Note to readers: American Experience: The Polio Crusade can be purchased from the PBS Shop on 10 March
American Experience: The Polio Crusade, written, produced and directed by Sarah Colt, is in keeping with the lauded series’ reputation as a source for informative history lessons. Mixing archival footage with talking head interviews and eloquent narration, this is a mostly worthwhile entry that brings to life America’s decades-long battle with the viral disease.
The documentary anchors its historical examination in Wytheville, Virginia, which was “the site of the most severe polio epidemic in the United States per capita of the population”, according to Dr. Henry D. Holland. The film adroitly uses archival footage of youth, summertime and swimming to introduce not only the idyllic small town, but to set up that carefree environment as the very breeding ground for the disease.
As Wytheville residents Anne B. Crockett-Stark, Eleanor Sage, Betty Brown, and Eugene Warren discuss the onset of the epidemic, the stock footage takes on a more dangerous set of associations and eventually becomes the stuff of impending panic: shuttered businesses, two overworked ambulances and a rapidly rising polio case count. Warren describes the sense of near-hopelessness that gripped the town, powerless in the presence of an invisible enemy.
The scope of the documentary expands beyond Wytheville to include the various political and cultural developments that surrounded the polio epidemic. Particularly interesting is the telling of Basil O’Connor’s commitment to bring awareness and aid to the battle against polio through the formation of the March of Dimes.
While the documentary offers heartbreaking footage of the effects of the disease, it also suggests that extreme cases were rare. As a result, the March of Dimes is presented here as a triumph of public relations as much as it is a worthy cause. Newsreel footage and short films with Hollywood celebrities joining the cause support the idea that Americans were brought on board through successful advertising rather than compassion alone.
Regardless of how the awareness was created, polio was one of the most feared diseases in America, and the other major story thread here involves the confrontation of that fear through the race for a vaccine. The story of Dr. Jonas Salk is well known, but the film sets up his rivalry with Albert Sabin as a kind of high-stakes game between two very confident men. This is an entertaining premise that could form its own feature film because of the dramatic action inherent in the rivalry.
One aspect of the race for a vaccine that the documentary briefly addresses is the ethical quandary raised by Salk’s July 1952 human tests on sick children in institutions. As David Oshinsky says in the piece, informed consent as we know it today did not exist at the time. However, the documentary is strangely uninterested in investigating too deeply the lack of attention to ethics in that human research. Oshinsky’s brief reference seems obligatory as the piece quickly moves on to the successes of the tests and subsequent trials.
As a result of these elements—an insidious virus, a race for a vaccine, human experimentation—the subgenre the film documentary brings to mind is the increasingly popular bio-thriller. Several moments in, the film relies on the same narrative elements as recent blockbuster I Am Legend and would-be blockbusters The Happening and Blindness.
Audiences for those films are expected to suspend disbelief and connect their own fears to the imaginary scenarios playing out on the screen. But the natural advantage of non-fiction storytelling of this sort is that it doesn’t need to rely so much on the imagination of disaster as the remembrance of disaster. For this reason the living history represented by the interviewees affected by polio is the strongest material in the film.
Although the archival footage, interviews and narration are effective in delivering the history, all too often they fail to vividly bring it to life. The high points of the documentary are Kathryn Black’s story of her mother’s losing struggle with polio and Larry Becker’s courageous victory over the disease. With both of these interviews, the film combines valuable access to living history with active, present tense formal devices that revitalize the memories.
Interview material combines with reenactment footage reminiscent of the John Toll-lensed flashback scenes in The Thin Red Line to create an intensity of effect that is not present anywhere else in the film. In the wake of such strong moments, the more traditional American Experience narrative and visual techniques seem safe by comparison.
Overall, American Experience: The Polio Crusade continues the series’ tradition of showing and telling a chapter of history in a tightly organized fashion that respects the audience’s intelligence and inquisitiveness. However its most successful moments address an additional, creative portion of the consumer’s mind. By briefly taking liberties with the perceived formula, Colt’s film proves that the expression of history benefits from complex formal evolutions.