The Physician (2013, dir. Philip Stölzl) is based on a best-selling novel of the same name by Noah Gordon. It opens in England in 1012, when a young boy named Robert Cole…
Ok, hold it right there. I can’t even get past the main character’s name without having to comment. In 1012, there were no English people named Robert Cole. ‘Robert’ is a French name originally, and this film starts more than half a century before the Norman Conquest of English caused the importation of French names into England. Also, surnames like Cole won’t be in use for about another 300 years.
It’s a serious problem when a historical film, based on a historical novel, can’t even bother to give its protagonist a name that a person could actually have had during the period in question. The main character should have been called something like Aethelstan or Aedward or something like that, a good old-fashioned Anglo-Saxon name like the ones used in England in the period before the Norman Conquest. And the fact that Noah Gordon couldn’t be bothered to do the elementary research it would have taken to come up with an accurate name speaks volumes about the source material for this film. I haven’t read the novel, just a summary of it on Wikipedia, but it seems like the screenwriter was about as free with his adaptation of the novel as the novel is with the period it’s dealing with, and the result is a total shitstorm of inaccuracy that left me feeling very stabby. Within five minutes the film had me making such angry noises that my husband prudently left the room lest I accidentally injure him in a momentary fit of rage.
Ok, let’s see if I can get through today’s post without triggering an aneurism.
Ok, the film opens in 1012 with a young boy who works…
Crap. First we need to cover the prologue text.
“In the Dark Ages the art of healing developed in the Roman era has been widely forgotten in Europe. There are no doctors, no hospitals, only traveling barbers with poor knowledge. At the same time on the other side of the world medical science is prospering.”
So, medieval people live in the Dark Ages, when no one ever bathed or turned on a light. We know they’re ignorant because they’ve forgotten Roman medicine when the ‘other side of the world’, which turns out to be Persia, hasn’t. So, got that? Medieval people are dumb. All they have for doctors are traveling barbers who don’t actually know anything, while other people living someplace else still have medicine.
Ok, the film opens in 1012 with a young boy who works as a miner, exchanging whatever it is he’s digging out of the ground for lumps of bread that he takes home to give to his mother and younger siblings. Because medieval people use children as miners and are too stupid to have money, so they just trade rocks for bread.
On the way home one day, young Robert stops to see a traveling barber-surgeon (Stellan Skarsgard, in a role credited simply as ‘Barber’, so that’s what I’ll call him), who acts like a traveling salesman at an American county fair around 1900.
Grrr! I can’t even get three sentences into this summary without having another issue! Technically there were barber-surgeons in 1000, but they were a brand new thing at the time, and probably mostly based in monasteries, not wandering around in covered wagons acting like showmen. But this film doesn’t give a shit about things like that because it’s not really set in 1012. It’s set in Generic Olde Tyme Medieval England, where nothing changed for 1000 years because it was the Dark Ages. So 11th century people can have 14th century names and dress like 14th century people and live in 13th century architecture because history is just something we teach in high schools so high schools can have an excuse to hire a football coach.
Let me take a break and play with my stress ball for a minute.
Soon thereafter Robert’s unfortunate mother is feeding them dinner when she has a momentary bout of pain. And we all know what that means. It means she’s about to die from “side sickness”, which is what they used to call appendicitis back in Generic Olde Tyme Medieval England before the disease had even been recognized medically. Rob runs to fetch Barber, but by the time they get back home, the local priest has wandered in and given her Last Rites and then declares that nothing can possibly help her except witchcraft and when Rob says maybe Barber can do something, the priest accuses Rob of challenging the authority of the Holy Church because GAAHHH! I hate this film already and we’re not even five minutes into it!
This is when my husband left the room. Maybe you should too.
How many fucking clichés about how bad the Middle Ages were can we fit into one five-minute sequence? Quite a lot, it seems. Where’s my stress ball?
<squish squish squish squish>
Ok, so where was I? Oh yeah, mom’s just died. The priest parcels out Rob’s younger siblings to local strangers, and bribes them to take the kids by offering them all the utensils. Then the priest claims the rest of the property as his fee for his services and leaves because apparently Rob’s mom has no earthly relatives who might intervene and no one cares that that means that the property would legally belong to Rob and his siblings, because they hadn’t invented law yet in Generic Olde Tyme Medieval England.
Well, you can probably guess that, in a movie called The Physician, when Barber is the only remaining character left for Rob to interact with, Rob is going to wind up traveling with Barber.
So we flash forward an unspecified number of years, maybe a decade. So now it’s about 1022. Rob’s an adult, more or less, and played by Tom Payne. He’s become Barber’s apprentice.
URK! GAK! AARGH! There’s no such thing as apprentices in 1022 in England! It’s a concept developed by guilds, which don’t exist yet. But this is Generic Olde Tyme Medieval England, so they can apparently have any concepts they need to.
Shit! I just ruptured my stress ball.
Ok, deep breaths. It’s ok. You can do this.
So Rob and Barber travel around long enough for us to see just how crappy medicine was back then. We get to see a tooth extraction with a pair of pliers. During the extraction, Rob suddenly gets a strange feeling, just like the feeling he had when he touched his mom the night she died, and he realizes the guy who just lost a tooth is going to die soon. Barber laughs him off, and they go off to romp in something that’s either a brothel or a tavern held in an old Roman sewer. It could be either, because neither such institution existed in the 11th century, so take your pick.
Then the unfortunate dental patient turns up dead, and the locals immediately starts screaming that tooth extraction is a form of witchcraft because EVERYONE IN GENERIC OLDE TYME MEDIEVAL ENGLAND IS STUPID! APPARENTLY THE ONLY TIME PEOPLE DIE OR HAVE TEETH EXTRACTED IS WHEN WITCHES ARE INVOLVED. God I hate this movie.
That sound you’re hearing is me smacking my head against the wall because I don’t have a stress ball to squeeze anymore and I’m all out of my meds. Go to your happy place, Andrew. It will be ok.
Of all the tropes about medieval society, this one perhaps annoys me more than any other, because it suggests that medieval people were utterly ignorant of basic facts of life and were therefore inclined to suspect supernatural forces at work whenever anything they disliked happens. Medieval people were less knowledgeable than we are today about things involving science and medicine, but they weren’t complete morons. In fact, they were just as smart as we are; they just had a different knowledge base to work with. They knew what tooth extraction involved, and that it wasn’t evil magic.
But anyway, they attack Barber and Rob and burn the wagon and burn Barber’s hands, which means that Rob has to take over the medical practice while Barber recovers. So we get to watch Rob perform his first amputation when a guy is brought in with a broken toe. And when he does it, the guy literally says “My first amputation!” like having body parts removed is a traditional rite of passage in Generic Olde Tyme Medieval England.
I hate this movie so much.
Well, eventually Barber develops a cataract, and lucky for him and Rob, they run across a family of Jews somewhere that includes a physician who knows how to couch cataracts, which rather astoundingly is an actual medieval practice that the film accidentally knows about. Rob is astonished by how much the physician knows, and the physician tells him that he studied with Ibn Sina, a genuine 11th century Persian scholar. Why this smart Jew has decided to travel half-way across the known world to treat stupid patients in Generic Olde Tyme Medieval England is never explained, nor is how he manages to do medicine without getting accused of witchcraft.
Rob decides that he’s going to travel all the way to Isfahan in Persia because he wants to learn medicine and he can’t do that in England because everyone in Medieval England is stupid except the Jews and because Rob probably hates Generic Olde Tyme Medieval England every bit as much as I do. So he sets off on a journey to Persia. I’ll cover that in my next post because right now, after only 20 minutes of film, I am so full of hate and stabbiness that I’m pretty sure I feel an aneurism coming on.
Want to Know More?
No, trust me you don’t. Seriously, you don’t. Please, don’t make me do this.