Donald Brittain

film 6 of 6

Tommy Douglas: Keeper of the Flame

Film Review by Dean Duncan May 26, 2015

This seems to be two films. Donald Brittain wrote it, and he brings to the project his customary conceptual clarity, mingled with his characteristic power and poetry. The second film is much lesser, which might have something do to with Elise Swerhone, otherwise known as the director. Unlike The Thing From Another World or Super 8, Tommy Douglas… doesn’t seem particularly helped out by the presence of a pre-existing, pre-eminent artistic sensibility. There’s none of Brittain’s visual elegance, none of his juxtapositionist’s way with metaphor and unexpected connection. Instead, mortar and bricks.

A pity, maybe, but this is obviously still a story worth honouring and remembering, even if it is plainly rendered. In fact Douglas’s story is deep and wide enough, and resonant enough, to be a bit indestructible. What a man! A little Scot, and a boxer. A Baptist, with ministerial aspirations. This last is extraordinarily important, and so little considered by too many on that side of the ideological divide, so absent in so many of their caricatured takes on this issue. The first and last concrete manifestation of Douglas’s pastoral aspiration was the idea of universal health care. That’s definitively Scots as well, as great initiatives from single payer plans to the Clydeside movement to the Griersonian documentary were all just as informed by the New Testament as they were by Karl Marx.

That health care story is sufficiently interesting in itself, but there’s so much more to it, so much more to this life. The CCF. A provincial premier, and for nearly twenty years! And then the shocking, heroic accomplishment of a bunch of seeming or so-called socialist reforms that now seem like incontrovertible human rights.

The story of the creation of the NDP/New Democratic Party is really interesting! The great man’s fortunes dropped or detoured after his greatest accomplishments, which is what makes life and history so maddening and satisfying. We’ve got to look at the whole! The way Douglas talks, engages, continues, faces and responds to disappointment—look at him, so easily and joyfully quoting poetry—goes far toward making him much more than a paragon. He’s a complexity, a multiplicity, a man of parts. And then, in the end, he’s a paragon anyway. Look at his heroic courage and constancy, during the October crisis. Look at him so courteously flaying those awful, morbidly inquisitive American reporters when he goes and gets his daughter Shirley (Kiefer Sutherland’s mum, if you’re interested), out of conscience’s prison, down in the US.

As he moves toward the end Douglas diminishes, but he never fades. He had his staunch opponents, and viewers of this film may well join them. But I’m reminded of George Orwell’s words at the end of a famous, not altogether approving summary of Mohandas Gandhi’s life. “[R]egarded simply as a politician, and compared with the other leading political figures of our time, how clean a smell he has managed to leave behind!

Scotland!  Canada!  The Left! The Gospel!