Stories of doctors and hospitals have been popular entertainment ever since the 1930s when a young doctor named Kildare appeared on the silver screen.
Medical films explore, and often exploit, the resilience and frailty of the human body, as well as the strengths and weaknesses of those who hold the lives of others in their hands. They also pit individuals against institutions, the risk-takers versus the complacent, and champion the seekers of knowledge fighting forces of ignorance. Here are four films that examine the joys, disappointments and ambivalence underlying the healing arts.
Before it became one of the longest-running medical shows on television, “MASH” began as a scrappy, low-budget film intended for the drive-in circuit. But in the hands of innovative director Robert Altman and filled with a cast of stardom-bound newcomers including Donald Sutherland, Elliot Gould, Robert Duvall and Sally Kellerman, “MASH” became a subversive smash hit, embraced by the public and banned by the military establishment. Although set during the Korean War, the film was clearly concerned with Vietnam and used the comic exploits of a mobile army surgical unit to shed light on the horrors of war. Never before had surgery been presented with such bloody accuracy, only to be followed by broad comedy, blatant disrespect for authority and childish behavior on the part of physicians. Seen today, the film seems remarkably quiet, with minimal music and Altman’s trademark overlapping dialogue catching smart-mouth quips during critical operations. “MASH” created a formula that has inspired more than 40 years of slob-comedies ranging from “Animal House” and “Revenge of the Nerds” to “Old School” and “The Hangover.” Yet despite all the tasteless shenanigans it remains a humanist film, deeply committed to its characters and anti-war message.
“ER: Pilot” (1994)
In the mid 1970s, physician Michael Crichton used his experiences in the ER as the basis for a screenplay that went nowhere. But after finding success as a novelist and filmmaker, he joined forces with “Jurassic Park” director Steven Spielberg and that script became the pilot for “ER,” launching a series that ran for 15 seasons. Embracing the random nature of the emergency room at a teaching hospital in Chicago, it follows a team of residents through their fast-paced, high-adrenaline and exhausting shifts. With an eye toward medical accuracy, the parlance comes dizzyingly fast, sweeping the audience along even if we don’t understand a word that’s being said. The emotions are front and center and events come and go so quickly that even those verging on melodrama don’t linger long enough to slow things down. The show introduced the world to George Clooney, whose role as smooth-talking, kid-friendly pediatrician Doug Ross led to movie stardom. He glides through scenes with the charm of a favorite big brother, offset by Anthony Edwards, no longer the super-nerd or disposable best friend of ’80s movies but instead a responsible, overworked head of the unit. Noah Wyle’s sheltered and ill-equipped medical student and Eriq La Salle’s ambitious, overachieving surgeon make for a second pair of compelling opposites. Like so many of Crichton’s medical heroes (in movies like “Looker” and “Coma”) the task of balancing humanity and professionalism is at the heart of “ER.” The show’s fluid camera work and gleaming art direction marked a decidedly cinematic turn for TV, and its commitment to widescreen format years before TVs went HD makes the DVD release feel totally up-to-date.
Movies exist in multiple time frames. They exist in the time period of their setting, the time they are made and the time in which we watch them, which could be multiple times if we revisit the same film at different points in our lives. The magic of the documentary is that it commits to capturing a specific time and place and comes to exist as a permanent record of that instant. Frederick Wiseman’s Emmy Award-winning documentary captures New York’s overburdened Metropolitan Hospital, a teaching hospital serving an underprivileged neighborhood. Filmed in stark black and white, the movie provides an unflinching look at a big city ER in 1970, overrun by indigents, drug addicts and victims of violent crime. Scenes of overworked physicians counseling patients, coping with police, advocating for better care and even discovering cases that have been unceremoniously dumped at Metropolitan’s door are absolutely riveting.
In fact, a one-sided phone conversation of a psychiatrist trying to get a commitment for aid from an uncooperative welfare agent is as tense and dramatic as any fiction film. All of these events are held together by an operation that begins the film and continues throughout, with the machinery creating a kind of natural rhythmic soundtrack in the room. Wiseman’s films are powerful examples of “direct cinema” and don’t include narration, interviews or a score, instead opting for purely observational filmmaking that creates a truly immersive experience. Selected in 1994 for historic preservation as part of the National Film Registry, “Hospital” is a graphic, powerful documentary (and not for the squeamish).
“The Fugitive” (1993)
The best action movies are the ones where action springs from character, and Andrew Davis’ blockbuster chase film is a perfect example. Harrison Ford plays Richard Kimble, a physician wrongly accused of his wife’s death, who leads a band of U.S. Marshals on a chase through forests, tunnels, highways and finally into the streets of Chicago. What makes this screenplay engaging is its willingness to embrace Kimble as a doctor and allow him to use his medical knowledge to evade his pursuers, finding sanctuary in hospitals and using their resources to investigate the murder of his wife. He even helps a patient or two! When the motives of the crime are revealed, they also link to the world of medicine and allow the filmmakers to comment on the ethics of medical research and product marketing. Adding fuel to the fire is Tommy Lee Jones as relentless Marshal Sam Gerard, a man determined to bring in Kimble at all costs. Gerard is a good guy — funny, confident and a consummate professional who, as he reveals in a key scene, doesn’t care whether Kimble is guilty or innocent. He’s just doing his job. Based on a long-running television series that took years to reveal the motives of the one-armed man who killed Kimble’s wife, this film manages it all in about two hours with thrilling results. It’s as good a movie now as the day it was made and well worth revisiting.