God Save the Patient

Britannia Hospital Directed by Lindsay Anderson At the Orson Welles

THE CYNICAL and streetwise crew in the Bronx district attorney's office have isolated a new cause of death that they've dubbed Lincolnitis. Named after Lincoln Hospital, an understaffed mainstay of its South Bronx neighborhood, Lincolnitis is said to afflict a wide range of patients who expire at Lincoln after entering with less-than-fatal maladies.

While Lincoln Hospital represents for many Bronx residents a sad comment on how our nation has allowed the namesake of a great American statesman to languish, underfunded and struggling to meet the health needs of its impoverished and largely minority clientele, Lindsay Anderson in Britannia Hospital has given us a bitingly, blackly humorous look at the other extreme. The good Britannia Hospital could hardly be better equipped, or more doted on by a loving government. The film, which spans just one-day--the 500th anniversary of the hospital--encompasses the dedication of the fabulously expensive Millar Center for Advanced Surgical Procedure, and the pomp-filled visit of Her Royal Highness the Queen Mother. But as Anderson makes abundantly clear, all the money in Arabia couldn't sweeten this tittle health facility.

The problems with the hospital are not those of backwardness, but of modernization. Bureaucracy runs rampant, to the point where getting a small corridor painted requires hours of cajoling the bumbling and infantile painters, and assuring them that their fine workmanship is not going unappreciated. Actually saving a life proves all but impossible. One elderly patient undergoes an enthusiastic bout of fits and seizures while the hospital orderlies argue with a nurse over the incentives necessary to convince them to wheel away this ailing charge, who has had the audacity to collapse at the end of a shift. Anderson has a gift for such comically macabre scenes: while the pale old man flails about helplessly, the orderlies argue with the nurse over whether they will get a side order of bacon in their extra-incentive breakfast.

So cynical is this view of "the system" that virtually every aspect of British society comes in for a powerful drubbing. The hospital's union leaders are a grotesque admixture of ideological charlatans and ranting four-year-olds. The three union leaders are prepared to close down the hospital in the name of equality, protesting that the private patients should not receive better food than the public ones. This sincere egalitarian critique is immediately compromised, however, when management allows the three union leaders to attend the catered reception for the Queen Mum.

The royal family itself comes under a scathingly iconoclastic attack that makes Joan Rivers look like a Buckingham Palace press agent. The palace protocol contingent, which readies the hospital for the Queen Mother's visit, consist of a midget (Marcus Powell) and a very prim and proper transvestite named Lady Felicity (John Bett). Yet, as the British humor magazine Punch noted in defense of the movie. Anderson ultimately remains just this side of decorum: when the Queen Mother finally does arrive--admittedly in a stretcher and ambulance to get her past the left-wing mobs protesting the fascist African dictator being treated inside--she is courteous and composed, and thoroughly respectable.


CONSISTENTLY, Anderson's most oblique attacks are the most potent. The creepy Dr. Millar (Graham Crowden), is a brilliant 1980s cross between Drs. Frankenstein and Strangelove. He sings the praises of modern science while placing a human brain in a blender and then proceeding to drink the elixir. He creates a patchwork-quilt human being out of the spare parts of patients, and when the head he has selected proves non-functional, he thinks nothing of lopping one off of an errant news reporter (Malcolm McDowell). Yet Anderson has by now amply made his point about the ominous potential of unchecked science. He need not give Dr. Millar the floor for a lengthy political lecture at the end of the movie.

Rife as it is with themes of bureaucratization, class warfare, and anti-modernism, the film is not so much political as anti-political. Anderson does not offer even one mildly sympathetic character, much less any sort of ideological direction. Instead, he offers us a hopelessly nihilistic world in which labor. Tories, royalty, science, and the radical left all compete for their chance to rule incompetently and corruptly.

In conjunction with Monty Python's recent inquiry into the meaning of life. Hospital Britannia seems to be part of British comedy's putative attempt to explain the ways of the world. Significantly, while neither movie manages to shed much light on the world situation, both do offer some particularly gory destructions of human vital organs. Yet surely life itself transcends liver-snatching and brain drinks.

Despite all the modern technology, high budgets, and advanced science, Anderson's highly bureaucratized health machine is really no better than the Bronx's Lincoln Hospital, and Anderson offers no suggestions as to how to improve either. All he seems to do is point out that while the modern condition is inherently hopeless, at least in Britannia Hospital you'll die laughing.