Take a season of Doctor Kildare TV skeins, throw in a half-dozen classic Hollywood hospital perennials, but do them all up with great taste and visual, cinematic flair, and you have the Akira Kurosawa pic, Red Beard. It’s hokum lifted to the highest denominator, the banal made into near art by great skill and craftsmanship by the Japanese master.
The over three-hour running time is an undeniable but adjustable defect: much of the film’s initial footage could be elegantly elided for major effect.
The main plot [from Shugoro Yamamoto’s novel] is the old chestnut about the enterprising young doctor and the misunderstood old curmudgeon, in this case ‘Red Beard’ (Toshiro Mifune). Slowly, as Kurosawa interweaves several plots, understanding for his methods grows as human relations triumph over sheer medical knowhow. [Pic is set in 1822, in Endo.]
Here and there, as noted, the plot drifts into over-familiar waters, but elsewhere it soars to stylistic and heartwarming heights which show that this is not just the routine ward drama, but has higher scope and targets. Kurosawa has blended handkerchief elements with drama shock (there’s a harrowing anesthetic operation scene), humor and lively action (a knock-down, drag-out fight).
Thesping is uniformly good, with Mifune and Yuzo Kayama standout in the two leads.