One in Twenty Thousand

Tim Lucas

Today we live in a world where too much is readily available to us. Our senses are glutted. For the past forty years, I have been yearning to see again Georges Franju’s THOMAS THE IMPOSTER, which I saw once at a university screening, whereafter it seemed to vanish off the face of the earth. This year, I finally obtained a copy of the film…  but after months of owning this copy, I still haven’t bothered to watch it — having it seems enough. If a copy of the lost Lon Chaney film LONDON AFTER MIDNIGHT fell into my hands, I suspect I might go days or weeks without watching it. What would I do instead? Look passionately for something else to own and ignore.

However, in my life story, there is one film I’ve seen that no one else seems to know about. It was a short film entitled ONE IN TWENTY THOUSAND, starring Richard Boone. I saw it in my sixth grade science class, so it was a 16mm rental copy. Judging by my memory of how Boone looked in the film, I would guess it was made in the late 1960s. In the film, Boone played himself, a man whose addiction to cigarettes led to lung cancer and the need to remove a diseased lung. It included graphic footage, evidently depicting the actual surgical removal of Boone’s own lung, very black, dense with tar — I remember my science teacher warning our class that this scene would be in the film, that it was indeed the point of the film, and excusing anyone who felt their stomach couldn’t take the imagery. I stayed, I watched — and it has stayed in my memory all these years, not only the image of Boone’s chest being opened, the halves of his torso spread apart and the ribcage rolled back, but Boone’s performance in the surrounding footage as well, which was dramatic regardless of its documentary nature. I was surprised to learn, many years later, that the actor died not of lung cancer, but of pneumonia while battling throat cancer.

In forty years, I’ve found only one published reference to this film — an online article called “Alcohol, Drugs & Ethics” by Don Lutz, author of THE WEANING OF AMERICA. He writes: “Some thirty years ago, I was brought to tears by a 30-minute movie made by actor Richard Boone. Boone, a lifelong smoker was dying of lung cancer. He played himself in the movie, designed to expose the pain and suffering caused by nicotine addiction. The movie was apparently aired only once, early on a Sunday morning. Few people saw this heart-rendering story; it had no significant effect on industry profits.”