had coauthored a book that used history in a rather more poetic and self-reflexive manner. He presumed then and now that the cinema lends itself to arbitrary juxtapositions in time, to ellipses, to story-telling through the eyes of many characters. He wrote and rewrote the script for Bethune in that spirit.
However, he encountered a director (Philip Borsos) and a star (Donald Sutherland) who wanted the story to be told in that plain old Hollywood way -- through the eyes of the hero, and with a kind of Aristotelian linearity. Their version, which would have eliminated all of the ellipses and made Bethune into a picture-perfect hero, never reached the screen, but it is clear from the film that neither Sutherland nor Borsos understood The Scalpel and the Sword. Although Allan has tried to re-edit Borsos`s Bethune to reflect the original intentions of his book, the tensions between the two different approaches remain embedded in the final product. It is just not very easy to undo the work of a director, since Borsos determined not only the look of the film but also the manner in which the actors played their roles.
At a press conference after the premiere Robert Levesque, the "enfant terrible" of Quebec critics, asked Ted Allan some pointed questions about the conflict between himself and Borsos. Allan tried to dismiss the conflict, suggesting that the story was powerful enough to overcome the differences. He was wrong. It was Ingmar Bergman who once said: "Film has nothing to do with literature; the character and substance of the two art forms are usually in conflict." And while this can be taken as an extreme comment, it is clear that Allan and Borsos saw this story differently because of their different understandings of the role of the writer in the production of a film. I would be the last person to suggest that books shouldn`t be made into films -- but I do feel that the two media are different. It is not a matter of greater or lesser complexity. It is also not a matter of whether the same story is finally told. It is just that the arrangement of images into a sequence, the juxtaposition of shots to construct a film narrative, differs from what writers do with words to make a story work.
The Scalpel and the Sword takes the story of one man`s struggle with himself and examines that process in relation to the broader political struggles of the day. It is a book about the importance of context, about the centrality of historical thought for the development and growth of human consciousness. Crucially, it is also about the process through which Bethune translates his political beliefs into action.
The film is a weak effort to somehow depict all of that. This is not to suggest that I was not affected or involved as I watched the film. The main Chinese character whom Bethune befriends and teaches, who becomes a better doctor as a result of his experience with Bethune, is depicted in a deeply moving manner. But this is done through the most stereotypical of cliches, because the Chinese doctor must first play the role of Cinderella. Banished because of previous errors to the ignominy of being an orderly, he finally proves to Bethune that he can be a good doctor, and this then leads to the most important speech in the film. Rising to the occasion, Sutherland delivers a ringing indictment of the fascist inside all of us, the fascist inside him that resulted in the Chinese doctor being humiliated for months before Bethune recognized the good work he was doing. In the film, this all comes across as artificial and contrived. It is there to make us identify with Bethune, to help us understand his inconsistencies, to purge our own feelings of guilt at the treatment he has meted out. In classic Hollywood fashion, we already know and anticipate this outcome. The film merely confirms our suspicions. Ironically, the story of Bethune as written by Allan is full of surprises and twists and turns. Bethune was hardly a stereotypical man. Egotistical, yes, but devoted to his ideals nevertheless. He gave his life for a cause in which he believed. The film captures only a small part of that. On occasion, it is directed in such a stultifying manner that one can understand Allan`s desire to work out a different perspective through the editing. But this is not easily accomplished, in part because Donald Sutherland so often forgets that he is not Bethune. This is one of the central problems with the film. Sutherland wants to be a Canadian hero, and his desire to accomplish that suffuses the film to the point that he is so ominipresent even the Chinese revolution takes a back seat.
Why encourage stereotypes when they aren`t really necessary? The producers of the film would presumably answer that they were trying to reach a mass audience -- precisely the kind of compromise that the hero of the film so ardently fought against. In a sense, then, it was perhaps appropriate for Bethune to appear during this very uncomfortable summer in Montreal. If anything, the film points out that for some, compromise means death. Bethune, in one of his wiser moments, understood how important history is if we are to retain some perspective on the events we live through on a daily basis. If the film is to have any importance for Canadian culture, it will be to reinforce and promote that point. Unfortunately, Bethune has ceased to be a cultural event in its own right. In a typically Canadian choice, the film has taken a back seat to its messy production history.