The Review/ Feature/
Bethune: The Unmaking of a Canadian Epic
Critically scorned upon release, the Donald Sutherland-starring biopic demands reappraisal today
On October 28, 1939, while ministering to a soldier in Mao Zedong’s Eighth Route Army, Dr. Norman Bethune cut his finger; two weeks later, he died of septicaemia. Blood poisoning offers a too-appropriate metaphor for the unfortunate and unwarranted fate, a half-century later, of the epic biopic Bethune: The Making of a Hero, which chronicles the Canadian surgeon’s path toward legend in China — where he was the subject of a hagiographic essay by Mao himself, and where his exploits continue to be part of the elementary-school curriculum to this day — and his subsequent recovery as a Canadian cultural hero. An international coproduction between Canada, China, and France, shot on three continents and starring Donald Sutherland, Bethune was widely known to be the costliest Canadian picture ever made up to that time, with more than half of its over $20 million budget derived from public funding via Telefilm Canada and the CBC.
Such high stakes naturally invited high scrutiny, and matters were not helped when members of the Canadian press were welcomed to Beijing and Yan’an to observe the shooting. Instead of a harmonious set echoing the growth in trade and diplomatic relations between China and Canada at the time, the visiting journalists found a gulf between the Canadian and Chinese crews, rebellions over working conditions and food, and simmering tensions between the producers, director Phillip Borsos, Sutherland, and screenwriter Ted Allan.
Given the extensive reporting of its rocky production and lingering skepticism about its taxpayer-based funding, Bethune was in the line of fire for fusillades of resentment rather than salutes of celebration, and when it screened at the Cannes marketplace in May 1990, several Toronto critics defied the customary embargo on reviews to publish at best indifferent, at worst withering notices. To one, it was “a train wreck”; another judged it “Heaven’s Gate, but already shortened” (alluding to that notorious flop’s drastic truncation after its catastrophic premiere); and a third, particularly waggish journalist reported Bethune’s running time as “two hours, long.” The most charitable of them damned the movie with classic faint praise, saying it was “not as bad as you think.” Seriously wounded, its blood laced with venom, the film crept into Canadian cinemas in October 1990 (almost 52 years to the day after its subject’s fatal injury) to find that the reviewers had not changed their minds since Cannes.
This dismal initial reception seemed to be the sadly logical outcome of what had been decades of struggle and hard luck for the project’s chief mover. Ted Allan had met Bethune in Montreal in the 1930s — where the outspoken medical reformer had openly joined the Communist Party following a trip to the Soviet Union — and followed him to the battle lines of Madrid during the Spanish Civil War, where the surgeon offered his services to the Loyalist cause. Two years after Bethune’s death in China, Allan set out to memorialize his hero on film, first peddling a script treatment to 20th Century Fox that, had it been produced, might have starred the Canadian-born Walter Pidgeon as Bethune. Allan’s film project proceeded to languish for several years, although the author did succeed in bringing Bethune’s story into public awareness with The Scalpel, the Sword: The Story of Doctor Norman Bethune, the 1952 biography he co-authored with Sydney Gordon.
Even as Bethune’s memory had become common currency in China — where the first cinematic treatment of the doctor’s life was produced in 1964 — Allan could reasonably claim that his movie took almost 50 years to bring to the screen. While Otto Preminger loudly proclaimed his intention to make a Bethune as early as 1976, when he attended the opening of the Bethune Memorial House in Gravenhurst, Ontario, as a historic site, the groundwork for what would eventually become Bethune: The Making of a Hero had already been laid by Canadian producer John Kemeny, who had earlier produced Donald Brittain’s 1964 documentary Bethune for the NFB. In 1977, with Allan onboard as screenwriter and Norman Jewison enlisted to direct, Kemeny floated a number of top-flight names as the potential star of the Bethune biopic: Nicholson, Newman, Beatty, Connery — “even Donald Sutherland,” one reporter added.
Though not quite as bright a star in the cinema firmament as those other names, Sutherland was nonetheless a more than recognizable face thanks to his roles in such major films as MASH, Klute, Don’t Look Now and The Day of the Locust. Further, he had the advantage not only of being Canadian, but also of having already played Bethune twice: that same year in [the CBC’s feature-length TV movie Bethune, opposite his fellow Canadian (and future Eye of the Needle co-star) Kate Nelligan as Bethune’s wife Frances; and two years earlier on Witness to Yesterday, a television series in which host Patrick Watson “interviewed” such diverse historical figures as Shakespeare, Joan of Arc, Al Capone and Mark Twain. (Go here to see a 1977 interview with Sutherland about playing Bethune.)
Eventually, Jewison bowed out of the project; Arthur Hiller was briefly on the hook to replace him, and was then succeeded by Ted Kotcheff, who had previously directed the homegrown international hit The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz. However, Kemeny let his option on Allan’s property lapse, leaving it to the production company Filmline International — where, not coincidentally, Ted Allan’s daughter Julie was the development executive. Filmline assembled the diplomatic, logistical, and monetary pieces necessary to finally start shooting in early 1987, but — only a couple of months before the civilian army of the production’s Canadian film crew was scheduled to join actual Chinese troops to shoot the scene of Bethune’s arrival in Hankow in 1938 — Kotcheff, who had remained attached to the project for years, decided to decamp as well.
When Phillip Borsos answered the phone call from Filmline on New Year’s Eve and agreed to take over as director, he might have understood some of the challenges on the horizon, but he could hardly have expected that the production of Bethune would commandeer the next several years of his career, as the contestation among the principals both behind and before the camera continued long after shooting ended. One of the chief issues was the director and screenwriter’s conflicting visions of the film’s narrative construction. Allan’s script used Bethune’s experiences in China as its baseline, interspersed with flashbacks to North America and Spain and interviews conducted by Colm Feore’s reporter Chester Rice (Allan’s onscreen surrogate) with people who knew Bethune — shades of Citizen Kane, although without a “Rosebud.”
In his original cut of the film, however, Borsos opted for a more strictly chronological structure, beginning with Bethune’s radicalization in North America and then following his journey to Spain and finally China (although he retained the interview device and Allan’s original opening of the funeral cortège bringing Bethune’s body down from the Wutai mountain where he died). It’s open to question whether the director would have ultimately retained this structure, but the point is moot, as (according to co-producer Nicolas Clermont) Telefilm, the CBC, and the production guarantors rejected Borsos’ cut, leaving Filmline to reassign editing and revise the film according to Allan’s structure.
This troubled post-production process, following on the heels of the much-reported on-set dissension — as well as the suspension of production after the China shoot (and before planned sequences to be shot in Montreal and Spain) due to insufficient funds — all helped poison the well of public and critical perception even before Bethune was first screened at Cannes. Additionally, external factors played a role in the film’s underwhelming initial reception. Part of the film’s cachet, as per its Chinese co-production credit, was based upon its offering a rare glimpse inside a country that had rarely been seen on North American screens. However, while the producers were still scraping money together to complete the production in 1987, Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor and Steven Spielberg’s Empire of the Sun stole their thunder with their well-publicized location shooting in mainland China; and in 1988, as shooting on Bethune was finally ending, Zhang Yimou’s Red Sorghum was circulating widely on the festival and art-house circuit, showing Western moviegoers how Chinese filmmakers could depict their own country and history. In this climate, and with its belated release in 1990, Bethune stood hardly a chance.
More than a quarter-century after its release, how might we now consider Bethune: The Making of a Hero? While Bethune was certainly Ted Allan’s passion project first and foremost, it is still valuable to examine it as a film profoundly marked by its director Phillip Borsos, as Bethune was consistent with the vector of his career and the preoccupations that his movies were displaying right up until his untimely death in 1995, at the age of 41. Borsos’s too-short career was fuelled by inordinate ambition, which quickly took the filmmaker from short documentaries to a multiple award-winning Canadian-shot feature — The Grey Fox, the based-on-fact story about an American outlaw, Bill Miner (Richard Farnsworth), on the loose in Canada at the turn of the century — then on to Hollywood for the studio picture The Mean Season, the Ontario-shot Disney production One Magic Christmas, and ultimately to a venture as big, broad, and perhaps overreaching as Bethune.
Given his rightfully earned reputation as a visual stylist — see, for example, the vertiginous “wow” factor of the aerial views in the documentary Spartree, the verdant landscapes of the BC interior in The Grey Fox, or the transformation of nocturnal Toronto suburbs into a mystically beguiling terrain in One Magic Christmas — it is hardly surprising that Borsos definitively put his stamp on the look of Bethune. Apart from his masterful exploitation of the mystery and looming immensity of the Chinese locations, Borsos — who always believed that even small stories warranted breadth in their treatment on film — brings a visually dramatic flair to his staging throughout, such as a confrontation between Sutherland’s Bethune and his wife Frances (played by future Oscar winner Helen Mirren, who reunited with Sutherland for the 2017 film The Leisure Seeker) on a precarious footbridge high above a river gorge.
Thematically as well, Bethune displays links with Borsos’ previous work. Like Bill Miner in The Grey Fox, Bethune is a transgressor in foreign lands, a skilled professional who expertly practices both the craft and the art of his chosen occupation (though in the medical field rather than the criminal). And just as train robber Miner captivated the imaginations of the good citizens of British Columbia — who believed him to be a lesser thief than the railway companies he plundered — so the self-styled maverick surgeon won the hearts and minds of his Chinese comrades in his journey from self-centred egoism to self-criticism, self-knowledge, and genuine commitment.
Beyond an auteurist reading, when we consider Bethune in the context of Canadian cinema we can see how it both adheres to yet boldly attempts to exceed the contemporary definitions of that cinema. On the one hand, the film cleaves to an ethic, and aesthetic, of realism that Canadian cinema has historically exemplified. But it does so on a self-consciously grand scale that was wholly untypical of the time, and which bristled with Canadian commentators who — in that self-flagellating manner so peculiar to our nation’s film culture — promptly set out to take the film down a notch. To be fair, the filmmakers’ reach may very well have exceeded their grasp of the logistical challenges involved in such a project. But even as we acknowledge those forces that shaped both the film’s production and its reception, we should also appreciate the challenge that Bethune continues to pose to an often forcibly modest and self-effacing film industry. In daring to tell the story of a major Canadian figure and the part he played in one of the most momentous conflicts of the 20th century, Bethune: The Making of a Hero is a film of both ambition and accomplishment.
Blaine Allan is a professor in the Film Studies department at Queen's University and author of a forthcoming professional biography of Phillip Borsos.