Vaccines At The Movies
(And on TV)
Back when the coronavirus was still novel, there was a surge of interest in pandemic films. The 2011 movie Contagion broke into the iTunes Top 10 Movies list. And there were articles written like Vulture’s list of Pandemic Movies to Binge in Quarantine.
But now we’re in a new phase of this pandemic. Millions of vaccine doses have been given already, and vaccination is the new fascination.
So my ears perked up when I was watching an old episode of Law & Order this week (I’m finally catching up on the Dennis Farina years) and the plot was about someone selling counterfeit flu vaccines during a shortage, contributing to the deaths of several people who thought they were vaccinated.
It got me wondering about other plots involving vaccines in film and television. So I did a little research and found more vaccine stories in pop culture than I can recount here. I’m just going to highlight several interesting items that stood out to me beyond the obvious pandemic movies and documentaries, in no particular order:
The Story of Louis Pasteur (1936)
If you’re going to make a list of movies about vaccines, it makes sense to begin with one about a man famous for developing the principles of vaccines. This 1936 film was nominated for several Oscars including Best Picture, and won for Best Actor and Best Writing.
Amusingly, the trailer begins by basically explaining the concept of a biopic:
Every scene a true-life happening. Every incident a highlight from a great man’s career. Yet this living truth contains more exciting drama than the wildest flights of fiction.
It looks like a really good movie. And it’s available to rent for just 99¢ on Amazon.
The Story of Dr. Jenner (1939)
Louis Pasteur may be credited with inventing vaccines, but he didn’t discover the concept of vaccination. That credit goes to Edward Jenner, who noticed that people who had been exposed to cow pox didn’t catch smallpox, almost 100 years before Pasteur’s vaccines.
The Story of Dr. Jenner is a short film, about 10 minutes long, and I can’t find it anyplace to watch online. But I did find a bunch of photos at The Daily Mirror, like this one:
Arrowsmith is an acclaimed film directed by John Ford, based on the novel by Sinclair Lewis. It’s about a small-town doctor who goes to the West Indies where there’s a bubonic plague outbreak, and one of his duties is to decide priorities for use of the vaccine.
The Outer Limits: “Vaccine” (1998)
In the mid-90s revival of the anthology series The Outer Limits, there was an episode called “Vaccine” in which a doomsday cult releases a plague, and the last twelve survivors on Earth have to decide who gets the last three vaccinations available.
The survivors are all in a sterile hospital, which they assume is why they haven’t been infected yet. But they’re running out of food and will have to leave soon.
Here’s a clip:
Eventually they do decide who among them should get the vaccine. And of course there is a twist, which I shall reveal here. So if you don’t want to be spoiled, cover your ears:
They decide that the three vaccines should go to the three people among them who are young enough to reproduce, in order that they may continue the human race. But then all three of those people die of anaphylactic shock. It turns out the sterile atmosphere of the hospital isn’t what was keeping them alive; these twelve people just happened to all have natural immunity to the plague. So the survivors all leave the hospital, but there is nobody left of reproductive age.
The episode can be watched for free at The Roku Channel.
The Avengers: “The Deadly Air” (1961)
The first season of the British spy show The Avengers starred John Steed with Ian Hendry, who left the show after the first season (Diana Rigg didn’t join Steed until the fourth season).
Like some other early TV shows, that first season was mostly lost after the videotape it was filmed on was reused. And that included the episode “The Deadly Air” which was about vaccines. The IMDb summary for that episode says:
When a revolutionary, but experimental, vaccine is stolen from a top-secret laboratory and a volunteer who was administered a dose dies, Keel and Steed agree to be human guinea pigs for the next test.
If anyone finds a copy in their attic, there’s an official Ian Hendry Appreciation Society that would love to hear from you. They made this video about their search for the lost episodes:
About The Hippo Who Was Afraid Of Vaccinations (1966)
This is an 18-minute short film by Russian animator Leonid Amalrik about a hippopotamus who is afraid to get vaccinated for jaundice. Can you guess how the other animals finally convince him to get his vaccine? They don’t! So he gets jaundice!
The animation is really lovely, and the entire film can be watched here.
Savage Beach (1988)
Andy Sidaris was an Emmy-winning sports television director who shifted gears mid-career and began making cheap b-movies starring models as action heroes. Savage Beach was the fourth film in his “Triple B” series, where the Bs stand for Bullets, Bombs, and Boobs. Here’s the thin plot:
Two female government agents transporting a vaccine are forced to land their plane on a remote island that houses more than palm trees and sandy beaches. A sunken WWII Japanese ship containing a fortune in gold is located nearby and the island is now the base for a nefarious group searching for it.
Okay, so vaccines aren’t a huge part of the plot, but this was just so schlocky that I couldn’t pass on including it. Here’s the remastered trailer:
Savage Beach spawned a sequel, Return to Savage Beach about a stolen floppy disk that holds the key to a treasure that our heroes have to keep out of the hands of some villains or something I dunno it doesn’t really matter.
You can watch the movie for free on Amazon Prime Video.
Deadwood: “Suffer the Little Children” (2004)
I’m still only on the third episode of Deadwood, so I guess this is a spoiler warning for myself. In episode seven there will be a smallpox outbreak, and this is the episode where riders return with a vaccine. One day I’ll get around to watching this series. The rest of the episode plot synopsis made no sense to me without context, but apparently Kristen Bell is in this episode. I had no idea she was on Deadwood.
You can watch this episode on HBO MAX.
Family Guy: “Stewie Loves Lois” (2006) and “Hot Shots” (2016)
Quahog has a flu outbreak, but there’s a shortage of flu vaccines. So Peter goes to the doctor to try to get vaccinated. Things take a disturbing turn when he think a routine prostate exam is sexual assault. But let’s not talk about that.
Here’s the scene where Peter gets his vaccine:
Peter is a monster. You can watch the episode on Hulu.
I guess at some point over the next ten years, Peter became an anti-vaxxer. In the 2016 episode “Hot Shots,” Lois and Peter cause a measles outbreak after they convince other parents not to vaccinate their kids.
Sabrina the Animated Series: “Witchitis” (1999)
In this 1999 episode of Sabrina the Animated Series, Sabrina has to get her Witchitis vaccine, but she’s afraid of needles. Magic hilarity ensues, I assume.
You can watch the entire episode on YouTube for free.
Saturday Night Live: “Lil’ Poundcake” (2011)
On a 2011 episode hosted by Melissa McCarthy, SNL featured a fake commercial for Lil’ Poundcake, the doll that comes with her own purse, smells like frosting, and will also administer the HPV vaccine in a series of three injections over a period of six months for girls under ten.
Here’s a fun fact: Lil’ Poundcake is also the name of a doll made by Alaska Thunderfuck of RuPaul’s Drag Race fame.
I’m not really sure what you should do with that information.
Star Trek: “Miri” (1966)
In the Star Trek first season episode “Miri,” McCoy has to develop a vaccine to cure a plague that has wiped out all the adults on an Earth-like planet.
Star Trek is available to stream on several services you might already have.
Star Trek (2009)
In the first movie of the rebooted Star Trek franchise, McCoy gives Kirk a vaccine to protect him from Melvaran mud fleas.
Why do people in sci-fi movies always get their shots in their necks? I’ve never been given a shot in my neck. Do sleeves in the future not roll up?
Anyway, the movie Star Trek is available to rent from the usual places.
The Simpsons: 15 Separate Episodes!
I guess The Simpsons deserves some sort of grand prize for having at least 15 different episodes that deal with vaccines in some way.
According to Vaxopedia, vaccines show up in these episodes (and giving credit where it’s due, I’ve cribbed but largely rewritten their episode descriptions, condensed for space):
Bart’s Dog Gets an F” – s02316 in which Lisa gets the mumps.
“Lisa’s Pony” – s03e08 in which Homer says:
“Kamp Krusty” s04e01 in which Lisa gets “boosters for malaria, German measles, encephalitis, and Hansen’s disease” before camp.
“Lisa’s First Word” – s04e10 in which Dr. Hibbert holds up a giant needle for “rubella inoculation”.
“Marge in Chains” – s04e21 in which a man eats a bee, thinking it is a vaccine.
“Lady Bouvier’s Lover” – s05e21 in which everyone sings the Armour Hot Dogs jingle at Maggie’s first birthday party and Milhouse, with spots on his face, sings “even kids with chicken pox” love hot dogs.
“Much Apu About Nothing” – s07e23 in which Cotton Mather is the first thing that Apu reads from Homer’s history notes.
“Take My Wife, Sleaze” – s11e08 in which Homer and Marge go to a 1950s-themed restaurant that sell polio dogs.
“Homer vs. Dignity” – s12e05 in which Homer, after coming into some money, is able to get his kids caught up on “six years’ worth of inoculations.”
“The Computer Wore Menace Shoes” – s12e06 in which Ned Flanders reads a fake post from Homer about how flu shots are given as a form of mind control.
“Bart-Mangled Banner” – s15e21in which Lisa and Bart go see Dr. Hibbert to get their vaccines. Bart has temporary side effects.
“Sleeping with the Enemy” – s16e03 in which Milhouse has the measles.
“Milhouse of Sand and Fog” – s17e03 in which Homer has a chicken pox party after Maggie gets chicken pox.
“The Fool Monty” – s22e06 in which everyone in town waits in line to get a vaccine for the House Cat Flu.
“The Town” – s28e03 in which, after moving to Boston, Marge asks someone if they vaccinate their kids (“of course!”) to make sure that they are progressive, “but not stupid progressive.”
I began this research by searching for the word “vaccine” on IMDb’s plot search engine. But I eventually found similar research done by Vaxopedia, which pointed me to some interesting items I hadn’t found yet. Our lists overlap a bit, but their list is a lot longer than mine, and even they say they probably didn’t find everything! I encourage you to check out their list for more.
An Actual Scientific Study of Vaccines in Movies
In 2018, the Journal of Investigative Medicine published a paper which examined cinematic portrayals of immunizations throughout history.
Here’s how they describe the purpose of the study:
Anti-vaccination messages are increasingly prevalent in the media. Movies are no exception, as the anti-vaccination film ‘Vaxxed’ was screened this year at the Cannes Film Festival. As a result, we assessed how films have portrayed immunisation throughout history.
Just like I did, they started with a search of plots on IMDb that used the word “vaccine” and 15 other synonyms. Then they eliminated TV shows and direct to video movies, as well as films that were not available to watch. That left them with 48 films released between 1926 and 2016, which they watched in their entirety. They evaluated whether vaccines were portrayed positively or negatively, along with whether or not they were portrayed as having realistic effects, and whether conspiracy theories were involved in the stories.
Cinematic portrayals of immunisation are increasingly unrealistic and negative. This trend appears to have begun in the 1990’s, which corresponds to the onset of the modern anti-vaccination movement triggered by Andrew Wakefield’s claim that the MMR vaccine caused autism. Whether the change in vaccine portrayal is reflective of societal beliefs or is influencing them should be the focus of future study.
It will be interesting to see how the current pandemic changes the way vaccines are portrayed in movies and television going forward.
And that’s it for another newsletter, folks! Please get vaccinated as soon as you are eligible. Take whichever FDA-approved vaccine you can get. They are all excellent and all of them are practically 100% effective at preventing hospitalizations and death.
See you next week!