Dying in Hell

Canada’s Great War comes alive on film and in print.

The troops with the worst reputation for acts of violence against prisoners were the Canadians (and later the Australians). With the Canadians motive was said to be revenge for a Canadian found crucified with bayonets through his hands and feet in a German trench; this atrocity was never substantiated, nor did we believe the story freely circulated that the Canadians crucified a German officer in revenge shortly afterwards.

When I first read these lines in Robert Graves’s memoir Good-bye to All That, I felt as though I were peering into another epoch and contemplating another nation. How could my gentle, meek Canada once have been the world leader in killing prisoners of war? For that matter, how could the Canadian Corps, composed of non-professionals drawn from all walks of life, have proved the best unit in the whole Great War? For, as Liddell Hart wrote,

distraction is … an essential component of surprise, and in this case [the Amiens offensive of 1918] it centred round the [misleading] introduction of the Canadians [elsewhere]. Regarding them as storm troops, the enemy tended to greet their appearance as an omen of a coming attack.

Finding that in a Canadian history, one would be inclined to dismiss it as mere nationalism. But in fact the pre-eminence of the Canadian divisions is taken for granted by both British and German historians. When I sat down to watch Paul Gross’s Passchendaele, therefore, I presumed the filmmaker would be eager to show how good the Canadian troops were. Would he have the guts to show the flip side of that ferocity, the penchant for atrocity?

As it turns out, the trench-crucifixion legend is at the heart of Gross’s movie, and only a few minutes elapse before the viewer is shown the single most shocking atrocity I have ever seen on film. A wounded German soldier, about 16 years old, tries to surrender to our hero, Michael Dunne (played by Gross himself), whispering “Kamerad” and holding up his hand for mercy. Without warning, Dunne thrusts his bayonet straight into the boy’s forehead. Welcome to World War One.

Although billed as the first big-budget Canadian war movie, which it is, Passchendaele is not so much the story of its eponymous battle as it is a social and cultural portrait of Canada’s experience in 1914–18. By establishing, in that first scene, the horror of the fighting on the Western Front, Gross frees himself to depict the ignorance and hypocrisy of Canadian society on the home front, where the first two thirds of the story takes place. In brief, Michael Dunne, invalided back to Calgary for shellshock, is put to work as a recruiter for his regiment, the Fighting 10th (today the Calgary Highlanders). He falls for a nurse, Sarah Mann (Caroline Dhavernas), who is secretly addicted to morphine. Her brother David (Joe Dinicol) is an awkward, asthmatic teenager. While Michael and Sarah struggle to understand each another, David struggles to find an identity: he and his sister are of German background. Over both stories looms the war, and we watch the personal drama in Calgary through Michael’s eyes, conscious that the mass slaughter in France can be neither explained to nor understood by those who have not experienced it; it is as though Anne of Avonlea were being rewritten by Erich Maria Remarque.

The war explicitly appears in two ways, both ugly. Michael’s commanding officer at the recruiting station (played by Jim Mezon) typifies the bull-necked jingo, the chicken hawk who loves sending men to the front but has never seen action himself, who assumes that chivalry can flourish amid the machine guns and three-day bombardments of trench warfare. He declares that “the home front is awash in saboteurs and provocateurs” and shames his recruits into signing up. Young David feels the pressure more than most, for jingoism has released floods of anti-German prejudice. “Fight the Godless Hun!” proclaims a slogan atop a poster of the Prussian Ogre clutching at the globe with bloodstained claws, and Canadians on the home front oblige by firing Sarah from her job as nurse, trashing her house and insulting David’s name. Racked by self-loathing, David enlists to escape from social pressure; Michael transfers back to Europe to look after him for Sarah’s sake; Sarah follows them. Plot, title and, most of all, the domestic ignorance of the war all propel the movie back to Flanders.

Abruptly, we are there in the mud and the rain with the Canadian Corps. We are told as little about the strategic situation as the ordinary soldiers themselves would have known, namely zilch. Michael and Sarah reconnect, but he is soon summoned by Colonel Ormond (brilliantly played by Adam Harrington as the prototype of the young, hard-nosed Canadian officer schooled in the reality of trench fighting) to command a platoon, which is dispatched at once to reinforce an exhausted battalion. Arriving in the surreal, swampy landscape of the Passchendaele battlefield, Michael’s men dig in; in a frighteningly realistic battle scene, they endure a German barrage and repel a strong counterattack on the Canadian line. David is driven mad by the shelling, however, and sprints for the German trenches. He is about to be shot when a Canadian shell explodes in the German trench; as the smoke clears, we see David lifted on a cross of debris high above the German line. Michael runs, wounded, across No Man’s Land and retrieves David, cross and all, bearing him back to the Canadian trench. Rushed to triage, David lives while Michael succumbs to his wounds after saying farewell to Sarah. A doctor announces that “we took Passchendaele,” raising a ragged cheer among the maimed, but a postscript notes that the Germans retook the village some months later, reminding us that Michael’s death was merely one of 16,000 Canadian casualties and his troops’ heroic stand against the counterattack merely one of countless engagements in a “battle” that lasted four months and cost the Allies and Germans 600,000 casualties.

Canadians have been systematically, if absent-mindedly, left out of World War One and World War Two movies. In The Longest Day, to take one example, our landing at Juno Beach appears in a single fly-over shot in the story of two beleaguered Luftwaffe pilots. Obviously, this is because American moviegoers have no time for us. Conscious of the fact, Paul Gross raised the entire $20 million budget for Passchendaele domestically, including a substantial grant from the government of Alberta. Given the ground-breaking effort of making the movie, and also because there is so much good in it, one is tempted simply to praise it; but the critic must note both the good and the bad.

First, the bad. The plot employs several devices that strain credulity. Michael and Sarah, for instance, first meet as veteran and veteran’s daughter: she tells him that her father was killed at Vimy Ridge, where Michael had also fought. It transpires, however, that her father had enlisted in the German army and fell defending Vimy Ridge. Such things did happen: my own high school, Lisgar Collegiate in Ottawa, boasts two WWI flying aces among its former students, one who was in the Royal Naval Air Service and another, Kagher Neiber-Shieg, who was so bullied for his German background that he stowed away on a freighter, snuck across No Man’s Land and became a German fighter pilot. But such a parallel seems so improbable that, as a turning point in Michael’s relationship with Sarah, it feels artificial.

In the same vein, all four of the main characters (Michael, Sarah, David and the bull-necked recruiter) are whisked from Alberta to Flanders for the last third of the movie; in the case of the recruiter, this is simply so that he can be killed off after witnessing the reality of the war. But would such a man really go all the way to Europe to pursue his grudge against Michael? Or would Sarah really be able to track down the 10th Battalion and be on duty in the field hospital when its wounded returned? Not impossible, but rather too convenient. It is not clear how Michael could have fought at Vimy Ridge (April 1917), returned to convalesce in Calgary and been back in Europe in time for Passchendaele (November 1917). Here one feels that some realism has been lost in the service of thematic inclusiveness.

I cannot say that I found the resolution of the movie satisfying. In Calgary, Michael tells the legend of the crucified Canadian—with the caveat that “a man in a trench is going to see what he wants to see”—and remarks somewhat ominously that “Christ didn’t die for our sins. He just laid down the template, that’s all.” This proves to be the set-up for the crucifixion of David by shell fire and Michael’s Stations-of-the-Cross journey across No Man’s Land. For that to happen, realism must be sacrificed: first because crucifixion by shell fire is obviously an authorial intervention and, second, because the idea that you could run across No Man’s Land in 1917 in the daytime is simply incredible. The effect is to allegorize the film’s conclusion, transforming a stark portrait of the blood and grit and hypocrisy of war into a vague tale of personal redemption: Michael pays the price for bayonetting the boy, which was prompted by the Germans’ crucifixion of a Canadian; or David is crucified as the prototypical young victim of war; or something. One can’t help feeling that, through such symbolism, the filmmaker backs away from the meaninglessness of the slaughter. Perhaps that is the only way to make a movie about the Great War that will have an uplifting ending.

Nevertheless, in Passchendaele the bad is greatly outweighed by the good. First, there is the sheer courage of making a war movie that, while not heavy-handedly anti-war, tackles all the ugly issues mentioned above. There have been WWI movies that expose the hypocrisy of the home front—the prating schoolmaster in All Quiet on the Western Front, or the bishop in Joyeux Noël—but I can’t recall a movie that spent more than an hour showing us the evils of jingoism. (Naturally, this has not stopped some critics from implying that the film is jingoistic.) We should be proud that our first big war movie does not shrink from placing Canadian atrocities at its thematic centre.

Second, the dialogue is terrific, full of sparkling exchanges (David on his German father: “If I could kill him, I would”; Sarah: “Well, he can only be killed once”), and the acting is outstanding. The sexual bond between Michael and Sarah is genuinely adult, in the best sense: one kiss in particular, after she tells him there is only “one rule—don’t die,” is beautiful to watch. Sarah, David and Michael all come across as complicated, three-dimensional people; how some reviewers could find a triangle featuring a junkie, a victim of racial self-hatred and a traumatized war veteran romanticized is beyond me. There are some very creative juxtapositions, as when a sex scene (fun) is intercut with a lecture on what shrapnel does to human flesh (not fun), or when David goes “to look at his mother’s grave” and is next shown kicking over German tombstones.

Finally, the technical achievement of recreating the Passchendaele environment is remarkable. The historical accuracy of uniforms, weapons and attitudes (much turns on dry matches) is meticulous. When the camera floats up into the sky after the battle and we see the pock-marked hell of mud stretching for miles, the scale of WWI is communicated as in no other film I’ve seen. The impact of the German creeping barrage prior to the counterattack, shown from the soldier’s point of view, is simply overwhelming for the spectator. The woman in the seat next to me was shaking with fear at its violence, and it can stand comparison, for realism, with the sliding montage in All Quiet on the Western Front of charging infantry mown down by machine guns.

In short, Passchendaele marks a milestone in Canadian filmmaking, and Canadians have responded enthusiastically, making it the highest-grossing homegrown movie of 2008 at $4.5 million in theatrical earnings. But this is only part of Gross’s intention, which he has further described as to “re-ignite interest and pride in Canada’s distinguished military history.” For this, film is perhaps the ideal medium. Not only do movies now shape our image of the world, including our past, as nothing else; not only are they accessible to everyone, including those who doze in history class and will never read a book of history by choice; they also have the power to make the vanished past tangible and lifelike. It is gratifying, therefore, to learn that the Dominion Institute has launched a program aimed at integrating the Passchendaele DVD with the study of WWI in Canadian high schools: here, on screen, we have at last the visual proof that Canada did great things in the “war to end all wars.” The program will certainly benefit, too, from Norman Leach’s book Passchendaele: Canada’s Triumph and Tragedy on the Fields of Flanders, admirably produced and containing hundreds of illustrations and photographs of the war in general and Passchendaele in particular, which literally have to be seen to be believed. (Leach served as historical consultant on the movie.) The text functions both as an engaging introduction to World War One and Canada’s role therein and as a description of this most terrible of all battles. Zealous students, as well as anyone who enjoys a good story well told and cleanly written, will further enjoy Paul Gross’s novel Passchendaele, an elaboration of his screenplay.

Overall, we are fortunate in Canada that World War One was our most defining war. The utter evil of the Nazis will always make World War Two appear as a “good” war, but that can be perilous when it comes to thinking about war in general: if every enemy is a Hitler and every war nostalgically framed as WWII redux, we become vulnerable to the jingoism of bull-necked recruiters. WWI, by contrast, with its half-modern, half-Napoleonic ethos, its flesh-versus-machine gun tactics, its bombardments and gas clouds, its Home Front chicken hawkery and its titanic butcher’s bills, was humanity’s greatest exercise in futility thus far. The heroism of its soldiers is all the more plain, and their tragedy all the more ennobling for us today, in light of the fact that, from a historical point of view, they died for nothing. Paul Gross has done more than make a movie: he has given his country a portrait of its worst and best hour.