Originally having aired on the BBC in the summer of 2012, as part of the celebration of the Olympic games coming to the UK, The Best of Men tells the story of Dr Ludwig Guttmann (Eddie Marsan), a German doctor who fled to the UK during World War II, and whose pioneering work with paraplegic patients would not only lead to these men regaining a semblance of their normal lives, but the founding of the Paralympic Games.
The film begins in 1944, when Dr Guttmann is transferred to the Stoke Mandeville Hospital, where he’s to work with soldiers injured in the war. These men have a range of different spinal injuries and varying degrees of paralysis, but one thing they have in common is how everyone else sees them. They’re seen as broken, unable to be made better, and good only to lay in bed and receive sympathy. Guttmann has something else in mind, and completely changes the hospital’s approach.
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At first, this is met with hostility from other doctors, and even his own ward nurses, but over time the patients are weaned off their sedation, their bed sores are treated, and they begin to act like people once again. Pushing for more help for his patients, Guttmann uses sports and games to help build their physical strength and confidence, and with his patients happy and thriving he sets out to hold a series of games on the hospital grounds to show the world that just because these men are disabled it doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t be treated as less than everyone else.
Despite being billed as a film about the birth of the Paralympic Games, much of the film isn’t really about that. Instead, it’s about how different things were for these men before Guttmann arrived, and how he changed medicine’s approach to paraplegic patients. To begin with no one likes Guttmann, not even his patients, and much of the film focuses on him winning them over and helping these men to see that they still have lives worth living.
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There are several patients that the film focuses on, but the two that gain the most attention are William (George MacKay) and Wynne (Rob Brydon). William is a young man, barely into his twenties, who feels that his life is over, who can’t see a way through his injuries. His parents see him as barely more than a child to be pitied, and his father even says at one point it would have been kinder if he’d have been killed in the war. Wynne, on the other hand, is more outgoing and fun loving, and has a wife and children at home who don’t see him any differently now that he’s in a wheelchair, who just want him back. But we see over the course of the film that it’s Wynne’s own fears that are making his return difficult for him.
Through these two characters the audience gets to see different sides of abelism, internal and external, and how these can adversely affect people’s lives. Wynne has to learn that he can’t allow his disability to rule him, and that he still has a lot worth living for; whilst William has the opposite journey, and needs to show his parents what he already knows, that his life is far from over and he’s more than capable of living a wonderful life. Bot MacKay and Brydon play these parts brilliantly, and put a lot of emotion and depth into these roles.
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All of this is thanks to Guttmann, thanks to his refusal to give in to the established way of doing things. He doesn’t take no for an answer and always pushes to give his patients the best, to do whatever is needed to help make them better. Marsan plays him wonderfully, and it’s brilliant to see how the other characters around him slowly change. They go from open hostility to understanding, and eventually love as his staff and patients see him for the amazing man he is, even go so far as affectionately calling him ‘pop-pop’. He’s a man who has seen some of the worst of humanity but refuses to be anything but the best.
The film ends by giving the audience some further information on this amazing figure and what he started. Having fled to the UK as a German Jew he not only found sanctuary and safety here, but a home. He changed the way the medical world saw disabled people, and he was such an important figure he was awarded a knighthood for his actions. And the games he started, that began on the grounds of Stoke Mandeville Hospital with some 40 competitors, have become one of the largest sporting events in the world, with more than 4,000 competitors from over 100 countries competing. I didn’t know how amazing Dr Guttmann was, and how much he changed the world for the better, but this film introduced me to a man who should be celebrated for his work.
The Best of Men is out now on DVD and Digital from Dazzler Media.