Gross’ passion for Canada

Passchendale packs the largest budget a Canadian film has ever seen

Passchendaele delves into the mud and mortar of Third Battle of Ypres.
Passchendaele delves into the mud and mortar of Third Battle of Ypres.

There are very few things that make me tear up; a beautiful yet honest celebration of this wonderful country is one of them. Passchendaele is the story of the Canadian Corps’ victory at the Third Battle of Ypres during World War I. More specifically, it details the story of Michael Dunne (Paul Gross), a sergeant who returns home to 1917 Calgary after sustaining serious wounds and shell shock from the harrowing senselessness of trench warfare.

Upon returning to Calgary, Dunne is nursed back to health by Sarah Mann (Caroline Dhavernas), a broken, single, morphine-addicted nurse who must care for her angst-ridden asthmatic brother and live with the skeleton of her German heritage in her closet. Predictably, Dunne and Mann fall in love, though in a time of such hardship, it is a timid, aching affair stitched together by shared silences and deep-seated guilt

The first glimpse of Calgary in 1917 initially rings of the innocence of Lucy Maud Montgomery’s Avonlea. The day’s new broadsheets are pinned up to the side of the press house, mischievous children run rampant and someone shouts a morning greeting to a Mr. Harper—ostensibly an ancestor of our dear Prime Minister or perhaps a wild anachronism—all accompanied by an upbeat background score.

But as cheery as this scene sounds, Passchendaele doesn’t shy away from underscoring the nationalist propaganda our country employed in order to ship men off to war. Typical army recruitment posters featuring giant apes bathing the world in blood, complete with scaremongering captions, feature in the background of many shots of Calgary. David Mann (Joe Dinicol), Sarah’s younger brother, is coerced by the older and esteemed men of the city—in the name of proving his masculine worth and consequent eligibility to marry the town doctor’s daughter—to join up with the Canadian forces despite his severe asthma.

In a supreme act of love for Sarah, Dunne subsequently follows Mann into battle in order to protect the boy from the harsh, hyperventilation-inducing realities of war. The result is a beautifully gut-wrenching story that left me proud to be Canadian yet ashamed of being human.

As a war movie funded heavily by almost every arts council in the country—not to mention the province of Alberta—it would be difficult for Passchendaele to be produced without toeing a chest-beating nationalist party line. But instead of beating this nugget of pride in our bashful history until it’s a dead horse, the film also comments extensively on the senselessness of war. At one point, Dunne identifies the cyclical irrationality behind human conflict: We do it because we have to and we’re good at it because we always do it and we always do it because we have to. What really comes across in the movie is Paul Gross’ wildfire talent. Not only does the man star in the lead role, but he also wrote, directed and produced Passchendaele. As if that’s not enough, on top of these feats he also co-wrote the haunting closing-credit track performed by Sarah Slean.

Gross successfully bolsters our national mythos in Passchendaele while taking care to expand it to include some, though not all, of our traditionally excluded groups. The film portrays Francophones and Aboriginal Canadians interacting cohesively as part of trench culture. Granted, these individuals are not accorded the status of fully fleshed-out characters such as Mann and Dunne are but they nonetheless symbolize the multicultural reality of our shared Canadian history. That said, even Mann explicitly navigates, as many Canadians must, a hybridized cultural identity. Gross does not hesitate to lay bare the abuse these second-generation German-Canadians suffer and while he doesn’t offer a solution to this timeless national affliction, neither does he ignore it.

Passchendaele adds powerfully to our national discourse. It celebrates a moment in Canadian history when we were the only show in town that could get the job done. “The job” was a minor campaign that claimed far more blood than it was worth and each step of front gained—approximately five centimetres for each fallen man—was ultimately regained by the Axis powers only months later. Passchendaele also problematizes, while nonetheless honouring, our bird’s nest of a multicultural project. Even if all that stuff about our national identity isn’t to your liking, Passchendaele is also a gosh-wow, heavy-hitting war movie and a heart-pounding, tear-jerker of a love story. Now that’s what I call a movie.

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