For most of my life, I have only ever seen ambulance crews and paramedics portrayed in two ways on film. They were either the much respected platoon medic, featured in so many war films, particularly American ones, or the laughable buffoons of English comedies, in particular, the ‘Carry On’ series. In the latter, ambulancemen were usually seen as incompetent; losing patients out the back doors, dropping them off stretchers, or leering at nurses. They never once had a featured role, and generally just got used for filling a scene.
In war movies, they were usually called ‘Doc’, and seemed to be loved by everyone in their unit. Always recklessly brave, in their efforts to save their comrades, they are usually killed, or badly wounded, before the film’s end. This tradition continued into modern war films, notably in Hamburger Hill (1987), where Courtney B. Vance plays ‘Doc’ Johnson, and Saving Private Ryan (1998), in which Giovanni Ribisi has a starring role, as Medic Wade.
In 1976, a few years before I joined the London Ambulance Service, this all changed, with the release of the film Mother, Jugs, and Speed. This was a comedy about ambulance crews in America; competing companies trying to get to jobs first, to earn the money paid by the patient, or the insurers, for transport to hospital. It had a stellar cast, including Harvey Keitel, Raquel Welch, and Bill Cosby. Larry Hagman was there too, as well as Allen Garfield, L.Q. Jones, and Bruce Davison. This was something new. A mainstream film about an obscure subject, which to my knowledge, had never been covered previously. OK, it was silly stuff, with the occasional ‘message’ about health care, but it had finally taken the Ambulance Service into the foreground, and generated interest in what the crews had to do.
It was left to television to take the next step, with the troubled lives of paramedics featured in programmes like Casualty (1986 – ) in the UK, and ER (1994-2009) in the USA. By the time these shows were airing, I was already long in the job, and less sympathetic to the portrayal of our efforts in this way. For the sake of action and drama, many of the plot lines were simply ludicrous, and the medics found themselves in situations that just would never happen.
This changed in 1999, with the release of Bringing Out The Dead. This film, of a book I had never read, finally got inside the reality of life as a paramedic. Despite fantasy sequences, and some scenes for dramatic effect, Nicholas Cage’s portrayal of troubled, burnt-out New York medic Frank, really resonated. We finally had something to point at, and to say, ‘look, that’s what it is like’. Supporting roles from John Goodman, Ving Rhames, and Tom Sizemore, simply piled on the excellence, leaving this film as the only one to ever get anywhere close to the reality of doing this job, in an inner-city environment.
The years drifted by, with TV once again taking the reins, portraying ambulance crews not only in serial dramas, but also in documentaries, with ‘fly on the wall’ filming, and unedited reality. These have proved to be popular with audiences, and continue to this day. Despite a small crop of forgettable films, straight to video fodder from the USA, the only recent film to feature the everyday life of a paramedic starred the usually marvellous Kathy Bates, in the 2005 TV film, Ambulance Girl. This is a feel-good movie, and couldn’t be further removed from the sentiments of Bringing out the Dead. Bates plays a successful woman, who is suffering from depression. In an effort to change her life, she gives up her writing career, and trains to become an EMT, with the local Fire Department, in small-town America. It is lightweight stuff for sure, but does show some of the highs and lows of life in the job, and at least it is keeping up the profile of a service that is often overlooked.
Compare the above, with the numerous films showing the lives of Firemen. From The Bells Go Down, in 1943, to World Trade Center (sic) in 2006, Firemen have been shown (and rightly so) as brave, overworked, loyal, and underpaid. They walk into dangerous situations, and sometimes lose their lives in the process. Many films have been made about them, and most are fitting tributes.
I just wish that there were some more about the ambulance crews, and paramedics, so long in the shadows.