Once in a while I like to highlight independent or international films that I’ve seen and liked, but that I feel are little known, especially in the United States. My hope is that someone will read about the film and seek it out.
I recently saw the Canadian film “Passchendaele” (2008). The film was produced, written, and directed by Paul Gross. Oh, and if that wasn’t enough, Mr. Gross also stars in the film. Before watching this film I had only seen Paul Gross in two mostly comedic roles, most recently the greatly funny Canadian TV series “Slings and Arrows”, and in the American/Canadian 1990’s TV series, “Due South”.
Here are a few introductory facts about the film that I didn’t know before I watched it. According to Wikipedia, The Battle of Passchendaele or Battle of Ypres (July-November 1917) was one of the major battles of the First World War between the troops under British command (including the Canadian Corps) and the Imperial German Army. The battle was for control of the village of Passchendaele (Passendale) in Belgium. The film revolves in part around the Canadian Corp’s key part in this battle. Another very interesting bit of information I didn’t know before watching the film is that Mr. Gross's grandfather, Michael Dunne, was a soldier in World War I and fought in this battle. The film was inspired by his grandfather’s stories.
The media in the U.S. hardly ever mentions the First World War. If you came down from another planet and watched the History Channel you would think that history began with World War II. This movie is a small reminder of that war and of the contribution of our Canadian neighbors.
The movie is a very traditional war time love story in many ways. A soldier is injured (Paul Gross as Sergeant Michael Dunne) and he’s nursed back to health by an attractive nurse (Caroline Dhavernas as Sarah Mann), and they fall in love. Because he went inexplicably AWOL after demonstrating bravery in the opening battle scene, our hero Michael is diagnosed with neurasthenia, a word you rarely hear these days, but known more generally as shell shock. On the brink of court martial he is saved by a concerned officer and put to work recruiting more soldiers for the front.
The soldier and the nurse meet again of course back in a small Canadian town, but the road to love is not a smooth one due to her immature and conflicted brother David, and the secret of what happened to their father. Oh, and I must mention that conflicted younger brother David (Joe Dinicol) is also an asthmatic which keeps him from entering the war. Along the way the script throws in its share of social commentary, which would work if better written, but just seems thrown in as an obligation. Of course, there has to be a way for Michael to return to the war and the Battle of Passchendaele, and it’s because of love and a promise he makes to Sarah.
I wish I could say that the dialog was inspirational, and the performances riveting, but sadly that’s not the case. The plot and the love story are for the most part pretty predictable. Gross and Dhavernas do acceptable work as the war time lovers, especially after the awkward flirting scenes are through. Unfortunately for Dinicol as David his story is never believable as anything more than a plot tool to create conflict between Michael and Sarah, and again, to give a reason for Michael to get back to the front.
The film does have a romantic old fashioned feel that despite all the plot and acting problems make the movie very watchable. I also have to give a special mention to the beautiful scenery of Calgary, Alberta, where the home front scenes were filmed. It’s really the beautiful mountains and rivers that inspire love.
For me the most dramatically successful parts of the film were the battle scenes at the beginning and in almost all the last quarter of the film. There’s little dialog, only grey and desolate ground, and the faces and raw emotions of the actors at their best. Considering that the budget must have been a fraction of what’s spent on your average Hollywood film, the scenes of war successfully immerse the audience in the mud and mire and confusion and madness of trench warfare.
Though not a film that will be included among the list of outstanding war films, it will make you think about the bravery and sacrifice of the men and women who were part of what was once called “the war to end all wars.”