Top 10 Welsh films: The Citadel

Black and white photo of Robert Donat, who portrayed Dr Andrew Manson in The Citadel

Last updated: 25 May 2010

The Citadel (1938)

No other pre-war film set in Wales could boast the polish or social and political ambition of The Citadel, directed by one of the great Hollywood directors King Vidor. His previous work included a trio, at least, of imperishable silents: The Big Parade (1925), The Crowd (1928) and Show People (1928).

The Citadel, from a novel by AJ Cronin, former Welsh GP and medical inspector of British mines, pointed the way towards the Labour Government's creation of the National Health Service by Nye Bevan 10 years later. Despite its shortcomings and various frustrating compromises the feature presented, graphically enough, some of the worst excesses of a laissez-faire private health system which led to corruption and sharp, dangerous practises.

The conviction of the central story and dilemmas of a young Scottish doctor Manson (Robert Donat), whose ideals and crusading spirit are forged in a Depressed south Wales, owes much to Cronin, a Scot who served as GP in Tredegar (Nye Bevan's constituency), and Treherbert and is now best known for the television dramatisations of his Dr Finlay's Casebook TV stories.

His novel The Citadel was influential enough - in its depiction of communities stricken by pit dangers and the malaise of poor health treatment - for 200 copies to be circulated at the British Medical Council's annual conference.

Manson, on his arrival in Wales, falls under the benign and zealous influence of a maverick medico (played with panache by Ralph Richardson) who's deeply critical of the sluggish local dinosaurs of a hidebound medical profession, and their contempt for ordinary families.

In the most effective early scene Manson joins Denny on a nocturnal foray to blow up water pipes causing plague. Here, as elsewhere, the portrait of Manson, as an overworked, largely unappreciated doctor undergoing a tough baptism, is well drawn.

The pleasures leavening his toil include the continued inspiration of his wife, a local teacher (Rosalind Russell), and natural euphoria after his successful delivery of a baby boy given up for dead. These moments compensate for months spent as a lodger under the gimlet eye of a penny-pinching harridan (Dilys Davies) and his battle against malingering miners who expect automatic sick notes on tap.

Before long Manson falls prey to the suave charms of Freddie Lawford (Rex Harrison), a seductive lounge lizard who introduces him to the temptations of lucrative London private practice where he can batten on the fantasies of blueblood hypochondriacs to make a fat living. Only the death of Denny at the hands of one of the complacent and undeserving medical elite and the British health establishment's rough treatment of a humane US medical outsider bring a chastened Manson back to reality.

The film, though slipping towards sentiment near the finale, as Manson reflects on his fall from grace, is always arresting. Yet, like so many Hollywood films, and despite Vidor's slightly frayed credentials these days as a relatively left wing director, the film is compromised by its casting, affecting the denouement.

The filmmaker is also less than even handed in his treatment of the south Wales miners as headstrong and selfish. The decision to select a Hollywood starlet, Rosalind Russell, at Donat's behest over the original choice, Britain's Elizabeth Allan, meant the writers felt obliged to dilute the film's denouement, deeming it inexpedient to kill off Mrs Manson as Cronin had done, and opting to eliminate Denny instead.

This meant the book's ending, with Manson joining Denny and another friend in joining a communal practice, was jettisoned. At the film's climax Manson walks away from the medical profession in disgust, scarcely Cronin's intended conclusion.

In fairness, Russell delivers a highly competent performance. She was, of course, destined to achieve genuine star stature, with Cary Grant in Howard Hawks' screwball comedy Bringing Up Baby (1939).

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