An Enemy of the People (1978) USA / G / 103 min / 6.8 IMDB / IMDB rank 31,740
By Roger Malcolm
Refusing to accept the truth out of fear of their own demise, an entire town turns an honest man into ‘An Enemy of the People’. The setting is a small coastal town in Norway during the late 19th century, aspiring to become a tourist hotbed thanks to its municipal hot springs. The film is based on Arthur Miller‘s adaption of Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen‘s 1882 play, written by Alexander Jacobs and directed by George Schaefer and stars The King of Cool Steve McQueen as Doctor Thomas Stockmann.
McQueen sheds his tough guy action persona and disguises himself in a role with long hair, shaggy beard and glasses. We’re first introduced to Dr. Stockmann when he comes through the front door of his home carrying his two laughing children in his arms as he spins around placing them on the floor. As he removes his scarf, then coat, the children plead “No daddy, all the way!” – to which he teasingly replies “No, no, no. You’re as heavy as elephants. You’ll kill me.”
Awaiting Dr. Stockmann’s arrival is his wife Catherine played by Bibi Andersson, his brother Peter Stockmann played by Charles Durning, and some dinner guests. We learn the Doctor has a bit of news he wants to publish in the local newspaper about the local hot springs. Only when his brother Peter, the local Mayor, learns of this, Peter becomes frustrated at being out of the loop and starts to suspect trouble. Peter is offended by the praise the guests speak of the Doctor, causing him to verbally insult his own brother and depart, complaining of the lack of tact in individuals with no background.
The Doctor, having asked for any mail multiple times since arriving home, sits down to the dinner table with his 3 guests, 2 sons and wife when his daughter enters carrying a letter she intercepted from the mailman on her way to school. The Doctor reprimands her for not allowing the mailman to perform his job as he opens the letter, exiting into his office. The Doctor returns with bad news, news that the local hot springs the town expects to be a monumental tourist attraction turns out to be full of infectious organic matter. Shocked at first and seemingly devastated, they all soon start praising the Doctor as a hero for discovering such truth.
The next day the Mayor pays the Doctor a visit, demanding he not go through with announcing the news as it will destroy their own town. The Doctor declares “The water is poison Peter. We’re getting fat peddling filth and corruption to innocent people… My convictions will change when the water changes.” Only the Mayor decides to stir the people of the town against his own brother. Slowly the Doctor comes to realize the effects of his brother’s efforts as the people of the town go from trying to find ways to honour his courageous work of liberating the truth to instead deciding to use any excuse to debase every ounce of credibility for which he ever stood.
In a powerful performance, Steve McQueen proves to anyone that ever doubted his acting ability that not only was he the biggest movie star the silver screen ever saw, but that he had the acting ability to back it up by choosing a role and story that will make the blood pump – even boil – inside any man or woman that stands for truth and justice. McQueen brings his unique style of integrity to the Doctor as he comes under attack from the town consisting of a “solid majority” of two-faced, jelly-spined hypocrites instigated by the tyrannical Mayor. With his family ostracized alongside him, he decides to make a stand after he tells his wife in an emotional moment “When you’re right, don’t run away Catherine.”
“Just shows you if you go out and fight for the truth, never wear your best pants.”