Blood and Bandages: Paramedics on film

Bringing out the dead - paramedicFor 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.

Mothers, Jugs, and Speed - paramedicIt 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.

Hamburger Hill - paramedicThe 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.

 

 

I retired, almost two years ago, then aged 60, and moved from a busy life and work in Central London, to Beetley, in rural Norfolk. After 22 years as an Emergency Medical Technician in the London Ambulance Service, followed by 11 years working for the Metropolitan Police in Control Rooms, it is going to take some adjustment to being retired, and not working shifts. My interests include photography, local and global history, and cinema and film. I have yet to find a home for my extensive DVD collection but look forward to revisiting many favourites, and discovering new ones.

16 thoughts on “Blood and Bandages: Paramedics on film

  1. Great article. I always feel that the Ambos (as we call them over here) are often overlooked for recognition where it’s due. I remember noting Bringing out the Dead when it came out, but never got around to seeing it. I’ll have to track it down and rectify that.

  2. Great article, and interesting subject. Come to think of it, I can’t remember watching any movies or tv shows featuring paramedics apart from possibly Grey’s Anatomy, where the paramedics are portrayed as secondary to the “real” heroes: the doctors. I’m not a huge Nicholas Cage fan but Bringing Out the Dead sounds promising nonetheless.

    • Thank LV. I am not a big fan of Cage either, though I like him in the darker roles (8MM) and this is one of them. Worth checking out, and easily accessible on Internet streaming sites, and on good old DVD too!
      Regards from England, Pete.

  3. Clearley the crowning glory of paramedic films was the 1981 obscure art film “The Cannonball Run”. Speeding across country, dealing with crisis after crisis, exploring the mental insanity some paramedics are prone to by having one of the characters believe he’s a superhero…

  4. Excellent article.My wife was a paramedic in Lima Peru for one year. Here is a review i wrote during that year (2010) of an the Argentinian film Carancho: With its factoid naming Argentina as being infamous for its automobile fatalities, “Carancho” begins seriously enough. Its opening scenes, depicting the daily grind of an ambulance doctor, give a fair impression of the frustration and stress of such a vocation. Martina Gusman, wife of the director Pablo Trapero, stars as Luján, a no-nonsense doctor who fights off lecherous patients even as she struggles with hospital bureaucracies to get them admitted for treatment. Her story is fascinating, and Trapero does an excellent job of drawing us into the heroic tenacity of her world. But then she meets Sosa, the carancho (vulture) of the title, a lawyer who not only chases ambulances for a fast dollar, but helps people stage accidents to defraud insurance companies. As played by Ricardo Darin, a veteran of television soap operas who, notwithstanding his failure to learn the first thing about acting, has become one of Argentina’s most sought-after leading men, Sosa is a cipher of a jerk, and it makes no sense that the smart and attractive Luján would have anything to do with him, let alone follow him into the cesspool of gore and improbable plot complications that turn this initially promising film into a useless puzzle as to who is bashing whose head in and why. A huge disappointment from Trapero, whose career began so promisingly with 1999’s “Crane World.”

    • Thanks Bill. In many ways, I would like to have included the 2005 Romanian film ‘The Death of Mr Lazarescu’, as much of it is set in an ambulance, and is incredibly realistic. However, it is a film about a failing country, and the systems that fail with it, so the ambulance crew is only incidental.
      I can’t see a link to ‘Carancho’ here, but I will seek it out.
      Regards from England, Pete.

      • i was going to mention Lazarescu also, but refrained for the reasons you did. it is an excellent film, however, and the problems with the health care system it raises are universal in poor countries. My wife spent many crucial life and death hours getting shuttled from one hospital to another. Here in peru, they dont even have toilet paper in the hospitals. Link to Carancho: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1542852/

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