A film review by Craig J. Koban


2008, no MPAA rating, 121 mins.

Paul Gross: Michael Dunne / Catherine Dehavernas: Sarah / Joe Dinicol: David  / Merideth Bailey: Cassie / Adam Herrington: Colonel Ormand 

Written and directed by Paul Gross

I think when the world at large thinks about my home and native land of Canada the unremitting image of a country of serine peacekeepers is largely the standard.   This perception is fairly apt, to be sure, but there are many both south of our border and around the world that may not perceive Canada as a nation that made huge contributions and sacrifices during times of war.  Moreover, we have never been regarded as a tough and powerful war country, but our presence in armed conflicts was an integral part of many of their victorious outcomes.

Consider World War I, arguably the least filmed war when it comes to the movies (Vietnam and WWII are certainly focused on the most).  When the “War to End All Wars” broke out in 1914 all Dominions of the British Empire, including the then young nation of Canada, were called upon to serve and fight for Britain.  The blood we shed changed history and the world: we suffered 67,000 deaths and 173,000 wounded, a staggering amount considering that our WWI population was only seven million.

The true defining moment of out war effort was the Battle of Passchendaele, which was the site of one of the most brutal and fatal battles of the entire Great War.  The stakes were modest: a five-mile stretch of land in Belgium that the allied forces fought over versus the Germans.  During the four-month ordeal the allies lost half a million men and women, with Canada sustaining 14,000 of the dead.  One of the Canadians, Michael Dunne, was one of the casualties, as he fought bravely and ferociously in Canada’s reputably strong and battle-hardened 10th Battalion, which was made up of soldiers from Saskatchewan, Alberta, and Manitoba.  They would end up fighting a majority of the battles and went on to set a record for the largest number of individual bravery medals for one battle.  Not bad, eh?

Lengthy prologues aside, this brings me to PASSCHENDAELE, a life-long passion project for Canadian actor Paul Gross if there ever was one.  He may not be a familiar face to US filmgoers, but in Canada he was a popular fixture on TV shows like DUE SOUTH and the wonderful SLINGS AND ARROWS.  Beyond acting, he also is an aspiring director and made what I think is the only film comedy about the sport of curling in the very funny MEN WITH BROOMS.  Now comes PASSCHENDAELE, which has received great buzz in the Canadian media, primarily because it is the largest budgeted film in our history ($25 million, huge for us, but would barely cover the catering on TRANSFORMERS).  Yet, making what Gross felt was the definitive Canadian war film was not the only driving force behind the film: the story of PASSCHENDAELE is a personal one for him, as the main character in it is based on the war career of his grandfather, who fought at the legendary battle. 

Gross’s very ambitious motives here are twofold: (a) pay tribute to both his grandfather’s legacy and the brave Canadian men and women that gave their lives gallantly in WWI and (b) give film viewers and unprecedented level of visceral realism in its depictions of trench warfare that would allow people to understand and appreciate the soldiers' sacrifices that much more.  Gross serves quadruple duty here, pulling an Orson Welles by being in the film as actor, writer, producer, and director, a bit unprecedented for a Canadian filmmaker.

The film is sternly advertised as a war film, but it’s almost more ostensibly a romantic melodrama.  The main character at the heart of the film that battles on the war and personal relationship battles front is Sergeant Michael Dunne (Gross), who is introduced in the film’s opening sequence fighting in the 1917 Battle of Vimy Ridge.  At the end of one violent skirmish Dunne confronts one of the very young German soldiers and, without much hesitation, bayonets him in the head (this is based on an actual experience Gross’ grandfather had in the war).  Dunne goes on to become a decorated veteran of the 10th Battalion.  Suffering from severe neurasthenia, he is sent home form Europe to recuperate in a Calgary veterans hospital where he meets a very beautiful young nurse named Sarah (Caroline Dehavernas, exuding naturalistic beauty and radiance).   Of course, Michael predictably falls head over heels for her, which I guess is not so difficult considering who plays the nurse.

While Michael attempts to re-establish himself in Calgary and pine for the love of the luminous Sarah, he soon learns that she has her own emotional wounds.  Her father had left Canada to return to the German army (the allies’ enemy in the war) and was killed at Vimy Ridge, where Michael also fought (yikes…awkward!).  To deal with her pains, she turns to morphine as an outlet to deal with her loss while trying to cope with accusations of being treasonous because of her heritage. 

To make matters tenser for her, Sarah’s hotheaded and hopelessly naïve younger brother, David (Joe Dinicol) is trying to win over the affections of his cute girlfriend's unfathomably snotty and aristocratic father.  David decides to enlist in the army and gets by the recruiters despite being a chronic asthmatic.  Initially, Sarah blames Michael for allowing her sick brother to serve (he works at the recruitment office, but is unaware of David's induction), which puts a solid damper on their blooming prairie romance.   Thinking that he has dishonored Sarah’s trust and love for him, Michael bravely decides to re-enlist back into the military so that he can watch out for Sarah’s younger, wet-behind-the-ears brother…all out of love.  Back home, Sarah discovers that Michael had no part in recruiting David so she too decides to take her nurses training back into the battlefield.  Through a series of astounding coincidences, Sarah, Michael, and David all come together – in one way or another – during Canada’s participation in Passchendaele.

If there is one truly positive thing I will say first about PASSCHENDAELE then it would be that Gross – a relative filmmaking novice – gives the battle scenes that frame the romantic plot of the film a level of Hollywood-quality visuals and flourishes not seen before in a Canadian production.  Gross, by his admission, watched more than 200 classic and contemporary war films, but his clear influence was Steven Spielberg’s SAVING PRIVATE RYAN, which gave such a haunting, and chaotic cinéma vérité mood and realism to its bloody battle sequences.  The opening battle at Vimy Ridge and the concluding one at Passchendaele are the reasons to see this film, and Gross gives viewers a sense the imposing grandeur, tension, chaos, and viciousness of trench warfare.  Certainly, the deparvity and savage veracity of Gross’ war scenes don’t rival Spielberg’s, but they are a stupendous achievement for Gross nonetheless.  Beyond the war, his camera captures the gorgeous expansiveness of the Alberta prairies (the cinematography is magnificent here, and it's nice for the Canadian in me to see my neighboring prairie province get its cinematic due) and the small little period details are also exemplary in sequences involving 1917 Calgary.  Make no mistake about: this is arguably one of the best looking Canadian-made films ever, and Gross knows how to stretch every dollar allocated to him.

As exquisite as things look, Gross’ overall film is a failure on a story and tone level.  PASSCHENDAELE wages war within itself to be two entities: an uncompromising and realistic war film that showcases the savageness of WWI combat and a would-be tear-inducing romantic period drama.  The war details hearken to SAVING PRIVATE RYAN (the good), but the tedious and flaccid romance is right out of PEARL HARBOR (the not so good).  By having the war scenes open and close the film Gross hopes the love story between the soldier and nurse will effectively bridge the gap, but the writing of the characters and development of their romance is right out of the romantic cliché factory.  The flatness of the film’s central romance nearly undermines the honorable motives of the film, which only further subverts any level of epic scope and significance it could have attained.  We are moved and shocked by the battle scenes, to be sure, but the romance has us rolling our eyes with spiteful mockery a bit too often.

Gross and especially Dehavernas have appeal and charm (the latter was very decent in small roles in mainstream US films like BREACH and HOLLYWOODLAND), but their romance is sappy, mundane, and has the emotional weight and investment of a lackluster day time soap opera.  Both actors have a nice rhythm together and Gross in particular inhabits his wounded and guarded character well, but the two are forced to engage in dialogue riddled with tired exhalations.  Dehavernas is decent in her role too, and certainly is a luminous presence here, but she not altogether believable as a Morphine addict, an element to her character that is only scantly dealt with and developed, as is a somewhat recurring subplot of the hometown bigotry she experiences because of her roots.

Perhaps even more regrettably are the silly and predictable coincidences that typify the film’s story, especially in the third and final act.  Very few war films are as rigidly formulaic as this one: We just know that the younger brother of Sarah will find some way to see combat overseas to appease his father-in-law-to-be.  We just know that Sarah will blame Michael for it and that he will, out of shame, chase him over to Europe to watch out for him.  We just know that Sarah, realizing how wrong she was in misjudging Michael, will also head over to Europe in the war effort.  We just know that all three will reunite in the same battle (yup, uh-huh, you betcha) that will end on a dour note for one of them.  If that were not bad enough, we are forced to swallow an utterly implausible during a moment of the climatic battle where both German and allied sides stop waging war on one another so that Michael can cross enemy territory to save a fallen fellow soldier, all with heavy handed crucifixion imagery.  Stories like this belong in Harlequin romance novels with Fabio-looking leading men gracing the covers.

I am trying really hard to not be too spiteful to PASSCHENDAELE.  On one level, the film is a massive and unparalleled achievement for director Paul Gross, who is able to give the film’s WWI sequences the dirty, ragged, and grisly realism they certainly deserve.  The final virtuoso presentation of the Battle of Passchendaele should have emerged as the crowning and proud achievement of Gross’s film, but it only serves as a disparaging frame to the film’s weaker parts.  Gross’ heart is certainly in every pore of PASSCHENDAELE and his yearning to do the memory of his brave grandfather’s war efforts should not be spited.  Unfortunately, his film is riddled with far too many pitiful story contrivances that all but erodes the sheer importance and impact that the film’s subject matter should have attained.  The hokey love story here suffocates the war story, never adequately giving it room to simmer  flourish as the great, masterful Canadian war film I desperately wanted PASSCHENDAELE to be.    

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