The Citadel (1938)
The Donat-watch goes on! So to his 9th film, and just one away from the great old school-master…
The Citadel is a fantastic tale from A.J. Cronin – he of Doctor Finlay’s Casebook. It tells the story of young Doctor Andrew Manson, potentially Scottish, though you’d not be too sure given Robert Donat‘s accent leaps to the Home Counties every third beat, who starts his career at the fictional Drineffy in the Welsh valleys. The story tracks him through early nobility to an avaricious fall from grace; from the revolutionary contributory medical-aid schemes of the valleys, to the grasping snobbery of Harley Street. It’s not subtle, but it is terrific.
Donat does a warm, sympathetic job of moving the young Manson from passionate to smug. He enters the fray having been fooled into a job, thinking himself the assistant of a Doctor Page only to discover the man is an invalid with a wife so domineering she has bullied away a series of ‘assistants’. And she’s very Welsh and a bit shrieky. Hearing-aids on low, folks.
Donat’s Manson gets on with the job: resisted by the locals, then embraced after saving a child apparently still-born. If it weren’t so serious, this scene would be comedy gold: the child is obviously a stiff-as-a-board mannequin (old Jack watched in HD…don’t watch in HD), is quiet so long it would be profoundly brain-damaged, and Donat hurls it, just off camera, into buckets of hot and cold water like a man digging for gold. He carries the scene, but hmmmm. The dazed look of a man realising he is now a real doctor is rather life-affirming especially as he doesn’t know he can pull off miracles. A modest Donat with his sleeves rolled-up is a sight to behold.
Ralph Richardson is the other local junior, Doctor Denny. I’d not seen a young Richardson at work before: he’s not shy of character ticks, hurling himself into corners, tossing back the bottle, grasping his dog into his arms and geeing Donat into a crazy scheme to blow up the typhoid-infested sewers. The two are a lovely combination: the romantic lead and the character drunk. That said, Donat cycling through the building works for the new sewers, whistling a merry tune, rather wins the moment.
He also wins the girl…
Manson gets himself another job, this time in a scheme said to have influenced the British National Health Service. Down ‘Aberalaw’ way, he joins a medical aid scheme for miners. They contribute cash and give their ticket to their favourite doctor. Manson needs a wife to get the job, however, and turns a tortuous relationship with local schoolteacher Christine Barlow (Rosalind Russell giving it sturdy and stylish) by, well, asking. Old Jack thinks she liked his forelock and he liked her everything. The film asks a lot of you to believe in the marriage, but let it.
To Aberalaw. I love these scenes. Donat moves from naïf to impassioned researcher, studying the illnesses of the miners (silicosis, my boy) whilst roaring against their prejudices. There’s a terrific sequence where the mine klaxon brings dread to the faces of the surgery waiting room and they all march to the mine. Donat, surrounded by a crowd of miners, descends in a rattly, doom-filled lift into the darkness below. The brutality of mine-work in the early 20th century, laws and regulations in place but no defence against falling earth, is made pretty damned clear. A man is trapped by the arm: Manson has to amputate to free him (with no sawing sound effect, thank heavens). This he does and they run for their lives as the roof collapses. Oh to be that brave.
Then the story goes weird. I guess Cronin is making a broad point: honest folk are good, dishonest are bad. And doctors, smelling money, go bad. The Mansons head off to London where life is tough (and montage-eriffic…). Young Doctor Manson is catapulted into sour middle-aged Doctor Manson in about a year. Then money comes to ruin him.
Old Jack has never found it easy to believe this change in nature: middle-age roughens you up, sure, but it doesn’t turn you into a venal grasper…does it…? I’ve known a few graspers, but they were all dicks in the first place. Cronin’s original book (he has a surprise in there that shocked me to tears when I was a lad…you should give it a go) and the BBC’s go in 1983 don’t convince either. Here, Manson bumps into old college friend Rex Harrison (as Doctor Lawford) and society girl Penelope Dudley Ward (later to marry Carol Reed in real life; here as the gloriously named Toppy leRoy) and succumbs in three scenes.
What it takes to drag Manson back to decency – and to give Donat a rip-roaring valedictory on unqualified medical researchers – I’ll leave to spoiler land. Watch the film! It differs from the book, but the changes sort of make sense and don’t undercut the story or Manson’s journey.
Donat retains his star as a striking leading man, working skilfully alongside the stoic Rosalind Russell, and all the character actors an old British movie could hope to provide. The young Leslie Phillips is in there somewhere, though damned if I can spot him. The Citadel is heartening and fun.
Get thee to iTunes or a DVD shop. Ask for the terrific old movies section.
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