The Citadel (1938)

Director: King Vidor
Screenwriters: Ian Dalrymple, Elizabeth Hill, Frank Wead
Adapted from: The Citadel by A.J. Cronin
Cast: Robert Donat, Rosalind Russell, Ralph Richardson, Rex Harrison, Emlyn Williams, Penelope Dudley Ward
Nominations: Picture, Director – King Vidor, Actor – Robert Donat, Adapted Screenplay

At some point in any endeavor—whether it be work, a hobby, or preferences—one is bound to become jaded during the journey.  Engagement, interest, and passion can only go so far.  The key to overcome the apathy is to rediscover what ignited that initial enthusiasm in the first place.  The Citadel uses that enthusiasm and passion as its titular metaphor, showing that so long as you care about what you do and like, nothing else matters, because you know what brings you happiness.

Dr. Andrew Manson arrives in a Welsh mining village as an apprentice to the elderly—and bedridden—town doctor.  Still green to his profession, Andrew attends to the villagers’ medical needs with gusto and earnestness.  His empathy towards his patients comes to a head when, in order to prevent continual cases of typhoid in the area, he and another local doctor, Philip Denny, destroy the village’s sewer system, which forces the government to rebuild (and update) the sewers.

Andrew marries schoolteacher Christine, and the two move to another mining village where Andrew discovers many of miners suffer from tuberculosis.  Convinced that dust from the mine is responsible, Andrew and Christine conduct research and experiments on guinea pigs; the villagers, however (and for whatever reason), aren’t keen on anyone hurting animals in their town and drive the Mansons away.

Relocating to London, the couple struggles to survive, living hand to mouth.  Andrew’s  caring demeanor has given way to a blunt and abrasive bedside manner.  The Mansons’ luck takes a turn when Andrew runs into a med school friend who introduces him to the (unethical) treatment of wealthy hypochondriacs: these are mostly middle-aged women, probably just looking for some attention and willing to pay their doctors for it.  Christine’s disgust for the process grows, culminating with a visit from Denny.  He asks Andrew to join him in a new medical clinic idea in which helping people is of utmost importance.  Andrew refuses, and Denny—sickened by his friend’s change—leaves, but is struck by a car.  Andrew has Denny taken to his hospital, but the surgeon, so used to unnecessary, low-risk procedures, fails to save Denny. 

Disillusioned, Andrew abandons his secure position and assists an unlicensed doctor with an experimental lung operation.  While the operation is a success, Andrew is brought before the national medical board for an inquiry, where he impassionedly makes his case for caring about doing anything possible to help people, regardless of rules and policies.  With a renewed purpose to become the doctor he once was, Andrew and Christine leave the inquiry arm in arm.

It’s easy to forget the reasons that first drew us to our interests, especially if we’ve been at them for some time.  For Dr. Manson, he fell to the nadir of society then rose to its zenith, only to see that for him, all that mattered was being a doctor who cared for his patients.  This is exemplified by comparing a few scenes:

  • At his first assignment, he delivers a stillborn baby; instead of accepting the infant’s death, he uses a novel technique of place the child in warm water, then cold water, then warm water, then cold water—essentially shocking the baby back to life. 
  • In London, a woman comes to him to get her ears pierces; he says it’ll be seven shillings, but when the woman counters with five, he indifferently takes the offer. 
  • Finally, when Denny presents him with joining together to start their own clinic, Andrew barely pays attention before rejecting the proposal because he “can’t throw away everything [he’s] built up on some fantastic scheme.”  As it is, what Andrew’s “built up” is a cash cow and detachment from those in his care.

Ultimately, even though Andrew Manson is the film’s protagonist, Denny is the true hero of The Citadel because despite any fall from grace he’s been through (he’s an alcoholic former surgeon, after all), he never wavers from his path as a healer and helper: he’s always maintained his citadel from outside forces.  From Denny, Andrew learned that some rules are made to broken, that the health of a patient is paramount to being a good doctor.  And the tragedy of Denny’s death teaches Andrew that while some rules should be broken there’s still a need for ethical and moral justifications in breaking them.

Fresh out of medical school against years of experience.

By reflecting on his experiences with Denny, Andrew remembers his passion.  He becomes the doctor he wanted to be and changes course to ensure he stays that doctor.  What’s interesting to note is that in the book, Denny lives (and Christine dies!) and it’s presumed that he and Andrew do go into practice together, which ups the importance of his professional commitment—akin to Martin Arrowsmith.  The change of who dies in the film doesn’t change much regarding theme, because the assumption is Andrew disregards his superficial practice for the one that Denny offered him.  And with Christine’s support, it’s an objective we can have confidence he achieves.