Weekend Film Recommendation: The Hospital

The Hospital is one the great black comedy/dramas of the 1970s

Over the more than two decades I have worked in hospitals, I have seen countless movies that draw on the drama, humor, joy and frustration that happens every day in the medical world. It’s a tough call, but if pressed to choose my favorite of such films it would be 1971’s The Hospital, which I am also selecting as this week’s RBC film recommendation.

The magnificence of the movie ultimately derives — as is so often the case with the best films — from a sterling script. Even though he died young and was not particularly prolific, Paddy Chayefsky was an extraordinarily influential screenwriter. He wrote unusually realistic, tightly constructed scripts for television plays in the 1950s that he later turned into superb films (Marty is the most famous, but I like The Bachelor Party even better). He went on to achieve two mammoth movie triumphs in the 1970s, of which Network is better remembered but The Hospital is every bit as impressive. He also delivers The Hospital’s pricelessly sardonic opening narration about the trials of a recently admitted patient who is subjected relentlessly to the benefits of modern medicine until he expires.

The heart of story is Dr. Herb Bock, Chief of Medicine, one-time wunderkind of immunology and now a hard-drinking, acutely depressed and suicidal man who sees himself as a failure in every sphere of life. George C. Scott, an actor of great range (it’s hard to believe that the same man played General Patton, General Buck Turgidson and Dr. Bock), gives a bravura performance as the bearish, pained, raging and pitiable Dr. Bock. He is a classic hero/martyr type who works hard to help everyone else at great cost to himself, and is incapable of accepting the love and support he needs. I have known many Dr. Bock’s in my career, people who would say as he does that “love doesn’t triumph for the middle class — responsibility does”. The collision of an A-list actor with a beautifully-written character, as we have here, is one the most enduring delights of film watching.

On top of his considerable personal problems, Bock’s hospital is under great pressure from two directions. Angry activists are protesting the medical center’s alleged insensitivity to the local community (Chayefsky’s take on much of 1970s activism is bitter, but also hilarious). Meanwhile, why are so many people dropping dead…there couldn’t be a mad killer on the loose, could there? As Bock struggles against overwhelming challenges, he is emotionally upended by a loopy yet appealing hippy who seems to understand him better than he understands himself. Diana Rigg is perfect as said hippy, and she and Scott work together brilliantly, particularly in a long and emotionally complex scene involving suicidal and sexually violent longings.

The script has many laughs, almost all of which come with an undercurrent of anger. The foibles of hospitals and physicians are well-skewered, although in one poignant speech at the end, Scott gives a rejoinder to all the cynicism, which also hits home. The supporting players are very good indeed, including Barnard Hughes in two different parts (only one of which is credited), Nancy Marchand as Head Nurse Christie and Frances Sternhagen as “the bitch from the accounting department” (Sternhagen, whose work I have highlighted before, remains underappreciated as an actress).

The Hospital is one of the great black comedy/dramas of the 1970s and beyond that will resonate profoundly with anyone who has spent much time in a hospital as a staff member or as (the poor dears) a patient.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

14 thoughts on “Weekend Film Recommendation: The Hospital”

  1. I heartily second your recommendation of this film. I am surprised by the poster you show alongside. Is this from a VHS or DVD release? The theatrical poster I recall (dating myself here) was comical and cartoonish, perhaps trying to attach this movie to M*A*S*H’s coattails.

    1. You have a good memory! I never liked the movie poster, this one is from the VHS release.

  2. There were some great lines delivered by minor characters, including Frances Sternhagen, who says something like, “I think your patient is dead, Dr. Spesio; he wouldn’t give me his Blue Cross number.”

    And “nursing home doctors are always wrong.”

    Dr. Bock also says something like “I don’t know whether to report you to the medical board or the Securities and Exchange Commision.”

    I have forgotten who played Diana Riggâ’s father, but he was also perfect for the role as the Paraclete of Gaborga.

    Gotta find this and see it again.

    1. I think Barnard Hughes played Rigg’s father. And I’ll bite — what’s a “Paraclete of Gaborga”?

      1. It’s the Paraclete of Caborca actually and yes Hughes plays the dad and is uncredited (and well-disguised) as the obstetric surgeon who operates on the wrong patient.

        1. Aah, a quote from the film that has taken on a second life in recent years. There’s so much out there…

  3. I consider myself at least half of a film buff, and I’d never heard of this movie. Sounds intriguing, and the inclusion of Diana Rigg makes it a must-see. Thanks!

  4. I’m pretty sure that Diana Rigg could have manipulated me to do pretty much whatever she wanted me to do. Your command is my wish, mistress.

    Thank you for the tip – we’ll check it out!

  5. Fantastic movie! Do not miss it. Saw it as a junior in high school during its first run and again not too long ago by watching the entire thing on this MacBook in a string of YouTube clips (no longer available, but for $2.99 you can get it now). It was better the second time around, and Diana Rigg was OUTSTANDING in every way! Sorry about the shouting, but the other adjectives I have in mind might not be appropriate for the RBC. As an American male who turned 15 in 1970, I’d say that Diana Rigg (along with Grace Slick) could have made me do anything, too.

  6. There is a bizarre and unnecessary rape scene halfway through the film that people who “trigger” on such things should be aware of.

    1. Having watched the whole thing now, this film is dated in some bizarre ways — as noted above, there is a rape-turned-to-romance along the lines of Three Days of the Condor, which is totally foreign upon viewing 40 years later — but I agree that there is some excellent stuff in it. Someone has already mentioned Frances Sternhagen. Nancy Marchand (who last played Livia Soprano) appears as the head of nursing, and a 25-year-old Stockard Channing shows up for a few uncredited moments as a feisty ER nurse.

      At one point, the Scott character bellows angrily out the window, like Howard Beale in Chayefsky’s screenplay for Network. As screenwriters’ tics go, this ranks as extremely annoying. It certainly puts Aaron Sorkin’s walk-and-talks in a favorable light.

      The film makes me want to rewatch Critical Care (1997), which addresses the same subject matter, and shares a director (Sidney Lumet) with Network.

  7. I saw this when it came out first, when I was a student, and the performances of the two leads and the script stick in my mind, especially Scott’s “Power to the impotent! Right on, baby!” tirade.

    Why didn’t Diana Rigg have a more stellar career? More beautiful and as talented as her modern counterpart Helen Mirren. Maybe British actresses did not find it easy back then to make it in Hollywood, or maybe she just preferred the stage?

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