Bethune: The Making of a Hero
True North | Special Events
When Phillip Borsos’ epic depiction of Canadian icon Dr. Norman Bethune’s work with the Chinese Communist forces during the Second Sino-Japanese War was released in 1990, some critics looked askance at its big budget foreign setting, and huge ambition. VIFF is very happy to return it to its rightful place on the big screen, its scope undiminished and its bold conception of what a Canadian film can be still serving as an example for filmmakers across the land.
Donald Sutherland gives a towering performance as Bethune, a driven and cantankerous man whose convictions lead him to remotest China in support of his fellow comrades. As he tends to the wounded and spends his spare time treating civilians, his stature grows in the eyes of Mao and the Chinese people; by the time of his early death from blood poisoning in 1939, he is a secular saint. The film’s grand opening has thousands mourning his death before the story flashes back to show the man in all of his contradictions. (His wife Frances Penny Bethune—played here by Helen Mirren—recalled that he promised to "make my life miserable, but he would never bore me.") Despite its troubled production history, Borsos’ film remains true to its complicated protagonist. As Borsos’ frequent producer Peter O’Brian said, "The number one thing for Phillip was to find the point of true origin. It couldn’t be good unless it was honest. He was faithful to that every day that he worked."
35mm print courtesy TIFF Film Reference Library