THE REEL BINGE with Lee Ostler: PASSCHENDAELE (2008)

Writer & Director: Paul Gross

As Canadians, just about every war film we’ve experienced for the last century have been tales of American triumph and valor.  We have been inundated with a decidedly American perspective on the two great wars of the 20th
Passchendaele_DTOCentury. We are in danger of forgetting that the Canadian experience of both world wars has very little to do with The American Experience and its rich film culture. As a British colony, we have gone to war as the United Kingdom has. As such, our national military identity and history is essentially intertwined with The UK. While Canada has been a major contributor to most genres within North American film culture since it’s inception, we have only produced one great war film, “Passchendaele (2008)”. There is one obvious reason for this, we have simply not had the resources to produce films of such scale. War films are very expensive to effectively produce. There is an intangible reason as well. As much as I adore General George S. Patton Jr.’s (George C. Scott) speech at the beginning of“Patton” (1970), I just can’t imagine a Canadian leader delivering such a speech in a film. It’s braggadocio is a little over-the-top for us. Canadian troops fought for years before the belated American entry into both great wars. We’re talking nearly decade’s worth more of fighting. Yet somehow, there is a seemingly endless supply of American films concerning WWI and WWII and a shameful dearth Canadian productions. With the advent of cheaper special effects and great looking film production overall, you would assume there would be more Canadian war productions, but that has simply not been the case. Maybe financial considerations used to be the major stumbling block, but not anymore. We simply do not make war films. I know that’s true, but I have no idea why.

The prevailing opinion is that every war film inherently glorifies war. I’ve always thought that was bullshit. War films inherently glorify soldiers due to 8577727the depiction of extreme hardship and violence they experience. I’m cool with that. I would argue that most war films are apolitical. Most war films feature characters who have no idea why they are fighting and/or have chosen a deeply personal reason for motivation.  Any modern, privileged society was partially built on the bodies of people who fought and died for it. Glorying and honoring them is just the right thing to do.  History is a vicious, blood soaked, nightmare, and WWI saw the worst of it all. Being the first large-scale implementation of mechanized warfare, all sides were dealt losses that were staggering and previously unimaginable.

“Passchendaele” (2008) is great Canadian produced film about one of many battlefronts strewn across South-East Belgium during WWI. It was actually comprised of well over a dozen battles between July and November 1917. It ended when the Canadian Corps captured Passchendaele on the 10th of passchendaeleNovember. Paul Gross, serving as writer,director and star, tells the story of one of the most brutal battles of attrition in a war of brutal attrition. Sergeant Michael Dunne (Paul Gross) returns home to Canada to work on the recruiting effort in 1917 after being wounded at Vimy Ridge. While home, he begins a relationship with a local nurse, Sarah Mann (Caroline Dhavernas). Dunne does everything he can to prevent her young brother, David Mann (Joe Dinicol) from signing up. Further complicating matters is the fact that the father of the Mann siblings fought and died for The Germans at Vimy Ridge, alienating the remaining family in Canada. Dunne ends up following Mann back to the front in an attempt to protect the boy. This is where the action begins. The battlefields of Passchendaele are brutal. On top of the horrors that effected all lines in the war, Passchendaele also experienced near-perpetual rain for months, which caused pits of mud so vast and deep that soldiers routinely fell in and drowned. You’ll have to watch to learn the fates of Dunne and Mann.

Virtually all of the men on my father’s side of the family fought in WWI and WWII. Those who were too old or too young simply lied when signing up. Of all Fred Sr. and Elsie with Dot in the pram 001of those men, only one died, and it was at Passchendaele. My great-great grandfather Herbert Ostler Sr.’s nephew, Claude Finch died in combat there. “Passchendaele” (2008) stands toe-to-toe with most of the American war films, in terms of acting, writing, directing and production value. Several well-worn tropes are used here, but it never comes off as second-rate by any means. The key element of any war film is the depiction of the action itself. This film does an amazing job at re-creating the conditions and violence.”Passchendaele” (2008) is a stunning, stark and brutal reminder of the sacrifices of Canadian soldiers in WWI made. Well worth the watch.

PASSCHENDAELE MOVIE TRAILER

Associated  Recommendations:

Not a film this week. A podcast. For my money, the best one out there. Dan Carlin’s “Hardcore History” explores major aspects of world history in the most thorough, engaging and dynamic way. His 6-part series on WWI called “Blueprint For Armageddon” is a master class on the subject. Full of first hand accounts from Canadian solders from many battles, including Passchendaele, it is simply riveting. Every single episode of “Hardcore History” is the shit. Each new episode is released every 3-4 months (-ish) and after one episode you’ll understand why. To check out this masterful podcast, click here. – LEE

(Lee Ostler is a musician, avid fight fan, man-of-many-words, and huge fan of fine cinema.  We think it’s too cute that he has a Minor in Film Studies, and are tickled pink that he now gets a chance to shine.  So, each Thursday, he will start our minds rolling for the weekend with another gem of a film we can hunt down.  Some will be easier to find than others, but that’s part of the game.  Get the home theatre ready, pop the corn, and prepare to see some friggin’ awesome films)