DOCUMENTARY REVIEW: A Doctor's Sword
Special Presentation of the Second Annual Irish American Movie Hooley
“A DOCTOR’S SWORD”-- 5 STARS
A masterfully powerful documentary, “A Doctor’s Sword,” chronicling the reflective and jarring tale of Irish World War II veteran Aidan MacCarthy, recently played as part of the second annual Irish American Movie Hooley at the Gene Siskel Film Center in Chicago. One half of this fine film is an astounding you-wouldn't-believe-it-if-I-told-you true story of World War II survival that would make "Unbroken" look like a nursery rhyme. Its calmer other half takes place in a present day where two proud families and two proud countries are forever bonded by shared history.
Raised in Castletownbere on the Beara Peninsula in County Cork, Aidan MacCarthy is the only known World War II veteran to survive both the Battle of Dunkirk in France and the atomic bombing of Nagasaki in Japan. In between that time, Aidan MacCarthy spent many stops and pitfalls as a prisoner of war in some of the harshest conditions in the Pacific theater. In his own words speaking on the greatest characteristics that enabled his survival, he stated his "Irish Catholic heritage, my family background, and lots and lots of luck."
The crux that makes this veteran story unique isn't the story he brought home, but one particular, for lack of a better word, souvenir. When MacCarthy returned to several commendations after years as a POW, he brought with him an Japanese samurai sword given to him by one of his captors. He spoke little of his experiences or how he came by this heirloom that went on to be displayed at his family business until 1979 when he published his memoirs, “A Doctor’s War.”
The documentary, written and directed by Gary Lennon, follows his surviving daughters, Nicola and Adrienne, as they look to trace the Japanese history of their father’s plight and the origins of the sword 68 years later. The film deftly meshes the modern quest with Aidan’s own narrated testimonial of his incredible survival, culled from radio interviews. When the story goes beyond archival wartime footage, hand-drawn animations from artist Ronan Coyle fill in the visuals described by MacCarthy, completing a wondrous visual presentation.
Aidan’s own story is inspiring and remarkable all its own and, to the film’s great credit, the present-day journey of Nicola is equally moving. Well-woven in structure, nonjudgemental in its observation, and extremely respectful of peaceful goals, “A Doctor’s Sword” is a richly pristine and compelling chronicle and time capsule.
LESSON #1: LEADING SURVIVAL DURING WAR-- It is a small miracle any time a soldier can return to their homeland after a conflict overseas. The dangers, risks, and threats are innumerable. Aidan's path to survival was beset by an unimaginable level of obstacles as a prisoner of war. He flirted with death more times than any man should and led others to the same survival. His skill and ability as a doctor served him well.
LESSON #2: WHEN THE UNSPOKEN IS SPOKEN-- Aiden returned home from the war and didn't speak of his experiences, understandably so. When time passed and he did open up, his retelling and novel unearthed an incredible story that deserved to be told. It's a moving experience that makes you believe in his pillars of faith, family, and luck. Imagine if he never did share his story. It wouldn't mean that it didn't happen, but it wouldn't grown into the shared experience it became.
LESSON #3: COUNTRIES FOREVER LINKED BY HONOR AND COMBAT-- The last time this lesson was used on this site was in the linkage between Australia and Turkey for World War I seen in Russell Crowe's "The Water Diviner." It applies greatly here towards the benevolent journey the MacCarthy family takes to connect the honorable history of their patriarch with the equally impacted and respected Japanese roots of his captors, including the man who gifted Aiden his heirloom sword.