Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Lest We Forget

For Paul Gross, making a movie like Passchendaele was a battle in and of itself.

The most difficult task, as it turned out, was just in securing the funding. In the end, the Alberta government, the Canadian Film Board, the Alberta Film Board and numerous private and corporate donors shelled out the 20 million dollars necessary to make the film.

This is a film that almost wasn't made. Which would have been unfortunate, because Passchendaele is a more important movie than any Canadian movie to have ever come before it.

Written, directed and starring Gross, Passchendale presents an eerily genuine portrayal of the historical battle, in which Canadian troops, bailing out a failed allied attempt to decisively defeat Germany, seized the small town of Passchendaele at the expense of 15,000 dead and wounded -- a loss of 75% of the division.

The film presents the tale of Michael Dunne, a war veteran discharged from the Western front. Haunted by the things he has seen and done in war -- including executing a teenaged German soldier who had surrendered after a feirce battle -- Dunne had gone AWOL. At the mercy of a review board, Dunne is relegated to serving out the remainder of the war as a recruitment officer.

Diagnosed with "shell shock" and suffering from shrapnel wounds, Dunne begins the movie in the care of (and smitten with) Sarah Mann (Caroline Dhavernas). Despite Mann's best intentions, the two teeter on the brink of romance while Mann's younger brother David (Joe Dinicol) is frustrated at his inability to join the war. Though he longs to enlist in order to win the respect of his girlfriend's father, David Mann is asthmatic.

In an attempt to spare Sarah from having to experience the most brutal realities of the war, Dunne refuses to allow him to enlist.

However, the Mann family has a secret. While Sarah and Michael's father fought and died in the battle of Vimy Ridge, it turns out that he fought and died for the wrong side. Desperate to win his respect so he may marry his daughter, David enlists the help of Dr Nigel Bernard (David Brown) in order to circumvent the recruitment process.

Determined to keep David alive, Dunne reenlists in the army under an alias.

He returns to the front, and is assigned to a support company in the First Division of the Canadian Corps in Ypres. They arrive on the eve of the battle.

The film reminds its audience of the horrific futility of the first world war. The famed bravery of the era's Canadian soldiers seems utterly wasted as their lives are extinguished in the equally-famed Passchendaele mud. It's a grim reminder of the betrayal perpetrated by the leaders of the day: a war costing millions of lives, fought over something as fickle and empty as imperial bragging rights.

The film reminds its audiences of the human cost entailed in warfare.

Some critics of the film have panned it for its "soap opera-ish" style. Passchendaele, they argue, is too much Pearl Harbour and not enough Tora, Tora, Tora.

These critics have missed the point. While the bulk of Passchendaele is spent developing the romance between Dunne and Sarah Mann, the ultimate point of the film is personalizing the aforementioned human cost of warfare. While Dunne and Mann's romance may seem more than a little cliched -- the one rule of their romance simply being "don't die" -- the point is that it's a doomed romance. Dunne remarks on numerous occasions that he'll end up back in Europe one way or the other, and the war is all too eager to claim its participants.

The film doesn't blink at any of the unpleasant realities of the war. The vile propaganda used by the Canadian government in support of the war is rarely out of view. Dunne's superiors often frantically remark that "civilization itself" is at stake in the war as if they actually believe it.

Thematic through the film is a story about a Canadian soldier being crucified on a barn door -- an alleged atrocity that Dunne himself witnessed. Dunne, however, is unafraid to utter the truth about the incident: it never really happened. Rather, an exploding artillery shell threw the soldier in question into that position.

Even when that freak accident is repeated, there seems to be a sense among soldiers from each side that the event will be misunderstood, and distorted into a sacreligious outrage.

Canadian soldiers are even shown leaving comrades stuck in the mud to die. It was decided that speed was of utmost importance during the battle of Passchendaele, and military commanders had ordered that anyone who fell into the thick, sticky mud be left to die.

This Remembrance Day marks the 90th anniversary of the armistice that ended the first world war. Within the next six years, Canadians will be commemorating 100 years of the war itself.

Soon, all of Canada's WWI veterans will have passed away. This is why films like Passchendaele are so important. Canadians need to understand the solemn responsibility a country's government owes to its soldiers: the responsibility to only send them to war when necessary.

Paul Gross has done Canadians of all generations a great service in making Passchendaele. Now, Canadians must make sure that such films can continue to be made.

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