Passchendaele (2008)

August 12, 2010 § Leave a comment

In a battle scene near the end of Passchendaele there’s a remarkable moment where a young German soldier sits in the mud, wounded and looking around, bewildered at a raging battle that has descended into brutal close combat. He looks as though he’s barely a teenager, and could just as easily be a young Canadian suddenly detached from the situation, and shocked by it.

Written, co-produced, directed by and starring Paul Gross — undoubtedly one of the biggest Canadian stars in a country that sorely lacks the industry needed to tell our stories — the film examines part of the Canadian role in the First World War, a conflict that somehow manages to prove the bizarreness and futility of war remarkably well whenever we see it portrayed. It was a war led by British generals who underestimated the importance of machine-guns, in favour of a more old-fashioned style of warfare at the expense of thousands of lives, and these kinds of historical details are sometimes plainly stated by characters, sometimes demonstrated in the action. It’s a personal project for Gross, who incorporates a true story from his grandfather, who apparently spent the better part of a day trying to knock out a German machine-gun nest, lost all his men, and finally used his bayonet on the head of the last German soldier out of some combination of anger and misery.

This is the sequence that begins the film, before a sudden shift into life at home and recovery for the Paul Gross character, as his character falls in love with a nurse (Caroline Dhavernas). While Gross and Dhavernas are quite good, it’s here I think the film threatens to become somewhat dull and typical for some viewers, toying with ideas of politics and prejudice at home but ultimately dwelling on a romance that’s given epic proportions.

What the scenes in Canada appear to get absolutely right is the portrayal of a simpler time and an unspoiled, remarkably beautiful landscape that contrasts nicely with the utterly miserable battle conditions that frame the film. Without revealing too much about the plot, the Gross character returns to battle, though sadly the epic moments follow him, occasionally taking the viewer out of the film because they come across as overly contrived.

Returning to the images of the bewildered German soldier sitting in the mud, it struck me as a great moment, but also one that illustrates the film. As well done as it is, the camera lingers on the young soldier far longer than is necessary for the viewer to get the point, which is the sort of detail that tells viewers what to expect from the film — not a subtle art film, but a worthy mainstream one.

I came to the film with my own vested interest in it, as my grandfather Wilfred Boyd fought in the First World War. He stowed away on a ship in Halifax to get to the action sooner, and it’s another one of those ironies that men who expected a short, gallant war got a long, squalid one of mud, rats and lice. Given the rarity of Canadian historical films with a healthy budget, Gross can be forgiven for considering it an important opportunity, and taking a heavy-handed tone that’s presumably unintentional. There’s a lot that Passchendaele gets right, and I can easily recommend it to people (and really, every Canadian should see it) though it’s a bit unfortunate some will feel they’re dutifully watching an epic history lesson rather than getting caught up in a story.

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