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Los Angeles: A new law says that the first ambulance that arrives at an accident obtains the contract to transport the injured person. The result is ruthless competition between several companies. Written by
Tom Zoerner <Tom.Zoerner@informatik.uni-erlangen.de>
This is a highly underrated piece of Cosby's work. Although, now, the concept of a private ambulance service that is primarily interested in money seems rather, quaint, it was almost the norm in the mid-seventies when this movie was made. Although most people don't realize it, the largest ambulance provider in the US is still privately operated, for profit, so, maybe not all that has changed.
Cosby is brilliant as "Mother", a sort of archetype character that melds together all the clichés of what "ambulance drivers" were in an era when many ambulance services were still run by funeral homes - I recall pushing a 1970 "Miller Meteor" Cadillace ambulance, which was basically, a converted hearse, up and down hills at 35 MPH, it's 500 cubic inch engine floored, straining and just barely able to make it up the hill. This is not "EMS," it is "you call, we haul." Cosby brings out the nitty gritty of a profession that was mostly populated by caring people who ran up against the ethos of profit in medicine and owners who were just out to make a buck. You start out really caring, but run head on into the reality that aiding the sick and injured is not the end, just the means to the end. You learn this working very long hours, under horrible conditions, for very little money.
Rachel Welch portrayed the emerging role of women in emergency services very well. The hoops she had to jump through just to get on a rig were exaggerations of what really was happening in the industry at the time. Similarly, Welch's reaction when faced with the reality of emergency medicine is right on point. There is a great deal of difference between what you learn in textbooks and real life. And real life isn't always that pleasant. But, as Mother says, Jugs has the "dedication of a jungle missionary." She would have to, just to get where she was and stay there.
Harvey Kietel was just starting out when he played "Speed" and his performance in the role foreshadowed the brilliant career that followed. I thought the "Speed" reference was a little cryptic. I thought, for a long time, it referred his desire to drive fast. However, the "Speed" character gives a different point of view - that of an outsider - to the hijinks of the staff of F&B Ambulance Service. He shows us how absurd some of things that happen are.
The rest of the characters seemed to all be lifted directly from the real world. Harry and Naomi Fishbine seemed to be modeled after a husband and wife team that ran a not too different private ambulance company that I worked for on the west coast in the seventies - right down to the lecture about how much each patient was worth. Larry Hagman's character portrayed a type of worker in the industry that was always on the margins - you weren't sure why he is doing what he was doing, but you couldn't see him doing anything else.
The events portrayed in the movie where very similar to the "urban legends" about what supposedly happened at private ambulance companies in the sixties and seventies. As most legends are, some of them are based on loose interpretations of fact. I have, in fact, had difficulty taking very obese patients down flights of stairs. Some of the places we went to on calls had rodents large enough to cause grave concern. There were always rumors of people who smoked pot or drank on the job. During my entire career, whenever there were two private ambulance companies in competition "jumping calls" and competing for patients did happen - sometimes on a daily basis. The owners of one of the ambulances services I worked for in the eighties ordered their employees to attend city government meetings when the company was being discussed, (this was long after the everyone who worked in the industry had becomes "professionals). And, yes, I have been the victim of layoffs from private ambulance companies when they lost their government contracts. I have, also, been held up at gunpoint for drugs, stabbed and shot at. The reality of the movie made it all that much funny and more real.
Mother, Jugs and Speed is an interesting and amusing look back at a time when EMS was just starting to become a reality. The acting was top notch. The events portrayed were close enough to real, (or to urban legends), as to make them seem likely. The writing could have been better - some of the dialog was very marginal. Overall, as a lay person and a retired EMS professional who worked in the ambulance industry at the time this film was made, I found the movie to be very enjoyable and suggest others watch it - with tongue firmly in cheek, of course.
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