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Donald Sutherland as Norman Bethune

In China, he's been a national hero since his death in 1939. But in his birthplace of Canada Dr. Norman Bethune was virtually unknown until the 1970s. His communist beliefs and unorthodox personality made him a controversial figure in Canada. His medical accomplishments, however, are irrefutable. Bethune cared for the wounded in wartorn Spain and China, and in the process revolutionized military medicine.

"He was a wonderful man," says actor Donald Sutherland. He's referring, of course, to Norman Bethune - the communist doctor who Sutherland recently portrayed in a CBC Television drama. During this 1977 interview with Peter Gzowski on 90 Minutes Live, Sutherland describes Bethune in reverential tones. He emphasizes Bethune's many accomplishments in military medicine. "He was, in fact, responsible for MASH (Mobile Army Surgical Hospitals)," says the actor who, interestingly, also starred in the 1970 movie M*A*S*H.
• The CBC produced a television drama about the life of Bethune in 1977. Titled Bethune, it starred Donald Sutherland as Bethune and Canadian actress Kate Nelligan as Bethune's wife Frances. Sutherland said he had been fascinated with Bethune prior to portraying him in this television production, and he felt honoured to have the chance to play someone he admired so much.

• Prior to the 1970s, there were very few English-language biographical works on Bethune. Among these early works were:
The Scalpel, The Sword by Sydney Gordon and Ted Allan (first published in 1952)
• A 1964 National Film Board documentary called Bethune

• As Canadians became more aware of Bethune in the 1970s, a flurry of biographical works were released. These included:
Bethune by Roderick Stewart (1973)
Bethune: The Montreal Years by Libby Park, Stanley Ryerson and Wendell MacLeod (1978).
• More recent books include:
Politics of Passion: Norman Bethune's Writing and Art by Larry Hannant (1998)
Norman Bethune: The Incredible Life and Tragic Death of a Revered Canadian Doctor by Frances Hern (2004).

• Sutherland played Bethune again in a 1990 film called Bethune: The Making of a Hero. (It was renamed Dr. Bethune when it was released on video.) The making of this movie was plagued with controversy. Screenwriter Ted Allan and actor Donald Sutherland had major clashes over their interpretations of Bethune's character. This caused lengthy production delays. There were also numerous location and funding problems. When it was released, it was considered one of the most expensive Canadian movies ever made.

• After all the media build-up, reviews of the 1990 movie were generally lukewarm. Maclean's magazine said it had "obvious flaws," noting that it suffered from what seemed like patchwork editing. But Maclean's also praised Sutherland's part in the film, saying he gave "the performance of his life."
Medium: Television
Program: 90 Minutes Live
Broadcast Date: Jan. 21, 1977
Guest(s): Donald Sutherland
Host: Peter Gzowski
Duration: 3:36

Last updated: August 30, 2013

Page consulted on December 5, 2013

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