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
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.