A film review by Craig J. Koban
2008, no MPAA rating, 121 mins.
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
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.
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.
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?
aside, this brings me to PASSCHENDAELE, a life-long passion project for
Canadian actor Paul Gross if there ever was one.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.