Passchendaele: Film

Paul Gross in Passchendaele


 As I mentioned in my previous post on the subject, the Canadian feature film industry just doesn’t make movies about Canadians at war. The only one that I could find was Regeneration, and that was a co-production and was not even about Canadians. There was a movie-of-the-week not that long ago about the 1917 explosion of a munitions ship in Halifax, but that’s not really about the war per se. There was the small budget film Eighteen, about an 18 year old street kid learning about his grandfather’s war and the way their struggles related. Also not really about the war itself. The closest thing I could find was another movie-of-the-week about a WW1 Canadian regiment rioting in Scotland because it was taking so long to be sent home (someone should do a movie about the WW1 Canadian troops rioting in the barracks in England because someone decided to take away beer *ahem* – yeeeah. Kinder, gentler Canada, right?). At least that last one was about Canadian soldiers at the end of the war.

Paul Gross’s Passchendaele was, consequently, greatly anticipated. As I’ve already said – it’s a mixed bag. Some parts well done, some parts overwrought. I did like how Gross tried to show the Canadian homefront – not just soldiers in the mud, but how the war was perceived at home (although as you can see, this is kind of the common theme for those few Canadian WW1 movies-of-the-week that I’ve managed to dig up). I liked that he showed how young men were sometimes shamed into going, how jingoistic people were, how Canadians of German descent were harassed, their homes and businesses looted and destroyed. How a soldier could be disgusted with receiving a medal for what he did in the war. How the vets walk around, in pain, in ways that others just don’t understand.

Ultimately, however, I think my main beef with the film was how little it actually had to do with the fighting at Passchendaele. Most of the action takes place in Canada, rather than Belgium, and we see very little of the other men that fought there. The main character, Michael Dunne, is a soldier that was decorated for an engagement that included his bayonetting of a young, surrendering German. He says at one point, “I’ll need to answer for that someday, I know.” While the majority of the film takes place in Calgary, it is ultimately about Dunne’s redeeming act at Passchendaele.

Grateful for Small Things

In trying to write a review of this film from a feminist perspective (keepin’ my gender goggles on, ya’ll), I found I just wasn’t sure what to write about. This is either a good thing in that the film isn’t very sexist, or a bad thing in that my goggles need cleaning. I found that I kept wanting to write mostly about the war (so I did) or about how we remember war and what we deem memorable (so I will), but about the film itself I struggled. Beyond the main point about it being worth watching despite it’s flaws and maudlin ending, I wasn’t sure what else to say.

So I start with the Bechdel Test.

It fails. In the entire film there are four female speaking parts: a nurse with one line and someone’s wife with another, leaving the female lead and a female supporting character. They do have a conversation with each other, these last two, but it’s all about the man they have in common. One might argue that a movie about a war set in a time with no female combatants should be expected to be shy of female characters, but as a very large part of this film takes place in Calgary, not war-shattered Ypres, I just don’t think this argument holds true. So, yeah, as many films do, it failed.

However, I should like to add a possible addendum to Bechdel’s test: could the film have been made to be about her, as much as about him (or them)? The idea being that so many female characters are not as fleshed out as the male ones; they are commonly there to serve as plot points or to reflect some inner struggle of the main (male) character. So a film with a female character that could have been the focus of the film, that has a history of her own, with her own story arc and struggles apart from that of the male lead, I think just might make up for failing the Bechdel Test otherwise. Or perhaps it just means that the film gets a Pass as opposed to a proper letter grade, as even a well-rounded female character that has her focus (in the contexts we see her in) as being mostly about a man/men is still deeply playing to the patriarchal construct of women existing as satellites to and for men.

I bring this up because of what ended up being one of the subtle things that I liked about the film; the love interest, Sarah Mann, has her own struggles both with her community and herself, struggles that exist apart from Michael Dunne. The movie could have been just about her, the title notwithstanding; there was enough flesh and history there. And while we first see her in a traditional role of caretaker (she’s a nurse, tending to Michael), when she loses her job as a nurse and has to leave her home due to violence and harassment, Michael then nurses her as she fights through morphine withdrawal. And I really liked how Paul Gross doesn’t sexualize it. There is a clear attraction between them but we don’t see Michael taking advantage of her vulnerability and coming on to her. In fact, all the sexual contact between men and women in this film is instigated by the women.

So it was interesting to watch the characters and their interactions being laid out in a traditional way at first (she literally nurses him, he comes on to her, she turns him down saying “I don’t date soldiers,” he rescues her) then being followed by something a little different – he nurses her, doesn’t take advantage of her or sexualize her vulnerability, they connect because they are both broken and both outcast or separated from the community around them, and they appear to regard each other as friends, as equals – they are natural allies and their relationship develops in a way that seems very organic.

You know things are going bad in your society when you watch a movie and think “YAY no rape scene!! No guy even pushes himself onto nor manipulates a woman into sex!” So thanks, Paul, for not throwing in some random misogynistic scene that leaves me feeling like I’ve just been spit on. Of course, we do see her nipple, albeit very briefly amidst arms and clothing. And we do see her pleasure/reaction to sex more so than his, so there is still much of that male-perspective framing of the sex scenes. But, the sex scenes were respectfully done, all in all. Ya know, it’s almost as if Paul Gross thought women were fully fledged human beings and not just sex objects, but was still just blind to some chauvinistic constructs. Fancy!

So while it fails the Bechdel Test and plays rather like a maudlin romance, there’s also this nicely different vibe to the way the male and female leads interact with each other. And, while the final scenes are melodramatic, there is also much about it that is well done. You just got to watch that heavy hand, Paul.


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