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Film review: Dr. Bethune

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"Dr. Bethune," a 1990 Canadian feature that is just making its way into American theaters, offers a fine lead role for Donald Sutherland - though, ironically, it's one he has played before, in two Canadian TV movies in the mid-1970s.

Originally titled "Bethune: The Making of a Hero" for Canadian theaters, "Dr. Bethune" is the story of Norman Bethune, a controversial humanist doctor during the first third of this century, who spearheaded socialized medicine and was instrumental in the development of mobile surgical units to treated wounded soldiers in the battlefield.

As played by Sutherland he's a complicated man - a womanizer, an alcoholic and an egomaniac, as interested in his personal pleasures as humanitarian pursuits. And in this film, he is extremely passionate about both.

Directed with an old-fashioned epic quality by Philip Borsos ("The Grey Fox," "One Magic Christmas"), especially in the China sequences, in which the location photography and use of extras is quite remarkable, the story of Bethune's adventures (he is, at one point, a medical adviser to Mao Tse-Tung during the revolution) make for high drama. (Helen Mirren as Bethune's wife and Helen Shaver as a missionary in China are good, but this is Sutherland's picture all the way.)

There is a serious technical problem, however, which will mute audience enjoyment of all this. Continuity and editing problems abound as the film shifts back and forth in time and place, and as characters come and go without explanation. (I was particularly confused by the Frenchwoman played by Anouk Aimee, of "A Man and a Woman" fame . . . though it was nice to see her again.)

As a result, the audience may be more frustrated than entertained.

Still, it's worth a look if you are a Sutherland fan or if the subject matter is of interest.

"Dr. Bethune" is not rated but is in PG-13 territory, with vulgar language and profanity, wartime violence and hospital gore.