May. 3rd, 2015
In 2008 Paul Gross, actor and director released the move called Passchendaele. Passchendaele illustrated the Battle of Passchendaele, or the 3rd battle of Ypres, the 1917 engagement on the Western front where Canada suffered extreme casualties, but distinguished itself as a daunting foe against the German army. The movie was released to the public on October 17th, 2008 and was the most expensive movie ever made in Canada to date. The cost was over $20 million, versus the regular movie budget of $7-8 million. The cost may have been high, but the movie also became the highest grossing Canadian film that year. As the 100th anniversary of the First World War approaches, war history will gain more attention and many Canadians will look to various sources such as Passchendaele to both entertain and educate. I have always believed that historical films have a role to play in educating society, and that any genre that promotes history and encourages people to learn more about their own past should be encouraged. Others, however, fear that a fictional work that claims to be “historical” can potentially mislead the public, blurring the many critical facts painstakingly unearthed by professional historians. . Given my limited knowledge of war history, Passchendaele was an interesting movie to study. It gave me a chance to test my assumptions, giving me an opportunity to answer some crucial questions about the use of historical fiction such as films. First, is Passchendaele historically accurate, and if inaccuracies do occur, are they significant enough to mislead the public? Moreover, can historical films like Passchendaele play the educational role that I believe they can? If not, then how can this genre, one that has the potential to reach so many people, be improved?
Passchendaele was not the first movie to depict the Great War; Other films have attempted documentary-style adaptations, but none of them have even came close to the success that Passchendaele had. The film was based on protagonist Sergeant Michael Dunne. In the opening scene, the viewers see Paul Gross playing as Michael Dunne in a skirmish following Vimy in 1917, where he brutally murders a young German soldier after a tragic battle scene in which only Dunne survives. Dunne suffers shell shock from the battle and he is then shipped back home to Canada where he falls in love with nurse Sarah Mann. We also meet Sarah’s young brother, David, who has been denied admission to the army because of his asthma. While in Canada, both siblings endure enormous amounts of prejudice because of their German heritage. David eventually manages to enlist, and Michael follows him back to the Front as a promise to Sarah. There, Michael is killed while trying to save David, who is wounded and returns home. As I watched the story unfold, two important historical themes emerged. First, the aggressive and arguably brutal tactics used by Canadian soldiers was contrasted with the more compassionate German tactics on the battlefield and the film dealt with the stigmatization of men who were unable to enlist in the Canadian military.
As I expected, the battle scenes in Passchendaele bore a striking resemblance to the renowned American war movie Saving Private Ryan, a milestone of work to its portrayal of violence in war films. In Passchendaele, viewers are immediately overwhelmed with brutal war scenes and bloodshed. Particularly striking is an early scene in which a young German soldier pleads with Dunne to spare his life, murmuring the words “Kamerad.” Dunne kills the boy anyway, later confessing that he was neither scared nor in danger, and that he still cannot understand his actions. Later, when occupying a trench with young David Mann, Dunne confesses that for Canadian soldiers, often referred to as relentless “storm troopers," “[killing is] something we do all the time because we’re good at it and we’re good at it…