Cancer. Just hearing that word elicits a response in people. It’d be difficult to find someone who hasn’t been affected by it, whether it is a family member, loved one, or a friend who has been lost. What if there were a genuine cure? Would it change the world overnight, or would it be hoarded by the greedy elite, knowing that without sick patients, they could lose millions? That sounds like a ludicrous claim, but it’s one argument made in this documentary from 1987. Another is that Harry Hoxsey, the man who developed the so-called “cure,” was little more than a salesman and con artist. Which story will you believe?
In the 1950s, Harry Hoxsey made headlines announcing the “Hoxsey Tonic,” developed by his farmer father, that guaranteed an 80 percent success rate in curing cancer. Medical professionals, however, were quick to brand him a fake. Although Hoxsey had, at the time, 17 clinics in the United States and thousands of patient testimonials, he was also arrested numerous times, and spent most of his life involved in complicated legal battles against the American Medical Association.
Hoxsey eventually ended up in self-exile, operating out of a tiny clinic in Mexico. After his death, the causes of which are still in debate, his followers continue to offer his tonic, in the hopes that someday the medical community will have a change of heart. Does this small clinic with its nondescript bottles of reddish liquid really hold the almost-mythic cure for cancer, or are a lot of people being tricked?
Although the filmmakers here seem to want to depict Hoxsey as the “good guy” and the medical world as the “bad guy,” there is too much of a grey area in between, and there are far too many unanswered questions for any viewer to know which side to take.
In this corner: Harry Hoxsey.
The documentary starts with a look at the then-current Hoxsey clinic in Mexico, where American cancer victims come across the border in busloads to be treated. For them, even if the tonic is not a full-on cure, at least it ends the pain, allowing them to live normal, happy lives free of the sickness, baldness, and long hospital stays associated with chemotherapy. A small but dedicated staff still runs the Mexico clinic, sticking to Hoxsey’s original treatment.
The movie goes on to detail Hoxsey’s struggle to get recognition for his cure. Every time he is investigated, his followers allege, it is for criminal purposes, not to test the scientific validity of his tonic. Has corporate greed overshadowed the medical world’s desire to help others?
And in this corner: The American Medical Association.
The naysayers have a point when they claim Hoxsey was more of a salesman than a healer. The documentary uses some old file footage of Hoxsey from the 1950s, in what looks suspiciously like a TV commercial, where he makes his case for his tonic, promising miraculous results. An old black and white photo of Hoxsey dressed in a bow tie and a fedora holding up a bottle of tonic doesn’t help his case.
Hoxsey’s background, from his beginnings as a farmer with limited education to the mysterious circumstances of his death, do make it hard to believe that he’s the one pioneering a cure for the world’s deadliest disease. His critics, not just his followers, are interviewed in the film, and they do not hesitate to call him a quack. The tonic was never officially analyzed, they argue, because no matter what the results, Hoxsey could have used the fact that the medical community looked at it to add fuel to his media fire.
As you can see, there are no answers here, and the battle lines drawn by both parties are still being fought today. Questions about the ingredients of the Hoxsey Tonic go unanswered, as do questions about what goes on behind closed doors at the American Medical Association. The filmmakers leave it up to the viewers to decide for themselves who is right and who is not, making for a thought-provoking, non-preachy documentary.
The film is mostly a “talking head” doc, made up of interviews with various participants. This is peppered with file footage from the ’50s (such as the Hoxsey footage mentioned above), as well as clips from old medical films of the time. Some of those are pretty amusing, especially when warning against the allegedly sinister nature of “quackery.” One clip even features an actor dressed as a witch doctor dancing around a smoking cauldron. But this is a serious matter, with patients’ lives on the line, and it’s dealt with in serious tones.
Made in 1987, the documentary shows its age—not just in some people’s hairstyles, but also in visual quality. The picture is often hazy and riddled with specks and grain. Sure, no one’s going into this expecting it to be Lord of the Rings, but a cleaner transfer would have been appreciated. Sound is not impressive, but because the movie is almost all dialogue, with little music and no effects, the audio does all that is required.
A lengthy interview with the director serves to answer one of viewers’ most-asked questions, namely what’s happened between 1987 and now. He also details some of the challenges faced in making the film, especially in getting Hoxsey’s critics in the medical community to go on the record with their negative opinions of the man. The other extra is Hope and a Prayer, a “short film” that’s really an interview with a doctor who extols the importance of doctors making human connections with patients, and thinking of patients as people, not just diseases.
It’s some interesting food for thought. It’s sure to spark discussion when watched with a group. But on the whole, it doesn’t seem to be a film that will last through multiple viewings. It presents multiple ideas and arguments, but it doesn’t quite tell a beginning-middle-end story that would make for a fully satisfying film.