Alliance Films, 2008, 114 minutes
Cast: Paul Gross, Caroline Dhavernas, Joe Dinicol, Meredith Bailey and Jim Mezon
Screenplay: Paul Gross
Producers: Francis Damberger, Paul Gross, Niv Fichman, and Frank Siracusa
Director: Paul Gross
After a few months of marching in the beginning of World War I, the Allied countries and the Central powers had found themselves facing each other across massive lines of fortifications that stretched across Europe. Three years of bloody attacks had produced terrifying casualties but had failed to end the stalemate. The German government’s decision to return to unrestricted submarine warfare in 1917 forced the United States to abandon its neutrality and enter the war. Dependent on maritime trade for survival, Britain launched an offensive in the Ypres region of Belgium with the U-boat bases on the Belgian coast as the final objective.
Convinced that the Germans were on the verge of collapse, Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig, commander of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF), threw one British army at the German lines, then another, and then the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC). Although the German lines had been pushed back after three months of brutal slaughter, the breakthrough never materialized. By late October, Haig had abandoned any hope of a major breakthrough and simply wanted to capture the village of Passchendaele in order to control the high ground. The Canadian Corps was assigned the job and attacked on October 26.
The protagonist, Sergeant Michael Dunn (Gross), had been wounded during the brutal fighting for Vimy Ridge in April 1917. Sent back to his hometown, Calgary, Alberta, Canada to heal, he finds that the war has permeated society. The mayor’s son is missing in action, anti-German hysteria is widespread and every wall is plastered with patriotic ads and recruiting posters. Dunn had been awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal but is burdened with guilt because he had killed a German soldier in cold blood as revenge for a Canadian soldier who had been shot when trying to surrender. Diagnosed as suffering from neurasthenia (shell shock), he is assigned to recruiting, where he struggles to deal with nightmares that also plague him during the day.
After falling in love with his nurse, Dunn finds a degree of happiness. However, a series of misunderstandings drives him to rejoin the army to protect her brother, who had managed to enlist despite his asthma, and they end up taking part in the Paschendaele campaign.
The head of recruiting in Calgary had fought in the Boer War (1899-1902), and babbles constantly about duty to God, King and Country. Unwilling to accept that WWI is different, he has no conception of how the strain of serving in the trenches affects a man, and has only contempt for the concept of shell shock. This attitude was typical of many senior British officers who did not serve on the front and had not experienced the shelling firsthand. In fact, none of the pillars of the community receive a favorable treatment, which brings to mind the poetry that Rudyard Kipling wrote in 1915: “If any question why we died/ tell them, because our fathers lied.” Originally a fervent supporter of the war, the death of his son during the Battle of Loos in September 1915 had shattered Kipling’s patriotism.
Veterans have described the Passchendaele Offensive as a frozen, muddy hell, and the scenes at the front are chillingly accurate. Narrow wooden paths had been constructed by laying a series of duckboards over the mud but men will literally drown in the mud if they step off those paths in the wrong place. It is always raining and any soldier who falls into a shell crater will be abandoned because it is too dangerous to try to rescue him. The only change is when the mud and the rain become the mud, the rain and the shelling. The soldiers on the receiving end of the artillery bombardment are paralyzed by bone-numbing fear, while the artillerymen struggle to adjust massive cannon in the mud. Even when it did not rain, the shell craters were mini-lakes (the endless shelling had destroyed the water table, so water did not drain away), so the support trenches near the front line are half-full of water, and some of the craters have corpses with rats.
The film offers little discussion of the overall strategic situation other than that Passchendaele had started three months ago but the offensive is stalled in the mud and it is the Canadians’ turn. The commanding officer of Dunn’s battalion is pessimistic about the situation since General Arthur Currie, commander of the Canadian Corps, expects 16,000 casualties and the general is never wrong. He was not wrong.
The scene where Dunn’s company finds itself facing a powerful German attack is based on an actual mix-up in orders that did cause a battalion to abandon its place on the line when it was relieved. The battalion that left the line thought that they were being relieved by a battalion of 600-800 men, not a company of 60 men.
The set design is simply amazing. Working with photos to ensure historical accuracy, the production team transformed a small stretch of prairie in Alberta, Canada into Passchendaele, complete with mud, rain, shell craters, trees without leaves, wrecked cannon and other debris. Fifteen water trucks were needed each day to simulate the rain. The contrast between veterans and raw recruits is amusing, and the recruits are naturally terrified when the shooting starts. The hand-to-hand fighting is literally savage, and must have been hell to film. The Canadian Armed Forces provided guidance for the battle scenes, and some of the troops serving as extras were headed for Afghanistan afterwards, which lent the movie a realistic feel.
Justly proud that the Canadian Corps were the most feared element of the British army, director Paul Gross admits that he wanted to encourage young Canadians to be interested in their history by providing an alternative to the constant bombardment from outside of Canada. At one point in the movie, Dunn mentions that the Canadians took Vimy Ridge after everyone else had failed. While the capture of Vimy Ridge was an impressive accomplishment, it had been a relatively quiet sector of the line for a couple of years, and the Germans were caught off-guard. Passchendaele had chewed up two British armies and the ANZACs in the space of a few months, so it was a much better example of Canadian unity, especially since it was the first time that the Canadian Corps had been commanded by a Canadian. However, news of thousands of casualties would have only intensified the debate over conscription, so Canadian Prime Minister Robert Borden decided to not publicize the battle, which is why it is not well-known, unlike Vimy Ridge.
While the leads were fine, the supporting actors seemed a bit out of their depth. Vancouver has become Hollywood north, so Canada does not lack talented actors, and it is a pity that Gross could not have attracted some of them to the project.
Gross had previously directed and co-written the screenplay of Men With Brooms (2002), which was a much smaller production. The added responsibilities of producing and serving as the sole scriptwriter appear to have placed too much weight on his shoulders. Most important, the story was extremely personal, which explains the melodramatic ending. The first scene in the movie is based on Gross’ grandfather’s actions in WWI, including the bayoneting, and the main character is named after him.
The movie is bordering on excellent until the last quarter when the fixation with Christ’s image that had been in the background suddenly takes over the story. The symbolism was probably meant to show Dunn paying the price of killing an innocent at the beginning of the film.
The set design deserves a better story, although the last shot of all of the graves is touching.