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Battling Polio in 'A Fight to the Finish'

Engaging documentary follows survivors, caregivers and the debilitating disease itself, before and after the vaccines.


"A Fight to the Finish," which screens at the Monica 4-Plex Saturday and Sunday at 11 a.m., opens with a shot of a 1950s pastel kitchen. The nostalgic mood is swiftly broken, however, when over an Atomic Age-style clock-radio comes the once-familiar and dreaded words of a polio alert announcing public swimming-pool closures. The widow of Albert Sabin, creator of the oral polio vaccine, recalls her husband's delight in a little neighbor boy who was vaguely aware that Sabin had done something important and who asked him, "What is polio?" Mrs. Sabin says that's just what her husband wanted to hear--that a once-terrifying disease could be forgotten.

Yet this informative, engaging documentary, directed by Ken Mandel, who produced it with Dr. Tony Herring, chief of staff at the Texas Scottish Rite Hospital, makes two things clear: One, we have long had vaccines making it possible to wipe the disease from the planet, but developing nations lag in immunization; and two, there's hope that vaccines can be created that will eradicate other deadly diseases such as AIDS.

Beyond this, "A Fight to the Finish" provides a succinct history of the disease, which originates in excrement, and how it's transmitted via oral ingestion, which is why bodies of water--swimming pools, lakes, etc.--are a primary means of infection. Framing this history of polio, which manifests itself in a swiftly escalating paralysis that can render the victim unable to breathe without mechanical aid, are the inspiring experiences of survivors and healers.

FDR Fell Ill in 1921

Polio occurs with varying intensity, with most patients eventually overcoming paralysis, although they may be left crippled to varying degrees. Some limp, others may have twisted hands, but most can be helped with intensive therapy, although they will experience periods of pain and weakness throughout their lives.

Nowadays, it's often said that every disease needs a poster child to help raise funds to fight it, and polio--or infantile paralysis, as it was once known--had none other than President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, stricken in 1921 while swimming along the shores of his vacation home on Canada's Campobello Island. In that more genteel era of the media, newsreel cameramen and press photographers took pains not to photograph FDR in a wheelchair or to reveal, although he wore leg braces to stand for speeches and public appearances, that he could not walk unassisted. (He could easily get around on crutches but suspected that being seen using them would prevent him from winning the presidency.) Despite this concern for the appearance of strength and health, FDR made no secret of his disease and led the fight against polio, creating the March of Dimes--a named coined by comedian Eddie Cantor. (The film's title comes from an FDR remark in a 1944 speech urging eradication of the disease.)

"A Fight to the Finish," which has reminiscences from two FDR granddaughters, Elizabeth Seagraves and Chandler Lindsey, and from the late Jonas Salk, creator of the first successful polio vaccine, also calls attention to Sister Kenny, the crusading Australian nurse who had great success in treating polio victims with hot wet packs even though she insisted that polio was a disease of the muscles when in fact it strikes the spinal cord via the bloodstream.

Two remarkable local women appear in "A Fight to the Finish": Helen Hislop, USC professor of physical therapy, and Dr. Jacquelin Perry, chief of polio service at Rancho Los Amigos in Downey. If ever you were fortunate enough to hear these dedicated dynamos give speeches, you will never forget them or what they have to say about the importance of their profession. The Monica 4-Plex is at 1332 2nd St., Santa Monica. Information: (310) 394-9741.

Wednesdays in Croatia

The American Cinematheque's Wednesdays in Croatia series winds up Dec. 20 at the Egyptian with Ante Babaja's 1967 classic "The Birch Tree" at 7 p.m. It will be followed by a double feature at 9:15: Ivan Sataj's 1993 "See You," a drama about war's impact starring Goran Visnjic, who will appear with the film (which was unavailable for preview); and Goran Rusinovic's provocative 1997 "Mondo Bobo," one of the first truly independent Croatian productions. The film is inspired by a folk painting of a beautiful but frail young peasant woman weakened by the birth of a child who dies at 10 days old, and who soon dies herself from ignorant and insensitive treatment at the hands of her hardy relatives. Yet her spirit, ethereal and noble, seems to live on in a birch tree. This memorable film, harsh yet exquisite, is a beautifully wrought fable of unthinking callousness followed by profound regret and sorrow.

Boldly bravura in style and inspired by an actual incident, "Mondo Bobo" is an expose of postwar corruption in Zagreb in which a rugged, rangy photographer (Sven Medvesek) winds up an escaped killer on the run. The result is a tense yet poignant thriller.

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