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11 films all aspiring medics need to see

Think the life of a doctor is dull? Think again! In a previous post, I recommended ten books by medical men which all doctors should read. Today, it’s the turn of medical movies. By focusing on the extremes of human life – birth, death, suffering, illness, and health – such films provide insight into the human condition and the part that we as doctors play in this never-ending theatre. Below are my top 11 film recommendations, which every aspiring (and indeed practicing) medic must see. Including psychiatric thrillers, emotional dramas, and the odd touch of comedy, the following viewing will prepare you for (almost) anything the ward may throw at you…

1. Ikiru (1952)

I start with a masterpiece by the giant of Japanese cinema: Akira Kurosawa. In his little known 1952 film Ikiru (“To live”), a bureaucrat dying of stomach cancer reflects on his life and changes his ways following diagnosis. The film depicts how not to break bad news (we are shown barium meal films with cancer) and the doctor not really communicating with the patient (now a central theme in medical education). The film is life affirming in spite of its sombre message – as following his diagnosis, the lead character pursues a thoroughly worthwhile task. Through his altruistic actions, he is finally fulfilled – reminding us all that death can be ultimately beautiful.

2. Red Beard (1965)

Cropped image of Satyajit Ray with Ravi Sankar music recording for Pather Panchali (1955). Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

In close contention for the top spot is Red Beard, also directed by Kurosawa. It depicts an arrogant young doctor who is dismayed he is given a posting in a small country clinic – instead of being a doctor to rich patients on qualification. He inevitably learns a lot from his new life however, thanks to his teacher ‘Red Beard’ (Dr Niide, played by Mifune, a stalwart in Kurosawa films), and the poorer patients he has to deal with. Our new doctor is taught compassion from his patients and realises that medicine is not about wealth or status. The film is based on a story by Shugoro Yamamoto, and Dostoevsky’s The Insulted and Injured.

3. Pather Panchali (1955)

In third place is a masterclass in cinema from Satyajit Ray’s debut film – Pather Panchali. The film depicts the hopes, aspirations, and ultimate dignity of the poor in a Bengali village, trying to get on with and better their lives. Poor access to nutrition, education, and health do not stop them from trying their best in adverse circumstances. The film also contains one of the most haunting depictions of death in cinema. The expression of the father as he discovers his young daughter has died – all accompanied by the shrieking of the sitar – depicts an unbearable loss better than words could ever express.

4. Cries and Whispers (1972)

This film was created by the Swedish director, Ingmar Bergman. I pick Cries and Whispers although Persona (1966) and The Silence (1963) could equally have been included – as well as the Seventh Seal (1957) and Wild Strawberries (1957). Cries and Whispers won out however, as a harrowing, emotionally draining film about a sister dying of cancer. She is watched on by her two sisters and a maid. Although the sisters are trying to comfort their sibling on her deathbed, the awkwardness of the situation and the distant emotions are so honestly displayed, that the viewer leaves feeling as if they have been in the room with the dying woman.

5. The Lost Weekend (1945)

Next is a film by Billy Wilder, The Lost Weekend. Wilder (the Austrian-born American film director) is probably better remembered for the comedy Some Like It Hot, and the film noir Double Indemnity. In The Lost Weekend, Ray Milland depicts the life of an alcoholic as never before, and the film remains one of the finest depictions of alcoholism – a condition which remains a major medical problem worldwide.

6. The Elephant Man (1980)

Qualcuno Volo’ Sul Nido del Cuculo (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) by Cliff. CC BY 2.0, via Flickr.
Qualcuno Volo’ Sul Nido del Cuculo (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) by Cliff. CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.

The first of two picks involving disability – The Elephant Man was adapted from Sir Frederick Treves book. It was turned into a film by David Lynch in 1980, with John Hurt playing the elephant man himself, and Anthony Hopkins playing the London Hospital surgeon. The so-called “elephant man,” deformed as he was on the exterior, nevertheless had feelings and needs like any human – and the film illustrates the need to respect everyone’s dignity, irrespective of outer appearance.

7. The Men (1950)

On a similar theme of disability, we turn to Marlon Brando’s electrifying performance as a paraplegic World War Two veteran, in Fred Zinnemann’s The Men. The frustrations of getting used to paraplegia and being disabled has never been better depicted, or more emotionally rendered, in any cinematic production.

8. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)

Viewed as one of the classic films of all time, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest – directed by Milos Forman in 1975, and adapted from Ken Kesey’s brilliant book – will make one approach mental illness and institutions as never before. Jack Nicholson gave the performance of a lifetime as the anarchic R. P. McMurphy, and we begin to question who is normal and who is insane: a task which is not always easy for doctors.

9. An Enemy of the People (1978)

Whether the 1978 film of Ibsen’s play, with Steve McQueen in the lead, or the Satyajit Ray version (Ganashatru, 1989) – both illustrate how important it is to stick to your ethical beliefs. This dramatic story teaches young medics that ethics should not be compromised for anything. This is exemplified by the good doctor’s stance in the film, as ironically, he shifts to become the enemy.

10. The Doctor (1991)

A film that is used a lot for teaching students is The Doctor. It stars William Hurt as an arrogant surgeon, who develops throat cancer. It is only when he is treated as a patient that he develops empathy – and is changed forever by going through the process of sickness, healing, and ultimate redemption.

11. Doctor in the House (1954)

Finally, I include Doctor in the House, with Dirk Bogarde playing the medical student and young doctor. The film is a funny and nostalgic depiction of life in hospitals over 70 years ago, when arrogant surgeons like Sir Lancelot Spratt existed, and medical life seemed fun and relaxed – so distant to modern times!

Featured Image Credit: ‘Banner, Header, Film’ by geralt. CC0 Public Domain via Pixabay.

Recent Comments

  1. maya sunder

    Nice recommendations. Can’t wait to look at them. Thanks and keep up the good work

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