Passchendaele: Memory

November 11, 2008

“Lest we forget” they say every year. Old men and old women, standing in the inevitable rain, remembering both friend and foe. But what is it that we as a culture remember? When I first started reading about the Great War, the war that Remembrance Day was created to commemorate, what struck me was the amount of what was ultimately an anti-war feeling. Eye-witness accounts told of the trenches and the mud, the rats and the recognized humanity of their enemy, and above it all, a deep deep sense of bitterness. So many were left with a feeling of the sheer futility of war. “Lest we forget” should be followed by “for what?” I thought that this was why it also called the War To End All Wars. I thought it was a comment about the staggering number of dead and wounded. Here, I thought, was a war with no redeeming values, no Big Bad that needed stopping lest they take over the world to justify the level of violence. And, as far as the soldiers were concerned, the casualty rates were enormous (civilian deaths in WW2 far surpass the total dead in the First World War). During the Battle of the Somme, for example, the British and Empire troops suffered more causalities in 4 months of fighting than the U.S. has in all the wars it’s ever been in combined – including the Civil War. The British suffered approximately 5000 casualties a week just in maintaining the 475 mile front. Trench wastage, they called it. There were no “tours of duty”; one was in until you were too wounded to fight, dead, or insane.

It was cataclysmic enough that there was, amongst those that lived through those times, a sense of history that began or ended with the war. There was before the war, where everything took on a rosy, idyllic tone, and after the war. From the books I’ve read, it seems that the Great War was perceived as the ending of innocence. The ending (or the beginning of the end) of the belief in Empire, Civilization, trust in those in power. A tremendous shift occurred in western cultures because of that war – empires fell, women’s rights rose. But that’s not why they started calling it The War to End All Wars.

They started off calling it that because they really believed that it was a fight to save Civilization, rather than an indication of its crumbling edifice (I capitalize Civilization to highlight it as a concept, rather than a reality, with the attendant racist, imperialist associations – kind of a quieter version of scare quotes). When the war went on (and on, and on), and when it finally ended, many of the veterans were deeply bitter about their reasons for fighting, and disillusioned about the old men in charge. So while “The War to End All Wars” may have started as a desire to preserve Civilization, I suspect that after the Armistice the term also came to represent an anti-war feeling – that this cataclysm should never happen again. Perhaps I’m projecting my own pacifist sentiments when I read the eye-witness accounts. But there is so much bitterness, so often a sense of fighting, paying with blood and death, for a new world, a safer world, only to have everything remain the same at the end. T.E. Lawrence (of Arabia, yo) wrote in The Seven Pillars of Wisdom:

We were wrought up in ideas inexpressible and vaporous, but to be fought for. We lived many lives in those whirling campaigns, never sparing ourselves: yet when we achieved and the new world dawned, the old men came out again and took our victory to re-make in the likeness of the former world they knew.

But of course this is something that most of us as feminists know all too well. One cannot create a new world by using the tactics of the old – the master’s tools, and all. We cannot let the old patterns, beliefs and assumptions stand if we are to affect any kind of meaningful change. We must examine every pattern of behaviour, every assumption about people and situations and how best to deal with them. We cannot continue with this pattern of domination over others, women, the earth. We must learn to recognize when we are doing it, for we are so militarized as a culture that it is mostly invisible to us.

“Lest we forget.”

But what do we remember? We remember death, but do we remember the pointlessness of the war causing it? Do we remember how the British leaders refused to work with the German offers of peace talks mid-way through the war, and do we ask why? Do we remember our own troops, our heroes, rioting in that French town? Do we remember – do we even know the women raped by those same soldiers? Our soldiers, their soldiers. For that other war, do we remember the steps leading up to dictatorship in Germany? Sometimes, yes. Do we remember the othering and hate that lead to, contributed to the Holocaust? Sometimes, yes, but usually only how it happened in Germany. Do we remember how we were complicit? Do we remember what the US did to Japan in WW2, what Robert McNamara in The Fog of War said should/would have been called a war crime if the US had lost the war? Some of us do remember, but it never seems to be the bloke speaking in front of the cenotaph every fall does it? Every year comes by and I wait to hear something approaching an anti-war sentiment. No one wants to be disrespectful to the men and women abroad then and now, in Afghanistan, in Iraq. Can’t we be anti-war while still respecting their sacrifice? We seem to give lip service to the horror of war, without addressing our part in creating war, in participating in all the ways that militarism spreads and functions to underscore our responses. We remember something, alright, but not enough.

Do we remember war’s impact on women?

I remember. I remember my mother’s cousin, running naked and bleeding to her mother’s house after being gang-raped by Russian soldiers; my grandmother afraid to go outside to find food because of these same soldiers. I remember my uncle, now an old man, not being able to forget walking past women being raped in the street because the level of trauma and violence was such that one just didn’t see anymore. I remember the rapes of the women in the former Yugoslavia, used as a means to terrorize and genetically alter the population. I remember that pornography was made of those rapes. I remember the huge numbers of women being raped in Darfur, but not just by enemy soldiers but by their own townsfolk now. I remember the Americans raping and murdering that girl in Iraq. And more. How many more? I wonder how Canadian soldiers have raped in Afghanistan, or just on leave in the South Pacific? Or in Toronto? I remember the thousands upon thousands of women of African descent, raped by their enslavers, including Thomas Jefferson – oh but wait. No. She said yes, to the man who owned her. She could say no to the man who legally owned her flesh and could sell her family and torture her with impunity. Couldn’t she? She said yes. That is free consent. Right?

I remember the countless thousands upon millions of girls sold given away as brides and moved to new countries. The unknown expanse of female diaspora. I remember my great-grandmother, raped in her bed by her drunken husband, her dozen children all pretending to sleep whilst in the same room. I remember my best friend, raped repeatedly by her boyfriend, and beaten bloody. I remember how the police came and took him to a hotel to cool off, instead of arresting him. I remember my own rape. I remember that other woman’s rape. And hers. And hers. And theirs. I remember my other dear friend, raped and beaten nearly to death. Oh, and her – I remember her too.

And I remember how 30% of Canadian women will be faced with that lovely passive phrase: domestic violence. Stats are similar elsewhere. I remember how 85% of murdered women in Canada are killed by their current or former male sexual partner. I remember that a woman is raped in the U.S. every – what was it? 6 minutes. I remember that murder is the leading cause of death for pregnant women in America, and that most of the time she is killed by the father of the fetus she’s carrying. I remember that murder is the leading cause of death for European women between the ages of 18 and 35. Not just European women –  Australian women too. I remember —

Oh. We were talking about War, weren’t we?

Lest we forget.


Passchendaele: Film

November 10, 2008

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.

Passchendaele: War

November 9, 2008

                                       I died in hell –
(They called it Passhchendaele);
                                  My wound was slight
And I was hobbling back, and then a shell
Burst slick upon the duck-board; so I fell
Into the bottomless mud, and lost the light

Siegfried Sassoon


Canadians rarely make war movies. I have been spending some time now trying to find or remember anything that might apply. While we are prone to being self-effacing, I suspect that this lack has a number of causes: war movies generally cost more money to make (and making Canadian films is not the main focus of the Canadian film industry), we’re not very jingoistic (war movies lend themselves very well to jingoism), ignorance of our own history (in part because of the cultural noise of our neighbours), and we also buy into that American idea that our army sucks.

Passchendaele (pronounced “passion-dell”), for those who aren’t Canadian, is the recent film made by our own Paul Gross, of Due South fame. This is the first feature film about Canadian soldiers in the First World War ever made in Canada, and that is somewhat surprising, considering the successes of the Canadian troops in this war. They were fierce fighters and early in the war developed a reputation for it – even the Germans called them “storm-troopers.” They spear-headed every major offensive in the latter half of the war, so much so that whenever the Germans heard that Canadian troops were in the line they thought that a “big push” was imminent. The Canadian general Arthur Currie was picked by British Prime Minister Lloyd George to replace Field Marshall Haig should the war continue into a fifth year. The legendary Red Baron was shot down by a Canadian, and the third highest ranking pilot after the Baron was the Canadian Billy Bishop. In fact, 2 of the top 5 pilots from all sides were Canadian. They took Passchendaele after the English and even the Anzacs had failed. And yes, they took Vimy Ridge within days, and with fewer men than the French had lost in the previous two years of trying. They also had a reputation amongst the British officers as being uncouth and not displaying the proper respect for rank. An old joke goes:

Sentry: Halt! Who goes there?
Answer: 5th Grenadiers
Sentry: Pass, Grenadiers, all is well.

Sentry: Halt! Who goes there?
Answer: What the hell is it to you?
Sentry: Pass, Canadians, all is well.

To sum up: the Canadians were serious butt-kickers in that war. Had an intensely hard objective? Get the Canadians to do it.

To borrow from BlackAdder Goes Forth: while we often don’t like to blow our own horns, we should at least be aware that we have them. So, finally, a movie about Canadians in the Great War. Not Vimy, surprisingly, but rather our part in the Third Battle of Ypres, the push for the small village of Passchendaele. This is actually a nice choice for a first film about World War 1. As you can see from the British poet Sassoon up above, it was remarkable for it’s awfulness, and for the Great War that’s seriously saying something. It’s kind of the quintessential WW1 battleground. All the stereotypes and memes of that war can be summed up there: huge casualties, mud, rats, mud, rain, out-of-touch generals, more mud. So much mud that that’s not poetic license on Sassoon’s part – people (and horses) did drown in it.

So for the history geeks among us, it was a “yay!” moment. It was, in many ways though, rather disappointing. It’s as if Gross was making two movies – one loosely based on his grandfather, and one about Passchendaele. It was, to borrow a WW1 expression, over the top. The final scenes were rather maudlin. Sincerely maudlin, I think, but, woah. Maudlin.

I recognize how easy it is for us who don’t make films to criticize the attempts of others, particularly when they’re dealing with such grand and intense themes. I’m guilty of it myself, when I tried my hand at writing historical fiction about the Great War. And no, don’t ask to see it – it sucked. A part of why it sucked was that I was way, way too maudlin! So I rather sympathize with Gross here. However, I didn’t have the ego to continue and gather 20 million dollars to make my maudlin, heavy-handed story into a movie!

So I appreciate that this war (and war in general) requires a delicate hand. One really just needs to show the awfulness – people will get it. People would get the redemption theme without that soldier hanging from the duck-boards, like Christ on the cross. We would have gotten it without having the makeshift hospital stop and stare and wonder at the silencing of the guns (they would have been far far too busy tending to the wounded anyway, even if they had heard it). I would have liked more of the war itself, I think. More of the soldiers’ lives in the front lines, or more of Ypres, behind the lines perhaps. Definitely more about the main character’s fellow soldiers.

And yet, despite its maudlin, heavy hand, despite it almost being two movies in one, I would recommend it. I admit that I just cannot resist excusing the Christ on a cross imagery because it so closely echo’s Sassoon’s poem The Redeemer, where the common soldier’s sacrifice is equated with Christ’s. Siegfried Sassoon was one of Britain’s more well-known war poets, and wrote to illustrate to those at home the true nature of the war he experienced. Graphic and deeply bitter, his poems can also seem somewhat over-wrought at times, in that he seems to use a blunt instrument to relay his anti-war message. So in some ways it’s a very Sassoon-like movie: not necessarily very sophisticated, often-times heavy-handed, deeply sincere. And we Canadians rarely remember what we did, despite the documentaries that come out every November 11th. We hear the facts, we see the faded black and white footage; they seem far away, not connected to us. What Paul Gross is doing here then is really valuable. It is important for us to remember, and to humanize those grainy, jerky images of men and women.

Canadians are, I believe, somewhat true to the stereotype: we are generally polite, non-militaristic compared to some, un-jingoistic. It is ironic that what is often considered the kinder, gentler national sibling to America should also actually have a very good military record. But then, military prowess does not necessarily equal militarism. It does not equal imperialism (although Canada is colonialistic), nor does it equal international domination of others or jingoism. Thus it actually isn’t surprising when that quiet nation ends up fighting hard and fighting well, when it’s something they believe in.

The day after tomorrow is Remembrance Day for Canada and the rest of the Commonwealth. A day to remember, honour and mourn. At the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, we will stand in silence to commemorate the silencing of the guns of World War One, 90 years ago exactly. Films like this serve to add to that memory, to preserve it, so even when overwrought or maudlin, it at least keeps the cultural dialogue going and the memories of the realities of war alive.