Usually, scars are used in movies to show that a character is bad to the bone, or at least to the dermis. But rationally, we know that people with scars in the real world are just unlucky victims of trauma or surgery. So here are a potpourri of scars that illustrate more than scar-iness.

    Mel Gibson stars as "The Man Without a Face" playing an outcast with facial scarring. He is portrayed not as a villain, but as an ordinary person with extraordinary scars. This movie was probably the source of an ongoing urban myth that Gibson himself was hideously scarred. According to this legend, a kind-hearted plastic surgeon arduously repaired his damaged looks and eventually he emerged as the film icon we know today. Sounds like a great movie plot, but entirely untrue!

The English Patient



 A scarless Fiennes in flashback

A scarred Fiennes in all his g(l)ory

A fine film with a rare realistic depiction of burn scars. Actor Ralph Fiennes spends most of the film prone and being nursed by French actress Juliet Binoche. His character is not portrayed as a villain, but rather as a tragic romantic (albeit adulterous) victim. The dramatic makeup authentically recreates scarring from third degree burns. Interestingly, the promotional materials for the movie all avoid showing the burns, which are readily seen throughout the film.


In "Secrets & Lies," director Mike Leigh ups the ante by featuring a scarred woman. A victim of car accident, she is suing because of her now hopeless career as a "beauty consultant." Her rage and shame are heightened by her desire to have photos taken that accentuate the scarring. In a world where even minor defects in a woman's appearance are judged, severe scarring can be psychologically devastating.

Another form of scarring is seen in the film "Amistad," loosely based on the true tale about slaves brought to the Americas. Actor Djimon Hounsou is shown with scars placed purposefully to signify his specific African tribe. Such tribal scarring does not connote evil, but rather community and solidarity. Today, and for those same reasons, intentional scarring occasionally occurs in teen gangs and athletic teams. Painful to implement, these large scars can later be surgically revised and minimized, but they cannot be entirely erased. Though many rally around the cry, "No pain, no gain," our motto with scars is to avoid them in the first place: "No pain, no pain."

Old School: Joan Crawford scars

Next up is the mother of all sympathetic scarred performances by an actress. Yes, we're going old school. Back to 1941. Back to black and white. Back to a time when "A Woman's Face" was the basis for an entire film. In this classic courtroom melodrama, Joan Crawford's character has severe facial scarring and despises the world. With so little to live for, she enters into evil plans with her criminal boyfriend. Yet fate and medical science intervene--a plastic surgeon is able to restore her scarless beauty. Now with a goodness in her heart that matches her new found complexion, she questions her moral choices. Though the movie propagates the fiction that scars reflect moral wrong and plastic surgery can eradicate evil (not even a dermatologist can do that), Crawford is able to create a sympathetic character. One can believe that the disfigurement, given Western society's emphasis on female beauty, could drive her character over the edge into lawlessness.

Does this sound like reality? Imagine being told that you have developed a condition of unknown cause, where thickening and tightening of the skin occurs. Joints stiffen and cease to function. Eventually, internal organs like your lungs and kidneys may whither with extensive scarring. This is the position of those given the diagnosis of scleroderma. Actor Bob Saget had first hand experience with this fortunately rare disease, as his sister was diagnosed and eventually succumbed to this potentially fatal condition. He went on to direct her story "For Hope," a TV film starring Dana Delany. About the only good news about scleroderma, other than its extreme rarity, is that it can be mild in some (with CREST syndrome), and there have been recent breakthroughs using UV light therapies to reduce skin scarring. For the those of us free of this condition, let us hope it is a reality we never have to face.

"Harry Potter and the Forehead Scar"



Potter's magical hairstyle hides the fact that he's...

...Scarred and proud

Ah, grade school. A time when the world is fresh, human potential seems infinite, and any slight deviation from the norm means endless vicious teasing from your relentless peers. But young wizard Harry Potter is resilient. Even with a small defect, other kids might feel ostracized a la the pale, bald dude from "Powder." Not so, Potter. When he unabashedly reveals the lightning scar under his fashionable bangs, his colleague blurts out: "Cool."  In the book versions, Harry Potter's lightning-shaped forehead scar is central, while the film version moves it sideways. Since Potter's forehead is usually covered by hair, moving the scar presumably saved the producers big money on makeup costs. They must have worried whether the film would break even financially. Silly muggles...

"Casablanca" is considered by many to a dramatic classic. In fact, it was rated by the American Film Institute as the second greatest American film of all time (behind the ground breaking "Citizen Kane"). In the film, Humphrey Bogart's lip scar is fairly well hidden. Yet another scar, created with makeup, is plainly visible. As a leader of the French Resistance against the Nazi's in World War II, Paul Henreid is clearly heroic. His scar, rather than a routine signal of evil, instead illustrates his ability to survive and triumph over adversity. Though this could have been the beginning of a beautiful friendship, a significant new trend, it was not to be. Film makers realized that if they started featuring heroic figures with scars, they'd regret it. Maybe not today. Maybe not tomorrow, but soon and for the rest of their lives. It didn't take much to see that the skin problems of three little people didn't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. Here's looking at them kid.

River Phoenix in "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade" takes it on the chin for movie posterity



Harrison Ford's real scar prompts


 Phoenix' made up one

This may be the only example where an actor's real scar results in the scar's "creation" as part of the plot. Film icon Harrison Ford has a chin scar seen in all his films, including the Indiana Jones series. In "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade," River Phoenix portrayed Indy as a young man. The fast-paced segment introduces many of Jones' character traits: his fear of snakes, his use of a whip and hat. And his scar from an injury that Phoenix sustains. All in the name of truth, justice, and archeology.

Another memorable scarred character was played by Greg Kinnear in "As Good as it Gets." Like Tom Hanks in "Philadelphia," Kinnear was primarily known for comedic roles and received an first Oscar nod (for best supporting actor) as a persecuted gay man. In the film, he is severely beaten, his facial scarring accentuating his character's pathos. No one wants a facial scar. But if they occur, these movies remind us that epidermal defects are a sign of bad luck, not bad character.

© 1996-2008 Vail Reese M.D.

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