The sculptor Ken Harrison (Richard Dreyfuss) is badly injured in a car accident and finds himself in the middle of life permanently paralyzed below the neck and dependent on others for his care and survival. Ken is a strong-minded, passionate man totally dedicated to his art, and he decides he does not want to go on with the compromised, highly dependent life that his doctors, his girlfriend Pat (Janet Eilber), and others urge on him. He breaks up with Pat and fights to be released from the hospital, to gain control of his life in order to stop the care that keeps him alive and unhappy.

His antagonist is the hospital's medical director Dr. Emerson (John Cassavetes), who believes in preserving life no matter what, and so tries to get Ken committed as clinically depressed. Ken's attending physician, Dr. Scott (Christine Lahti), begins with the establishment but gradually moves toward Ken's position.

The film ends with the judge at a legal hearing deciding that Ken is not clinically depressed and that he thus has the right to refuse treatment and be discharged. In the last scene, Ken lies in a hospital bed framed by his own sculptural realization of the forearm and hand of God from Michelangelo's Creation of Man.


An early protest against medical paternalism, this carefully made film offers a rich view of its main subject and touches on many others. Ken's wish to refuse vital treatment is based on his own interpretation of his accident. Having lost his kind of love and his kind of work, this strong-minded man refuses to accept substitutes--love without sensuality, work that is not sculpting. Selfhood is also a strong factor in his refusal to continue life in an institution in which most staff members treat him as if he were not a real person.

The film's plot turns on a legal decision, but the film argues more broadly through its details that Ken's situation is, for him, insupportable, and that he should have control of his treatment. Yet Dreyfuss plays Ken sympathetically, with feeling and wit, and part of us hates to see him win. The film does justice to our ambivalence. Finally, the film offers a fascinating study of some uses of humor in medical situations and many opportunities to discuss healer-patient relationships.


Based on the play by Brian Clark, which was produced on television (BBC) in 1972 and on Broadway in 1978.

Primary Source

United Artists