“Fascism is a germ,” Donald Sutherland announces to a crowded theatre, bathed in red light with an enormous Red Ensign, the former Canadian flag, draped across the stage behind him.
The actor sports a dapper ‘30s tweed coat and tie in his role as legendary Canadian doctor Norman Bethune. After he criticizes Prime Minister William Mackenzie King for shaking hands with Hitler, someone in the crowd stands up and asks, “Are you a red?” Bethune nods his head, and barely audibly, answers, “Yes.”
Audience members, disgusted by his political affiliation, begin to file out of the theatre. Bethune steps back from the microphone, looks down at his feet, and we wonder for a moment: Has this proud man been cowed? Then, a single young voice rises in song: “Arise ye pris’ners of starvation/ Arise ye wretched of the earth…” singing the opening verse of the “Internationale.” Bethune looks to the crowd again, where here and there people throughout the theatre stand to join in the song, their left fists raised in a comrade’s salute. Bethune raises his fist too, smiling, as the chorus grows.
That scene alone is worth the price of admission to the 1990 film, Bethune: The Making of a Hero (though you can actually watch it for free.) The movie was primarily funded by the federal government through TeleFilm Canada, with contributions from production companies in France and, importantly, $6 million in goods and services provided by China to film on location there.
With a final budget of $18 million, it became at the time the most expensive Canadian film ever made. Starring Sutherland, directed by Phillip Borsos and written by Ted Allan — all Canadians — Bethune is a biopic about the Canadian communist doctor and humanitarian who developed an innovative mobile blood transfusion unit in Spain during the Civil War, and who died in 1939 while administering medical aid to Mao Zedong’s Eighth Army as it battled the invading Japanese.
A visually beautiful but narratively flawed film, Bethune is a fascinating document of the early post-Cold War period, when elite consensus solidified on China’s entry into global capitalism — a moment in stark contrast with current renewed anti-China posturing. Bethune was an attempt on the part of Canadian authorities to forge cultural links with China and soften prejudices that had been drummed up through decades of the Cold War.
The film’s production was tortured and the final product compromised, but it wasn’t due to conflicts between Chinese and Canadian partners. Rather, it was due to two Canadian personalities — Allan and Sutherland — each competing to exert ownership over the Bethune story.
As researchers Tobita Chow and Jake Werner write in a 2020 academic article published by the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation, at the end of the Cold War “elites counselled cautious accommodation of China’s interest, in order to integrate it into the US-dominated, ‘liberal international order.’ This approach was in line with the post-Cold War faith that all societies were converging around free markets.” It was a vision, they continue, that “promised a dominant position for US-based multinational corporations at the top of the global economy.”
Closely allied with American capital while pursuing its own interests, Canadian businesses and governments also recognized tremendous potential in China’s inexpensive labour and growing consumer markets.
However, the process of opening China to capitalism began much earlier. In 1973, one year after United States President Richard Nixon visited China, Pierre Trudeau became the first in-office Canadian prime minister to shake Mao’s hand and begin significant cultural rapprochement. The figure of Norman Bethune offered an ideal historical figure for this purpose.
In China, Bethune had attained legendary status as one of the heroes of the revolution, with statues and universities named in his honour. After Bethune’s death in 1939, Mao penned a famous laudatory essay praising the doctor’s self-sacrifice, which became standard reading in China during the Cultural Revolution. In 1964, a Chinese-produced film about Bethune was released, and the screenwriter, Zhou Erfu, had also published a well-known novel about Bethune in 1948. By 1978, the same Erfu was the Chinese vice-Minister of culture.
Meanwhile in Canada, the Romantic figure of Bethune had long fascinated the literati. In 1952, Allan — a key player in the making of Bethune, as we’ll see, and a former Communist — published a biography of the doctor, with co-author Sydney Gordon, titled The Scalpel and the Sword. Despite an editor at a major publication refusing to review it, claiming it was communist propaganda (the Communist Party of Canada had partly funded its production), the book was a Canadian bestseller, translated into more than 20 languages and earning its authors a tidy profit.
In 1958, Hugh MacLennan, Canadian literature’s most successful mid-century author, featured a major character based on Bethune in his Governor General’s Award-winning novel The Watch that Ends the Night. And in 1964, legendary filmmaker Donald Brittain of the National Film Board directed a largely admiring profile of Bethune that is still well worth watching today.
In the atmosphere of the early ‘70s, it wasn’t that difficult to transform Bethune into a unproblematic Canadian hero, and pitch him as an early advocate of public healthcare (which was still new) and an international humanitarian, consonant with Canada’s advertised role as a ‘peacekeeper.’
As such, the ‘70s saw an explosion of studies on Bethune, including a reissue of Allan’s biography. In 1973, the same year Trudeau visited China, the Department of External Affairs purchased Bethune’s childhood home in Gravenhurst, Ont., turning it into a National Historic Site.
In 1977, Sutherland began his own personal infatuation with the doctor after being recruited to star in a CBC miniseries based on Bethune’s life. In an interview that year, Sutherland stated, with a characteristic gleam in his eye, that he would like to produce a film on Bethune, hopefully with China’s help. It was a film he’d eventually make — although not under the conditions of his choosing.
The Fascinating Ted Allan
It was screenwriter Allan, however, who kickstarted the Bethune film project. Allan had one of the most interesting careers of any Canadian writer — all the more fascinating because his name is little known today, despite his significant successes.
Born in a working-class Jewish neighbourhood of Montreal in 1916, Allan wrote for the Canadian Communist paper The Daily Clarion. He met Bethune at one of the doctor’s famous house parties in Montreal, and later knew Bethune in Spain, where he was reporting on the Civil War. In 1939, Allan published a lively and entertaining novel based on his Spanish experiences titled This Time a Better Earth, which I recommend.
After the Second World War, Allan went to Hollywood, where he penned screenplays for several studios before being blacklisted and pressured to leave the country. Back in Canada at the CBC in Toronto, he thrived working in television and radio before moving to London, England in 1954 where he wrote for the stage and sometimes acted in his own successful productions.
A 1961 Maclean’s profile of Allan describes him as full of “bounce and persuasiveness,” if also a bit of braggart and prone to telling tall tales. But Allan got results. In 1975, his screenplay for Lies My Father Told Me, a film about his youth in Montreal, directed by influential director Jan Kadar, was nominated for an Oscar and won a Golden Globe for best foreign film. Another undeniable success is the 1984 film Love Streams, adapted from a stage play by Allan, starring and directed by John Cassavetes, which won the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival.
Allan was so invested in Norman Bethune’s legacy that he named one of his sons after him. And in his long and eventful career, he had tried to make a film about the doctor several times. He had first sold a script about Bethune to 20th Century-Fox in 1942! But it was more than four decades later that a small production team in Montreal — which included his daughter — could secure a deal.
It seems, too, it would have been difficult to make a film about Bethune without Allan’s involvement. A 1998 article in Saturday Night Magazine details the extent of Allan’s legal control of Bethune’s archive, including letters obtained from Bethune’s ex-wife. Allan reportedly limited access to this material.
Donald Sutherland, The Canadian Actor of his Generation
While Sutherland wouldn’t receive an Oscar until 2017 (for lifetime achievement), it’s hard to argue with the 1988 Maclean’s profile that calls him “the most successful Canadian actor of his generation.” By the time of Bethune, Sutherland had already played starring roles in films by the premiere directors of his era, such as Robert Altman, Federico Fellini and Bernardo Bertolucci. At the time he reportedly commanded $1 million per film, although he received less than half of his regular fee for Bethune, the price he was willing to pay to participate in this passion project.
Sutherland, too, was attracted to left politics. He was married, briefly, to actress Shirley Douglas, the daughter of Tommy Douglas. (The couple had two children, one of whom is actor Kiefer Sutherland.) Shirley was once arrested for having tried to purchase hand grenades on behalf of the Black Panthers. “It’s the funniest thing in the world,” Sutherland told Maclean’s, “to be in Yugoslavia [where he was filming] and have Clint Eastwood come up to you and say, ‘I’ve got some bad news for you. Your wife’s been arrested. It seems she tried to buy some hand grenades from the FBI.’’’
Sutherland first became interested in Bethune at an anti-Vietnam War protest in 1969 with Jane Fonda and well-known activist Mark Lane. “Mark read a piece called ‘Wounds,’” Sutherland said, “and I was so moved I traced the author. It was Bethune.” Playing Bethune for CBC TV in 1977, Sutherland took the role very seriously and could wax eloquent about the doctor.
But already Sutherland expressed antipathy toward Allan, making a point in a 1977 interview to highlight his preference for another book about Bethune — not Allan’s. Yet it was Allan’s script that had been approved, and he was also close with the production team. In this way Bethune became a power struggle between two big personalities.
Norman Bethune: The Making of a Disaster
Thanks to reporting by Brian D. Johnson at Maclean’s, we have a vivid portrait of the movie’s on-location filming in China, which was beset by setbacks and slowdowns.
Shooting in the remote Wutai mountains required a 12-hour drive to make a phone call. Film had to be flown to Vancouver to be developed. A production manager seemed to suffer a heart attack and returned to Canada for medical treatment. Instead of the vintage airplane they had been promised for a scene, the filmmakers made due with a two-metre long remote-controlled model, which crashed on its first flight. “Thankfully, the pilot was unhurt,” Sutherland quipped. But for all these problems, the on-location cinematography is beautiful, arguably the movie’s strongest feature.
Meanwhile on location, Sutherland was attempting a coup, with the support of the young director Phillip Borsos. Employing other screenwriters, the pair thoroughly re-worked the script to suit their vision. “Ted’s script was pretentious and two-dimensional and unplayable,” Sutherland later told Maclean’s. After seeing the director’s first cut, however, the producers wrested back control of the rushes, freezing the director out of the editing process altogether.
Seeing the film today, you’re likely to agree with the New York Times reviewer who wrote that the editing does the film a grave disservice, claiming the temporal structure is “strangely pieced together in a way that robs the story of much of its narrative drive.” (For his part, Borsos claimed he wanted the scenes to remain in chronological order.)
But where the film’s structure fails, Sutherland’s fiery performance helps it gel. Another actor of international stature, Helen Mirren, plays Bethune’s wife Frances with a delicate dignity, but sadly we don’t see her often enough in the film. Chinese actor Ke-Yaw Zhang also has a few memorable scenes as a young Mao, portrayed as a wise and good-natured leader, of course.
The mood was dark at the film’s 1990 world premiere, which took place in Montreal (and, again, was reported wonderfully by Johnson). Speaking to Maclean’s, Sutherland accused Allan of attempting to profit off Bethune’s legacy and, among other things, having bragged to him about having an affair with Bethune’s wife.
From his hotel room where he was laid up with heart palpitations, Allan denied the charge while admitting that he did indeed love Frances. Allan called out Sutherland’s “mean spirited egomania,” although, he added, “I still think he deserves an Oscar—he’s a great actor and a puny human being.” Allan, it appears, was still hoping the film would be a success.
Peter Katadotis, Telefilm’s national director of production and development, said funding the film “was a mistake to begin with.” He pointed out that “Flora wanted this film,” referring to the former Progressive Conservative Minister of Communications Flora MacDonald. The ministry, he added, “didn’t want any embarrassment with the Chinese. But after Tiananmen Square, it was amazing how quickly (the government’s) ardor faded.”
Bethune makes only an oblique acknowledgement of the 1989 events in Tiananmen Square. A quotation from one of Bethune’s writings appears on screen after the final scene fades to black: “The China and world we fight for […] will finally be free of all uniformed bullies beating, beheading or shooting unarmed civilians…” (a quotation that could just as easily be removed by censors). The report from the Canadian premiere makes no mention of Chinese delegation or officials in attendance.
But whatever chill this put on public relations, behind the scenes the economic integration of China continued apace. In 1994 — just one year after the delayed American release of Bethune — Prime Minister Jean Chrétien, accompanied by a majority of provincial premieres, returned from a ‘Team Canada’ trade mission to China with more than $9 billion in contracts.
Although I couldn’t dig up exact numbers, Bethune: The Making of a Hero was apparently a box-office disappointment. Borsos, who sadly died from leukemia at the age of 41 only five years after making this film, lamented the results of his effort: “It was a film driven by government financing. They set the agenda. And that is where the problems started.”
While I have no doubt that the director’s cut would have been vastly superior — check out one of Borsos’ other films, the lovely The Grey Fox from 1982 — I don’t agree with his assessment. Interference by whoever holds the purse strings is hardly unique to making films with government financing — in fact, public funding for the arts, done through arm’s length institutions, often entails more freedoms for artists than they’d otherwise enjoy. And in the particular case of Bethune, it seems the biggest problem was that the individuals involved — Sutherland and Allan — were competing with each other, rather than cooperating. Competition sometimes undermines collective efforts. You see where I’m going with this.
Justin Trudeau, 18 years old at the time, attended the Montreal premiere alongside his father. The Trudeau family had just returned from a month-long vacation in China, and Pierre was, according to Maclean’s, wearing “an Oriental white silk shirt.” He shouted bravos, declared the film to be “wonderful” and said, “I feel like wiping away my tears.” But he would say that. It was part of his legacy.
What did young Justin think of the film? If he was infected by the pro-China spirit of Bethune, it hasn’t shown lately. The arrest of Huawei’s Meng Wanzhou as part of an escalating trade and diplomatic war, not to mention the increased anti-China rhetoric in the corporate media, suggest that Trudeau, whether he wants to or not, is presiding over a new Cold War. While it’s important to condemn the abuse of minorities and the lack of political freedoms in China, Canadian politicians and corporate media don’t apply these same standards to other countries with whom they do business.
This points to the real forces motivating Canada’s recent cooling toward China. “What makes China different,” as Chow and Werner write, “is that it challenges US hegemony over global economic and military affairs, inspiring hostility across the US political spectrum.” China’s economic rise over the last 30 years threatens U.S. pre-eminence in high-value sectors such as technology and has alienated large segments of the Western elite, who had relied on China being integrated into capitalism as a lower value producer.
A minor casualty in this new Cold War is that another Bethune biopic, produced by Canadian and Chinese partners, has been put on hold. This time around, however, the film was being made for Chinese audiences and the $30 million budget funded entirely by Chinese sources, pointing to China’s increasing financial power in this relationship.
The disintegration of the neoliberal order, according to Chow and Werner, has led to “zero-sum competition for economic growth that pits different groups of workers against each other, exclusionary and belligerent nationalism, and escalating militarism.” They write, “We must work together across borders to transform the global economy and confront the elites who protect the status quo and seek to pit us against each other.”
Chow and Werner’s analysis actually resembles Bethune’s, who in the scintillating prose of his 1939 essay “Wounds” (the essay that caught Sutherland’s attention) envisioned the international solidarity of workers, who “never benefit by such wars.”
Bethune continues: “Behind all stands that terrible, implacable God of Business and Blood, whose name is Profit. […] Behind the army stand the militarists. Behind the militarists stand finance capital and the capitalist. Brothers in blood; companions in crime.” Rather than the reactionary path of another Cold War, the values of Norman Bethune might offer a better way.