Citadel, The (1938)

“Your work isn’t making money — it’s bettering humanity, and you know it.”

Synopsis:
An earnest new doctor (Robert Donat) meets his wife (Rosalind Russell) when working and researching tuberculosis in a hard-scrabble Welsh mining town. With assistance from a friend (Rex Harrison), he soon finds himself living a more luxurious existence serving wealthier clients — but when his old friend (Ralph Richardson) suffers grave consequences from medical neglect, Donat begins to rethink his goals.

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Review:
King Vidor’s adaptation of A.J. Cronin’s semi-autobiographical novel tells a compelling tale of how easily youthful idealism can shift to settled complacency within the medical field. As noted in TCM’s article:

In many ways, The Citadel is the missing link between idealized medical biographies like The Story of Louis Pasteur (1936) and strong, socially conscious films like John Ford’s How Green Was My Valley (1941). The only reason American doctors didn’t raise a fuss over the film’s often negative view of the medical profession is probably because the story takes place in England and not the United States.

However, despite being very specifically about a doctor, The Citadel’s take-aways can easily be translated to countless other spheres. When faced with the choice between a hard-scrabble life fighting for social justice versus enjoying a career of ease and comfort, it’s hard to say how many would willingly pick the former. Donat imbues his complex role with authenticity and pathos, and Russell is admirably resolute as his loyal (and razor-sharp) wife. This one is worth a look.

Note: It’s impossible not to notice the parallels between this and the previous year’s Oscar-winning Best Picture, The Life of Emile Zola (1937), also about tensions between the comforts of fame and fighting for what’s right.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Robert Donat as Dr. Manson
  • Rosalind Russell as Donat’s supportive wife
  • Fine b&w cinematography

Must See?
Yes, for Donat and Russell’s performances.

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One Response to “Citadel, The (1938)”

  1. Yes, a once-must – for its performances (as noted), Vidor’s direction, and its compelling storytelling about an issue (the medical field) that remains relevant.

    If it were up to me, I’d make sure that everyone working in medicine today would be made to sit down and watch this movie. There are plenty who could use a lesson in (or a reminder about) ethics.

    It’s particularly heartbreaking in the film when Donat’s character – esp. after being so conscience-driven early on – turns into an entitled, big-headed jerk. (I’m thinking mainly of the restaurant scene in which Richardson is explaining his progressive health care plan.)

    Time has done nothing to age this film, really. It remains as powerful as it was in 1938.

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