Modern heroes: Dr. Ludwig Guttman revolutionizes the treatment of back injuries and fosters the Paralympic Games

By Stephen Pate – Most biopics or docudramas fail miserably but “The Best of Men” succeeds at telling the story of Dr. Ludwig Guttmann with gripping emotional content.

Dr. Ludwig Guttmann was a Jewish German  neurologist and neurosurgeon  who barely made it out of Germany before Hitler’s death camps and the Final Solution.

Fortunately for the world, Dr. Guttmann had pioneering ideas on how to rehabilitate the men who had spinal cord injures from World War II.

It is ironic that an exiled German doctor would create a way to rehabilitate people with disabilities during the war while Hitler carried out a program of state sponsored euthanasia of the disabled.  Hitler’s euthanasia program murdered disabled first

Against the prejudice of the British medical system, Dr. Guttmann pushed for the rehabilitation of men who were otherwise consigned to certain death. The approved procedure for spinal cord injuries in 1943 was sedation and 80% chance of death from bed sores and atrophy. Those people with disabilities who survived medical neglect were shut away from the public in institutions that amounted to little more than ill-kept prisons.

Dr. Guttmann worked at getting the injured soldiers off the morphine and developed medical and rehabilitation techniques that gave 80% of the injured a chance for a normal life.  Realizing that physical recovery required re-commitment to life, Guttmann pushed the men to become athletic again. He developed the first Paralympic games and is considered the father of the British Paralympic Association.

This clip from The Best of Men illustrates the two issues Dr. Guttmann faced: 1. getting the men to give up learned helplessness and 2. overcoming the rank prejudice to the disabled as less than worthy.

In the scene William, who asked to be put out of his misery at the movie’s start, is wondering if he should go to a university or be put in a home.  The movie cuts away to a board meeting at the hospital where Dr. Cowan shows his utter contempt for attempts to integrate the disabled into the world.

While people today would not likely say Dr. Cowan’s words, most people with disabilities face Dr. Cowan’s bigotry and discrimination in their lives.

The movie subject  does not seem suitable for an entertaining movie but it is gripping. Guttmann faces the indifference of the patients, many of whom want doctor-assisted suicide, the nurses, other doctors, the families and British society.  It is amazing how much progress has been made in developing both medical and human rights of people with disabilities in only 70 years since then.

At first I didn’t think I could stomach the movie. Bed sores and bottles collecting urine from catheters  are hardly the stuff of entertainment.  Soon I was swept up with the story and emotionally involved with the characters.

The story itself is interesting and the acting, dialogue, cinematography, editing and direction are first rate.  Produced by the BBC, “The Best of Men” is a first rate movie.  The Rotten Tomatoes audience rating is 100%.  IMDb gives “The Best of Men” a 80% rating from 400+ viewers.

One reviewer gave the movie 3.5 stars out of 5 and said “Though perhaps neither as historically rigorous as it should have been nor as emotionally affecting as it could have been, this light-hearted unsentimental feel-good biographical comedy-drama still managed to put a huge smile on my face. Solidly crafted with charismatic performances and witty writing, it entertains and inspires throughout, without ever having to resort to any gushing oh-captain-my-captain moments. However, the final act is perhaps just a little on the rushed side. Hugely entertaining, though.” An Evening Illuminated

Considering the subject material is not romance, crime, sci-fi or adventure, it’s amazing that people take to the movie.  For anyone is lives with disability the movie will resonate with their own poor treatment from some members of the medical profession. “The Best of Men” is also educational and inspiring.  It gave me a new appreciation of the value of sports in rehabilitation.

I highly recommend “The Best of Men”.

The movie is currently on Netflix and you can watch it free if you have the $8 monthly subscription. You can purchase the Best of Men from Amazon.com for $20. It would make an excellent addition to a disability support group’s media library. If you live in the USA, Amazon.com rent The Best of Men – Amazon rental for $3.99.

For more information on the movie, the Paralympic Games, DRr. Guttmann and his work on spinal cord injuries consult the BBC Two The Best of Men

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The Best of Men clip is copyright by the BBC and allowed use as Fair Dealing under the Canada Copyright Act, Section and Fair Use under the US Code 107.

29.1 Fair dealing for the purpose of criticism or review does not infringe copyright if the following are mentioned:
(a) the source – BBC, Whitby Davison Productions Ltd.
(b) if given in the source, the name of the
(i) author, in the case of a work, Director Tim Whitby, Screenwriter Lucy Gannon. Producer Harriet Davison
(ii) performer, in the case of a performer’s performance, – Dr Ludwig Guttmann – Eddie Marsan,  Private William Heath George Mackay , Dr Cowan Richard McCabe (other actors listed at http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01m1jqd )
(iii) maker, in the case of a sound recording, or
(iv) broadcaster, in the case of a communication signal – broadcast by the BBC. http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01m1jqd