Who is Stan Brock? Raised in England by distant parents (his father, a government official, moved the family 26 times) before being placed in a boarding school as his parents set out for what was then British Guiana, Brock joined the family there at age 12, but by 14 he had left them behind and ventured south, deep into the Amazon rainforest, where he became a cowboy on the world’s largest cattle ranch, riding barefoot like his fellow vaqueros across unforgiving terrain herding the ranch’s 30,000 heads of cattle, a solitary lifestyle he maintained for decades. The television series Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom visited and host Marlin Perkins went wild for the square-jawed Brit and enticed him to come to Chicago and become cohost of the program, where every Sunday he took tens of millions of viewers to the deepest wilderness where he came face to face with nature’s most dangerous beasts.
From neglected child to Amazonian cowboy to TV presenter: the first few decades of Stan Brock’s life were indeed a wild ride, but that’s not the most important work of his life, nor the part he’s interested in talking about. In 1992, thinking back on a fellow vaquero who died of influenza at the remote ranch, Brock imagined Remote Area Medical, a charity that would bring medicine to areas far away from civilization. Quickly, Brock’s aim shifted to helping a different underserved population: the millions of uninsured Americans desperate for medical care. RAM sweeps into a city, takes over a large building, and for one weekend offers medical treatment to as many patients as possible, free of charge.
Medicine Man director Paul Michael Angell resists the urge to put too much emphasis on the derring-do of Brock’s early years, instead crafting a full portrait of the man’s incredible life. The perspective shifts back and forth between RAM events—particularly a 2012 event in Sacramento and a 2014 visit to the Jackie Joyner-Kersee Center in East St. Louis—and his younger years. The wildest thing about these early passages is how much of it is on film (moving film, not still photos), from brief footage of his time in England (in the late 1940s!) to the young Brock lassoing and hog-tying bucking bulls on the ranch. But the action is well-balanced with the emotion of the RAM sequences, where dozens of physicians, nurses, dentists, and optometrists treat thousands of patients over the course of a few days, offering everything from glasses to tooth extractions to cancer screenings to surgeries to people who are in pain and desperate for care, some of whom haven’t seen a doctor or dentist in years, if ever—in one extreme example, a man is seen who was told he had a testicular tumor two years earlier but lacked the money to do anything about it.
And at the center of it all is Brock, still sharp, square-jawed, and steely-eyed in his 70s. He founded and ran RAM for decades out of an abandoned schoolhouse in Knoxville, Tenn., that he rented for a dollar, drawing no salary, sleeping on a mat on the floor, subsisting on lentil-and-kale soup, putting every penny of donations and every waking hour of his time into the RAM cause. To say he’s an inspiration is an understatement.
Another topic Angell keeps burbling in the undercurrent is politics, both the kind that interferes with RAM and the kind that created the need for RAM to exist in the first place. Brock expresses his rightful frustration at state medical boards who refuse to let medical professionals cross state lines to provide treatment in a state other than where they’re licensed, even for free. Angell also includes a brief but thorough rundown of the history of healthcare in American politics, including speeches from every Democratic president from Franklin D. Roosevelt to Barack Obama expressing the need for universal healthcare, and every Republican president up through Trump pushing back against it. This isn’t twisting the facts for a political point, though: it’s all presented matter-of-factly in the men’s own words, though that doesn’t make it any less frustrating.
A good documentary is one that either tells a good story or succeeds in using what it documents to make a cogent point, and Medicine Man succeeds on both accounts. Brock, of course, has a one-of-a-kind life story, but the political point of the film is just as compelling. The more time we spend at RAM events, the more the film starts to feel a bit like a 96-minute commercial for RAM (there’s a good chance you’ll want to cut them a check by the end of it—most charities would kill for this kind of compelling, fawning coverage), but the larger point (which Angell makes clear) is that there are literally tens of millions of our fellow Americans who are suffering due to their lack of access to healthcare, and while Brock’s work is a godsend and it’s amazing that these exhausted medical professionals help as many as they can, it’s just a drop in the bucket of what’s needed—and of what we could do if we had the willpower. “I would like to see us work ourselves out of a job,” Brock says at one point. He pauses, then concludes, “I don’t see that happening in my lifetime.” The most painful part is that well before he says it, we see the second half of that sentence coming. | Jason Green
Medicine Man: The Stank Brock Story will have a special free in-person screening at Washington University’s Brown Hall on Sunday, November 7th at 1:00pm as part of the St. Louis International Film Festival, and is also available for home viewing through November 21st for $5. Further information about tickets, passes, forms of access, and the complete film lineup is available from the SLIFF 2021 website.