The 1938 Best Picture nominee, The Citadel, is about a doctor who briefly loses his way but — don’t worry! — he eventually finds it again.
The film opens with the following title card:
This motion picture is a story of individual characterizations and is in no way intended as a reflection on the great medical profession which has done so much towards beating back those forces of nature that retard the physical progress of the human race.
Having gotten that out of the way, it goes on to tell the story of Dr. Andrew Manson (Robert Donat), an idealistic British doctor who serves his apprenticeship in rural England and who eventually ends up in Wales, trying to figure out why all of the miners seem to developing a mysterious cough. Along the way, he marries the always supportive Christine (Rosalind Russell, doing a lot with an underwritten role). Unfortunately, Dr. Manson discovers that being a doctor is not always an easy life. He’s frequently underpaid and underappreciated. His patients are often suspicious and argumentative and the medical establishment is hesitant to accept change. When the frustrated Dr. Manson returns to London, he discovers that he can make a fortune by working as a doctor for the type of wealthy people who are always willing to spend a little extra money on the latest fad treatment. With the encouragement of the decadent Dr. Lawford (Rex Harrison), Manson abandons his old ways and he’s finally able to make some money off of patients who will basically do anything that he tells them to do. However, a personal tragedy forces Manson to reexamine his life and consider why he became a doctor in the first place.
The Citadel is a coming-of-age film, one the follows Dr. Manson from the time when he’s a young doctor in need of a mentor until he himself is the one who is doing the mentoring. It gets off to a bit of a slow start. To be honest, I found Manson’s early apprenticeship to be almost as tedious as Dr. Manson found it to be. Things pick up a bit once Manson is on his own, fighting for the rights of miners or trying to find some sort of ethical justification for only treating the rich. If Robert Donat seems oddly hesitant during the first half of the film, he’s undeniably compelling during the second half. Though Dr. Manson has many scenes in which he rails against ignorance and injustice, Donat wisely resists the temptation to go overboard while portraying his indignation and, as a result, The Citadel never slips into melodrama. Donat doesn’t play Manson as being a crusader but instead as just being an often frustrated professional who knows that he’s being prevented from doing his best work. Director King Vidor, who made several films about thwartded visionaries, was never a particularly subtle director but Donat’s performance goes a long way towards making Vidor’s messianic tendencies tolerable.
Donat gets good support from the rest of the cast, especially Ralph Richardson in the role of his sometimes mentor. That said, Donat is still definitely the main reason to watch The Citadel, which is an uneven thought ultimately worthwhile film. The Citadel is very much a film of 1938 and it’s slow pace, earnest seriousness, and dialogue-heavy style will undoubtedly be an issue for some people watching the film in 2021. Watching a film like The Citadel today requires a willingness to adjust to the aesthetics of a past age. This is a film that will definitely be best-appreciated by those who aren’t unfamiliar with spending an entire weekend watching TCM. But you know what? It’s good to watch old movies. You can’t understand the present or prepare for the future if you’re not willing to look at the past.
The Academy nominated The Citadel for Best Picture. It was one of the first British films to be so honored (though not the first, that honor went to The Private Life of Henry VIII). However, it lost to Frank Capra’s You Can’t Take It With You. Though Robert Donat lost the Oscar for Best Actor to Spencer Tracy in Boys Town, he would be rewarded the very next year for his performance in Goodbye Mr. Chips. Among those who Donat defeated was Clark Gable, nominated for playing Rhett Butler in Gone With The Wind, a characters that Margaret Mitchell always said she envisioned as being played by Robert Donat.