As 2021’s summer of sport gets underway – the Euros, Wimbledon, The Olympics et al – a lesser known story, but one that turned out to be the start of a still-growing movement, gets a revival with a digital release. The Best Of Men was first shown on BBC television in 2012, perfectly timed for the run-up to that year’s Paralympics and sheds light on the radical approach of one doctor who was determined that spinal injuries patients should – and would – have fulfilled lives away from the confines of their hospital beds.
In 1944, German refugee Dr Ludwig Guttmann (the ever-excellent Eddie Marsan) arrives at the spinal injuries unit at Stoke Mandeville Hospital to find a ward of sedated, bed-ridden men suffering from bed sores and hooked up to catheters. He sets about changing that from the moment he walks through the door – throwing open the curtains to let the light in, removing those catheters, stopping the drugs and generally confronting the attitude among the well-meaning staff that the lives of these men were, essentially, over. Building their upper body strength becomes a crucial part of their recovery, starting with an impromptu version of golf and graduating to hockey, basketball, archery.
All the soldiers have their individual stories, but the film singles out two: Wynn (Rob Brydon), the wisecracking cynic whose terror at the prospect of going home for a weekend with his family makes him want a divorce, and 20 year old William (George MacKay) whose future looks bleak because of his diagnosis and the plans made for him by his parents. It’s hard to escape the idea that they’re composite characters – the film, after all, is based on true events – and there are moments when they come close to being caricatures, but both actors invest them with a real humanity. MacKay is especially impressive, giving us a flavour of the calibre of actor he’s since become – remember, the film was originally released nine years ago.
The lesser characters are, at best, sketched out – the stuffy doctor resistant to change, the nursing sister who finds it hard to work with Guttmann but sees the error of her ways – which is one of the film’s main weaknesses, especially when actors such as Niamh Cusack, Nicholas Jones and Richard McCabe are involved. It leaves more than enough room for Eddie Marsan to take centre stage as the good doctor (the film’s title is a pun on Guttmann’s name meaning “good man”) who is determined to make the best of a bad situation, not just for himself but for the people in his care. His approach, which would have been considered radical in its day and which we’ve yet to fully incorporate into 21st century life, is that his patients must have a life in the outside world, one with challenges and problems, as well as happiness and joys. And they, like everybody else, have a right to them.
Yes, the film has plenty of clichés and a sugary soundtrack does nothing to help, but they’re all outweighed by its heart. It’s an inspiring story, one that can’t fail to bring a lump to the throat when you see the montage of shots from subsequent Paralympics. Those closing moments, and the film as a whole, points to progress since the mid-1940s, but equally makes it clear that there is still much to do when it comes to our attitudes to disability.
Drama | Cert: 12 | Digital and DVD | Dazzler Media | Re-released 14 June 2021 | Dir. Tim Whitby | Eddie Marsan, Rob Brydon, George MacKay, Niamh Cusack, Nicholas Jones, Richard McCabe.