Doctors in the Movies



Medicine is a matter of life and death: this is why stories of doctors have always been fascinating for filmmakers, artists and…audiences. Thus, movies could be seen as mirrors reflecting all evolution trends not only of medical technologies but also society. In this study, three main points will be stressed :

.1. Presentation of 18 films selected from a list of the 180 most representative films dealing with medicine and physicians created throughout the world during the second part of the 20th century[1]

.2. Evolution trends in the second part of the twentieth century[2].

.3. Future for cinema doctors : new standards, new target audiences, new technical supports.

.1. Films from a list[ of the 200 most representative films dealing with medicine and doctors throughout the second part of the twentieth century

During decennia, filmmakers acted as mythmakers, providing to their public basic stereotypes as : "Hero Doctor", "Comic Doctor" and "Adventure Doctor". In fact, "Doctor Films" can be seen as markers of societal changes during the Golden Age of the Western World " :

 .1.1. "Hero Doctors "

Since the beginnings of cinema[4], "on screen" physicians had always been portrayed as wise and dedicated craftsmen even if sometimes portraits could bear some flaws (a physician making bright diagnosis without ever touching a patient, or a scientist looking at viruses through light microscopes)

Brief encounter (1945)(UK)[5] (David Lean director) starring Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard, is a very moving film[6] : in a small railway station, an "upper-middle class" housewife meets a general practitioner (who happens to be also a hospital consultant for mining respiratory illnesses), and from there, begins an ardent but brief-fated love story.

The story of Dr. Wassel (1946)(USA) : "revamped" by Cecil B. De Mille, the "true" story of Dr. Corydon Wassell[7] (Gary Cooper), a country doctor from Arkansas (and former medical missionary) who, with great courage, took in charge, when the Japanese overtook Java, a whole flock of wounded marines.

Il est minuit, Dr Schweitzer (1952)(F) : Starring Pierre Fresnay and Jeanne Moreau, the film shows Albert Schweitzer, theologian, musician, philosopher, and physician who left Alsace to found in Gabon, at Lamabréné, a Mission dedicated to help local populations decimated by leprosy and malaria.

Le destin (1997)(F + Egypt) : from the great Egyptian director, Youssef Chahine, the story of Averroes, famed XIIth centry physician living in Cordoba, cultural crossroad for Arabs, Jews and Christians.

Men In White (1934) (USA) : Clark Gable is a surgeon whose fiancée (Myrna Loy) much prefer cocktail parties to operating rooms[8].

Interns Can't Take Money (1937(USA) : Dr Jimmie Kildare (Joel McCrea) helps ex-convict Barbara Stanwyck to find her missing 3 yr-old daughter, thus launching a long series of films/ TV serials…

The citadel (1938) (USA) : Starring Robert Donat : a young and enthusiastic doctor takes his first job in a Welsh mining town observing the ravages of silicosis among miners. When his attempts are thwarted, he moves to London and learns, there, how to get money from hypochondriacs.

Paris after dark (1943(USA) : solid melodrama starring George Sanders, Brenda Marshall and also Dalio (unforgettable "stool pigeon") on a physician becoming a leader in French  Resistance Forces

No Way Out (1950) (USA) : Starring Sidney Poitier as a black doctor confronted to the wild racism of Richard Widmark.

Magnifient obsession (1954) (USA) : A brilliant physician (Rock Hudson ) has to perform sight-restoring surgery on his girl friend....

Le cas du docteur Laurent (1956)(F) : a physician (Jean Gabin) tries to help his patients with new methods for delivery

Dr Laennec (1949)(F) : observing a children's toy, Laennec (Pierre Blanchard) discovers one of the main tools in medicine, the stethoscope

Akahige (Red beard) (1965)(J) : film director Kurosawa shows an arrogant young man learning the true meaningof being a doctor from a mentor who cares for the poor.

The doctor (1991)(USA) : a surgeon learns much about empathyand compassion when he himself becomes cancer patient.

La maladie de Sachs (1999) (F) : the daily life , in a small french town, of an idealist doctor (Albert Dupontel), soon struck by feelings of deep loneliness.

In fact, "Hero Doctors", as we shall soonly see in the TV films review, were doomed to never die..

.1.2. "Comic Doctors"


 Very early, film directors (and producers) understood that "Funny Doctors" stories could drain larger audiences: thus, in 1897 : Le malade imaginaire (Georges Meliès), in 1912 : What the doctor ordered (Mack Sennett) and in 1917 : Oh, doctor ! (Roscoe Fatty Arbuckle)

Le Dr Knock (1950) (F) : Starring the great French actor Louis Jouvet (with Jean Carmet and Louis de Funès) : a shrewd physician makes clear to everyone in town that healthy people are just unaware patients. The whole town soon gets in bed, while hotels being are transformed into clinics.

MASH (1970) (USA) : Starring Donald Sutherland, Elliott Gould and Robert Duvall, the story of an outfit of a Mobile Army Surgical Hospital in the Korean War, blending gory operating room procedures and anti-establishment humor : thus, the surgeon amputating a patient's leg and asking a nurse to scratch his nose, under the shrill sound of cutting saw .

Dr. Patch Adams (1998) (USA) : Hunter "Patch" Adams (Robin Williams), had a rather unconventional approach to medicine. After a suicide attempt, he enrolled in a medical school being the oldest first year student. There, he questioned the school's approach to medical care and physician-patient relations. Because of this and other incidents, including a prank during a medical conference, he was dismissed from the school, to be later reinstated.

Bonjour Toubib (1956) (F) : a very popular French actor of his time, Noël Noël plays a local G.P. who has hard time trying to convince his son to take on the same job.

El senor Doctor (1965)(Mexico) : A poor man (Cantinflas ) achieves his dreams of becoming a doctor.

Guess who's coming to dinner (1967) (USA) : A typically middle class family of the sixties has to face the problems of interracial marriages when their daughter brings for dinner the "dream" son-in-law, Sydney Poitier.[9]

Carry on Doctor (1968)(UK): First of a long-running series of British low-budget comedy films mixing parody, farce and slapstick

"Comic Doctors", in the same process as "Hero Films", were paving the road to "TV Doctors" …

Irony of fate (1975) (Russia) : tragicomedy of a young Moscow doctor on New Year's Eve

  .1.3. "Adventure Doctors"[10]

A classical situation in theatre : "villains" end up being heroes and, in reverse, heroes turn out to be just scoundrels..

Arrowsmith (1932)(USA) Unusual study of a career-driven physician by film director John Ford : Dr Arrowsmith, (Ronald Colman) leaves his small town practice to accept a better position in a New York hospital.

Les orgueilleux (The proud ones) (1953) (F/Mexico): Based on a script written by none  less than Jean-Paul Sartre[11], a French tourist (Michele Morgan) arrives in Vera Cruz on the Mexican Gulf Coast with her sick husband struck by a local meningitis epidemic. After her husband's death, wandering without papers or money, she is drawn to a scruffy drunk (Gerard Philippe), an English expatriate who never recovered from the tragic death of his wife.

The Last King of Scotland (2007)(UK) : Based on the 1970 events in Uganda : a young doctor leaves an over-conservative family to become President's Idi Amin personal physician : he will soon understand that his new friend is none less than a despot.

Captain blood (1935)(USA): At the end of seventeenth century, a young doctor (Errol Flynn), is unjustly arrested and deported to Jamaica, where he will be sold as slave. Luckily, he will become the private physician of a Caribbean Island's Governor and new adventures will be plentyfull.

My darling Clementine (1946) (USA) : in this John Ford film, Henry Fonda is the "good" sheriff and Victor Mature, Doc Holiday, a legendary figure of the Wild West seen performing in the film a dramatic operation[12] on his Chihuahua girl friend (Linda Darnell…).

Frantic (1988)(USA-F) (Directed by Roman Polanski): A surgeon (Harrison Ford) is in Paris with his wife to attend a medical conference. While he is in the shower, his wife disappears from their hotel room, leaving few clues behind. He contacts various authorities to help him, but their bureaucratic methods produce few results. In a desperate quest, he has to face quite strange people : cocaine dealers, wild murderers and a pathetic street girl (Emmanuelle Seigner)

Once Upon a Time in China (Wong Fei Hung) (1991) (China) : The first of a long series of films on a legendary Chinese folk hero

Khrustalyov, Mashinu! (Khroustaliov, Bring My Car) (1998)(Russia + F) : a neurologist caught in the famed 1953 "Doctors' Plot" is deported to Goulag until Beria begs him to come back and save Stalin who is on the verge of death.

The fugitive (1993)(USA) :Dr. Richard Kimble (Harrison Ford), unjustly accused of killing his wife, must find a one-armed killer while avoiding the dreadful Police Marshall : TV series will follow soon...

All along the 20th century, "Cinema Doctors" kept a positive image, as long as they had, to fight against diseases, "magic bullets"[13]. Now, everything has changed and the future for "Doctor films" is not any longer what it used to be…

 .2. Evolution Trends Expected. 

New trends are emerging : new types of practice, new medical specialties and also new figures as female doctors, with a shift towards TV Doctors ".

 .2.1.New types of practice : Hospitals and Emergency medicine

 "Movie Doctors" used to be males, rich (coming from bourgeois families), handsome (their stature was taller than average[14]) and …always overwhelmed with work (as GPs). In modern times "Doctors" have become hospital shift workers and only wish to look like anybody else.

The Hospital (1971) (USA) : Starring George C. Scott : in a large metropolitan hospital, the patients die of neglect, the interns chase the nurses, the head physician contemplates suicide and there's someone killing off the staff. This blackest of black comedies brings some suspicions and fears about contemporary hospitals.

The interns (1962) (USA) : A melodrama about the lives of a staff of young interns in a large metropolitan hospital.

TV serials

Grey's Anatomy (ABC)(created in 2005)

Doctor in the House (British television)(started in 1969)

Doctors Hospital (Universal TV) (1975-1976)

Die Schwarzwald-klinik. (German TV) (1985) : daily life of medical team and their patients in a Black Forest clinic.

Should we see television as a promotional tool for "high-tech and high-cost care'' ? 

.2.2.New types of specialties

"Movie Doctors" have to be specialists : rarely pediatricians (only 2%[15]), most often cardiologists (Frantic, 1988), gynecologists (Dead ringers, 1983), sometimes nephrologist (TV serial House), mainly surgeons (TV serial Grey's Anatomy and, most of all, neuro-surgeons (Crisis, The Fugitive). In fact, psychiatry, by far, comes first : since the beginnings of Cinema (and the highly celebrated 1920 silent film Das Cabinet Des Dr. Caligari by Robert Wiene) more than 30 films have been exploring Psyche…:

Spellbound (1945) (USA) : a highly celebrated Alfred Hitchcock film, blending skilfully psychoanalysis and mystery thriller : Ingrid Bergman is an overly analytical psychiatrist, deeply distrustful of intuition (symbolised by her spotless white lab-coat) but appealed to her charismatic senior physician, (Gregory Peck) who turns out not to be exactly what he claimed[16].

Geheimnisse einer Seele (Secrets of a soul)(1926)(G)(Director Georg.W. Pabst) : first appearance of psychanalysis on screen : thus, the celebrated scene of a man flooded with murder obsessions and giving his wife a haircut.

The dark mirror (1946) (USA) : A woman (Olivia de Havilland) suspected of murdering her doctor boyfriend has an identical twin sister but both have an alibi for the night of the murder and a psychiatrist is called in to solve the case.

La loca (The mad woman) (1957)(Mexico)(Director : Miguel  Zacharia) : A woman gets schizophrenic after the kidnapping of her daughter...

Manicomio (1957)(Mexico) : A dramatic document on hospitals where mental patients are kept in prison.

Suddenly last summer (1959) (USA) : Starring Elizabeth Taylor, Katherine Hepburn, Montgomery Clift : a fascinating film on the somber, ground-breaking and obsessive secrets (homosexuality, insanity, murder and …cannibalism) [17].

The snake pit (1948) (USA) : Olivia de Havilland finds herself in an insane asylum...and can't remember how she got there

Freud The secret Passion (1962)(USA) : A biographical movie on Sigmund Freud[18] and one of his first cases : a woman plagued by obsessive nightmares and refusing to drink water…

One flew over the cuckoo's nest[19] (1976)(USA) : Upon arrival at a mental institution, a brash rebel (Jack Nicholson) rallies the patients together to fight an oppressive dictator nurse. The film is said to have been used as a banner for a counter-culture attitude of revolt against any kind of authority

Equus (1978)(USA) : A psychiatrist (Richard Burton) investigates on the savage blinding of horses in a Hampshire stable.

Zelig (1983)(USA) : A psychiatrist wants to help a patient Woody Allen) who has the ability to change his appearance to that of the people who surround him

 A couch in New York (1996) (F) : A successful psychoanalyst in New York changes flat with Juliette Binoche coming right from Paris.

Stanza del figlio (2001)(I + F) : A psychoanalyst and his family go through profound emotional trauma when their son dies in a scuba diving accident.

Carandiru (2003)(Brazil-Argentina) : Experience of a physician in a dreadful Brazilian jail.

Confidences trop intimes (Intimate Strangers) (2004) (F) : Sandrine Bonnaire confesses her marital troubles to Fabrice Luchini that she has mistaken for a psychiatrist…

TV serials

God Bless the Children was the pilot film for the TV series The Psychiatrist, which ran as part of Universal's Four in One from 1970 to 1971 : a young psychiatrist with unorthodox methods of helpings his patients


2.3. New figures : "Women Doctors"

 "Women Doctors" have been on screens since the very beginnings of cinema, the first film, by far, being Max and The Doctor (Max Linder)(1909) : Max visits a woman doctor for flu, they get soon married but when Max sees his wife holding an ear on a patient's back, he gets wild[20] . In fact, as quoted from Eva Flicker[21], most films dedicated, in the last century, to female physicians could bear the same label : "Between brain and breasts".

The Blackwell Story (1957)(USA)(Biographical film starring Joanne Dru) :Elizabeth Blackwell (1821-1910) had been the first woman ever to receive a doctor's degree.[22]. She was born in England but her parents emigrated to USA vwhen she was a child. She graduated in medicine in 1849 at the Hobart College in New York and became an activist in the anti-slavery movement. Barred from practice in most hospitals she decided to emigrate to France at La Maternitè de Paris. Back in New York in 1857 she founded the New York Infirmary for Indigent Women and Children. When the American Civil War began, she trained nurses, and founded a Women's Medical College. In 1869 she returned to England where, with help of another pioneer, Florence Nightingale, she opened the Women's Medical College and became the first female physician in the UK....

Mary Stevens M.D. (1933)(USA) : After graduation, Mary Stevens (Kay Francis) has to face the fact that many patients refuse to be treated by a woman…

The woman doctor (1939)(USA) : A brilliant woman surgeon is forced to operate on her injured young daughter (aboard an airplane…)

L'Amour d'une femme (1953)(France) : a woman is faced with a dramatic choice between her work (she is the only physician in Ushant, a lost island of Brittany) and her love affair with a nice Italian engineer.

Strange lady in town (1955)(USA) : At the end of XIXth century, a suffragette doctor (Greer Garson ) travels from Boston to establish a new practice in Santa Fe. There she will meet general hostility against "Lady Doctors"

There's something about Mary (1998)(USA) : Astounding but true, Cameron Diaz plays an orthopaedic surgeon…

TV serials

Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman (CBS) (1993-1998)

Emergency Room (NBC)(1994)

Chicago Hope (CBS)(1994-2000)

 .3. Which Future for "Doctor Movies" ?

 The only constant in cinema is change. The future of the "Seventh Art" is difficult to determine... However, some trends can be expected : better focus on specific health problems, better communication between physicians and patients and better technical support :

.3.1. Focus on Specific Health Problems

 Information on diseases

Lorenzo's oil (1992) (USA) : Starring Nick Nolte and Peter Ustinov.)[23] : the film depicts a family's struggle against adrenoleukodystrophy, bringing to the public information on a rare but frightening type of disease and also dispelling many misconceptions.

L'enfant sauvage (The wild child ) (1969) (F)(Director : J.F. Truffaut) : Based upon the true journal account of Dr. Jean-Marc-Gaspard Itard, deeply dedicated to deaf-and-dumb children, who tried to educate[24] a wild child found living like animals in a forest.

Elephant Man (1980)(UK + USA) : A surgeon in 1880 London rescues a heavily disfigured man (a neurofibromatosis case?) who turns out, although mistreated as side-show freak, to have both intelligence and sensitivity.

Lifebreath (1997)(USA) : A husband (Luke Perry) is willing to do anything to keep his wife alive : she suffers from cystic fibrosis and needs a lung transplant

 Preventive Medicine

 The story of Pr Semmelweis (1938)(USA) : this stirring film[25] got no less than 3 remakes : (1952)(H) by  Frigyes Bán, 1983 (Norvegian TV) and 1995 (F + POL) a Roger Andrieux film, all on the same fascinating figure : Hungarian physician Ignac Semmelweis, discoverer, despite a wide criticism from his peers, of the causes of puerperal fever.[26]

The Story of Louis Pasteur (1935[27])(USA) : by  William Dieterlé, is a major film on medicine even if Pasteur had no medical degree.

Thank you for smoking (2006) (USA) : the chief spokesman of a major Tobacco company tries to remain a model for his son[28]. Until most recent years, cigarette smokers[29] had kept a positive image in the movies : thus, in the fifties, Humphrey Bogart (although son of a physician…) bringing to cigarettes a very special (and deadly…) glamour [30].

Iris (2002) (USA) : a biography of a great writer reporting her sufferings when she had to face Alzheimer disease.

This old cub (2004)(USA) : a great athlete's (Ron Santo) fighting against a disease (diabetes) to end with the loss of both of his legs and failure to get into the Baseball Hall of Fame.

 Medicine in Emerging Countries

 Kandahar (The Sun Behind the Moon)(2001) (iran) : a story (partly true) of a successful Afghan-Canadian (Nelofer Pazira) coming back to Afghanistan after a letter from her sister who plans to suicide on the last solar eclipse of the millennium.[31]

Barefoot doctors (1975)(China) : about Chinese peasant paramedics, the so-called "barefoot doctors"

Jung (War) in the Land of the Mujaheddin (2001)(Italy-Afghanistan) : a group of benevolent doctors arrive in war torn Afghanistan to create an hospital.

True friends (2002) (Mozambique) : using animal puppets, 3 short didactic films on HIV/AIDS issues.

.3.2. Communication between doctors and patients

 Many discussions turn around taped physician-patient dialogs : a recent example is given by Scrubs, a TV situation comedy/drama premiered on NBC in 2001 to promote values of the so-called "dialogic model". However, many questions keep arising : which needs, which subjects , which communication model ? . And, last but not least, is there not a real danger to trigger misconceptions in the public about medicine and physicians ?…

 .3.3 Advances in Technical Supports

 A wide array of new technical supports is now available :

 . internet Databases allowing registered users to share, discuss and debate on films.

. camera built-in systems to promote video films exchange via video telephone.

. videofilms spreading via mobile phones with a wide range of applications : social networks, chat rooms, instant messaging.

Only one question left : tangible progress in communication between physician and patients or a real threat to the future ?


Paul Valéry stated that, unlike theatre which gives back reality from decors, cinema can only bring fiction from real images. However, whatever might be the message contained, movies are a mirror : fake or truth, fiction or reality, each film gives evidence of the ever changing images of our society.


*Dr. André-Julien Fabre (SFHM), 40 av. Paul Doumer 94100 St Maur France

[1] See in annex the cumulative film index : title, genre (adventures, biography, comedy, drama, documentary), release date, director, cast

[2] See Bibliography, Sources and References

[3] See cumulative index

[4] "The country doctor" directed by D.W. Griffith and starring Kate Bruce was released in 1909…

[5] The following abbreviations have been used : A : Autriche, AFG : Afghanistan , ARG : Argentina, AUS : Australia, BR : Brasil, C : Canada, China : Chine , E : Egypt, F : France, G : Germany , H: Hungary , IRL : Irland , I : Italy, IR : Iran ,  J : Japan, MEX : Mexico, MZ : Mozambique,   NL : Netherland, N : Norway, POL : Poland, R : Russia, SP : Spain, S : Sweden, TH : Thailand, UK : United Kingdom , USA : United States

[6] The script was based on a 1936 one-act theatre play from Noel Coward, Still Life

[7] The plot had been suggested  to Cecil B. De Mille by President Franklin D. Roosevelt

[8] Sample of dialogue : "He carries himself with quiet, simple dignity. There is strength in the set of his jaw; but the predominating quality expressed in his face is a sweet but  simple goodness."

[9] The last appearance of the famed screen couple Spencer Tracy-Katherine Hepburn : Tracy died 17 days after the shooting ended

[10] "Dr Frankenstein" remains the most famous "Adventure Doctors" of all times with much more than 200 films. Indeed, the original novel written in 1818 by Mary Shelley; sister of poet Percy Shelley, refers to a scientist creating a "being" out of body parts taken from the dead : however, modern popular culture gives the name "Frankenstein" to the scientist's creation.

[11] Typhus was a scenario written in 1943 by J.P. Sartre for Pathé Films Prod. The film of Yves Allégret had very little from the original script and Sartre refused any mention of his name on the screens.

[12] In real life, Doc Holiday was not a surgeon but a dentist

[13] "The magic bullet" is a 1940 US film (starring Edward G. Robinson and directed by William Dieterle) based on the life of Nobel Prize winner Paul Ehrlich (1854-1915).

[14] See from A. rilla  : "Phenotypic differences between male physicians, surgeons, and film stars: comparative study" in  British Medical Journal 2006; 333:1291-1293.

[15] Except in TV serial "ER",  pediatricians have always been "rare birds" on screens since the 1940s …

[16] Many discussions are said to have arisen between Alfred Hitchcock and producer David O. Selznick who had personal ideas on psychoanalysis and insisted to bring in the studio his own therapist, May Romm.  Selznick also disagreed with Hitchcock's idea to get the help of surrealist artist Salvador Dalí in some "dream sequences", thus a project to film Bergman turned into a statue of the ardent virgin goddess Diana…

[17] The film is a Gore Vidal adaptation from a Tennessee Williams theatre play opened Off-Broadway in 1958 as part of a double-bill with Something Unspoken..

[18] Asked to write the script, Jean Paul Sartre sent to director John Huston a 95 typed page manuscript : Sartre and Huston could definitely not get on together…It is also said that Marilyn Monroe had been contacted to play the role of one of the most hysterical patients of Freud…

[19] The film title, as often in cinema, is derived from a children's folk rhyme "Vintery, Mintery, Cutery, Corn... and one flew over the cuckoo's nest"...

[20] There is no reference  to physicians in Charlie Chaplin's films except in "City lignts" where the money got by the "Tramp" from a drunken ploutocrat will pay for the operation intended to restore the blind girl's sight.

[21] See E. Flicker "Representation of Women Scientists in Feature Films: 1929 to 2003". Bridges 2005, Vol. 5, April 14

[22] The very first female doctor was probably "James" Barry (possible transvestite) who graduated from  the University  of Edinburgh in 1812.

[23] The film is based on a true story : two parents leading a relentless search for a cure for their son Lorenzo stricken with adrenoleukodystrophy, a rare inherited disorder that leads to progressive brain destruction.

[24] Dr Itard's strategies survive today in Montessori Schools.

[25] Also known as "That mothers might live" (A film directed by Fred Zinnemann, with Shepperd Strudwick and John Nesbitt).

[26] Semmelweiss was also a fascinating figure for Louis-Ferdinand Céline who had presented in 1924 his Doctorate thesis on " La vie et I'œuvre de Philippe Ignace Semmelweis"

[27] Actually, the first film on Louis Pasteur was directed in 1934 by Sacha Guitry, starring his own father, Lucien Guitry

[28] Another film fighting against the tobacco industry :  "The last cigarette" (1999) from François Keraudren.

[29] See "Smoking In Movies Can Cause Tobacco Addiction In Teens" in  September 6, 2007 Internet review ( Staff)

[30] The Maltese Falcon (1941) directed by John Huston, based on a Dashiell Hammett's novel, starring Humphrey Bogart, Peter Lorre and Mary Astor. See also "Smoke Gets In Your Eyes" (1933) directed by William A. Seiter and starring Fred Astaire.

[31] Unforgetable scene : a local doctor examining a female patient through a hole in a cloth curtain..

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Date de dernière mise à jour : 29/07/2013

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