A Doctor’s Sword grapples with an incredible true life story but only somewhat successfully, says MacDara Conroy
Here’s a short review for a short film. Gary Lennon’s documentary A Doctor’s Sword deals with the undeniably remarkable story of Cork doctor and Second World War veteran Aidan MacCarthy, and of the weapon named in the title, a samurai sword that still has pride of place on the wall of the family pub in Castletownbere.
The latter is unusual enough – a genuine katana in a West Cork pub, wha? – but the former? Well, from his drunken-night decision to join the ranks of the Royal Air Force on the eve of the war, MacCarthy’s experiences only get more incredible: evacuated in the Miracle of Dunkirk; rescuing the crew from the flaming wreckage of their crashed bomber on an RAF base; even surviving the second atomic bombing of Japan while a prisoner of war in Nagasaki – before finally returning home with that sword, a “farewell present” with a photograph of its mysterious previous owner.
Actually, the film – all 60-something minutes of it – tells MacCarthy’s story mostly second-hand, relying on anecdotes related by his widow Kathleen (should I give a trigger warning for racial language of a certain vintage?) and daughters Adrienne and Nicola, the latter of whom is followed on a trip to Japan to learn more about the origins of that unusual gift. Which is fine, that’s typical documentary framing, except there’s an awful lot of filler to her strand of the helix (artsy shots to evoke bewilderment in the Orient, that kind of old-fashioned thing) for a film that’s barely more than an hour long.
Padded out to make up the Irish Film Board’s minimum running time for a feature documentary, perhaps? Surely MacCarthy’s tale – much of which, in particular his hellish experiences in Asia, he recounts himself in his memoir A Doctor’s War, a book that only came about under doctor’s orders after a brain tumour caused by punishment beatings in the camps decades before – is rich enough on its own to make a meatier production, not one that moves at such a swift pace as to almost undermine the gravity of the frankly enormous story it grapples with here, and only somewhat successfully.
In fairness, a number of animated sequences throughout are very well done, and getting to hear the voice of MacCarthy himself, from an archival radio interview, really helps to evoke a sense of the mild-mannered man behind the larger-than-life legend. Alas, as beautifully executed as it is in parts, the film we get here plays more like a trailer for that life. A Doctor’s Sword is bound to wind up on RTÉ or the like some time in the near future, where I think it will feel much more at home.
A Doctor’s Sword opens Friday August 7th at the IFI in Dublin and the Omniplex in Cork