Review by Ralph Lucas
If you’re going to see Passchendaele expecting to see an opening something like the opening of Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, you won’t. Not right away, that is. This film, by actor-writer-director Paul Gross, is at its heart a love story. Based on real events and on the memories of his grandfather, Michael Dunne, Gross was inspired to make the film after his grandfather passed away.
When this film opens, Gross, playing his grandfather, is leading a four man patrol during one of the early battles near Ypres in West Flanders, Belgium. The scene ends with the Gross/Dunne character being severely wounded. He wakes in a hospital back home in Alberta staring into the eyes of a pretty nurse. It is a tired plot development used in just about every war movie ever made. For the next hour, or so it seems, the movie is about the development of the relationship between Dunne and the nurse and her younger brother who wants to join the army but suffers from asthma.
Gross’ poetic script and the beautiful cinematography of the foothills of Alberta framed by the Rocky Mountains in the distance might lull you into thinking the war, for this film, is over. The beautiful panormas, the delicate words and emotions, the finely-drawn characters and caricatures of some people set in an early version of Calgary serve as stark contrast when our lead returns to the front as we know he must.
In most war movies, even in Saving Private Ryan, there was a sense of beauty set within the turmoil, panic, chaos and din of war. When the scene shifts in this film to the third battle of Ypres, now usually called the Battle of Passchendaele, there is no such beauty. The world has become monochromatic. Everything is the colour of mud. What is left of what once was a forest are the blackened trunks of trees. Every bomb crater is a small sepia-coloured pond and the most important thing about life in the trenches, not that there are any actual trenches, is keeping your matches dry. If you have ever harboured the notion that war was in its own way glamorous, this film should, hopefully, change your mind forever. I’m not sure how Gross wrote this sequence but it would not surprise me if he surrounded himself with black and white images from a slaughter house and a banner which read War is Hell. In this film the carnage is swift and unrelenting. I have known for most of my life that my father’s father was killed during the Battle for Vimy Ridge in August of 1917. Until this film I never understood just how he might have died.
The drama of the battlefield sequence – which is halted for a moment by a gut-wrenching, surreal interlude of peace – is a unique span of filmic choreography achieved through outstanding camera work and exquisite editing to say nothing for the acting, and Gross’ abilities as a director. If you were not aware that this was history you would not believe it possible to be true. But true it is. The Battle of Passchendaele, which began on October 26, 1917, has been called Canada`s Calvary where a force of 20,000 men suffered 16,000 casualties.
A love story set against the stark reality of war is almost universal yet Paul Gross has found a unique poetic balance of words and images that enthrall and startle with their beauty and horror. This film, this story, could have been made anywhere. The fact that it was made in Canada shouldn’t matter. For those who have long bemoaned the need for Canadian stories to be projected on Canadian screens, this just might be the example they’ve been looking for. My only complaint is that in certain small sequences it reminded me a little too much of those often overly-earnest Historica minutes we used to see on television. This is so much more. Passchendaele is simply terrific filmmaking.
Back to the cast & crew of Passchendaele.
Ralph Lucas is the founder and publisher of Northernstars.ca. He began reviewing movies while in radio in Montreal in the mid-1970s.