Saturday, October 25, 2008

The importance of being earnestly Canadian

Before I say anything else about Passchendaele, let’s establish one point of unequivocal praise: as a director, Paul Gross has got some game. I’m speaking here in terms of what the film nerds call mise en scene—basically, the composition of shots, or to literally translate, “setting in scene.” He did an extraordinary job of the film’s general look, be it the pastoral sequences on the Alberta prairies or the brutality of the crater-pitted Belgian countryside. From a purely aesthetic perspective, Passchendaele is a triumph. From a narrative and story perspective ... well, not so much.

I really, really wanted to love this film. And when I say this, I mean I wanted to love this film from the moment I heard that Paul Gross was doing a film about the travails of the Canadian Army in WWI. I love Paul Gross, and I love Canadian military history. In spite of the fact that I speak from the political left, I’m all about the Canadian military, now and historically. I’m a military history junkie, and one of my favourite books is Pierre Berton’s Vimy. I think Canadians undervalue this tradition, and we really should celebrate the fact that we have one of the best trained armed forces in the world. There’s a moment in the film, present in the trailers, that I admit makes me happy—when a Canadian officer tells Sgt. Michael Dunne (Paul Gross’ character) that “the enemy has a name for us ... they call us ‘stormtroopers’.” I admit: right then there was, for me, a moment of unbridled patriotism, something akin to the weird validation I felt yesterday morning when I heard an American foreign policy expert tell David Frum on CBC Radio that “the Canadian forces in Afghanistan have behaved magnificently.” Yes, I would imagine they have. The Canadian Armed Forces have a remarkable history, which effectively started in WWI, but progressed through Operation Torch and Juno Beach in WWII, the Korean War, and through the various peacekeeping duties assumed in Vietnam, Cyprus, the Balkans, Rwanda, and elsewhere. A military that has produced the likes of Generals Lewis Mackenzie, Romeo Dallaire, and Rick Hillier has no cause to be humble.

[Note to readers: what follows for the next two paragraphs is me indulging in a dilettante-esque recapitulation of some WWI history, a digression of the sort my students are all too familiar with. Feel free to skip it].

Or generals like Sir Arthur Currie for that matter, our Canadian supreme commander in WWI. Marginalized by his British superiors earlier in the war, he was given increasing autonomy in part as a result of Prime Minister Robert Borden’s repeated insistence that Canadian troops not be subjected to the hidebound dicta of the British command, which resulted in such catastrophes as the Battle of the Somme. But Currie was also given freer reign as it became clear that Canadian troops could accomplish what the British and French forces could not. This did not set them apart from other Commonwealth nations, mind you: Australian and New Zealand troops comported themselves comparably well, leading the British commanders to sniff that life in the colonies obviously toughened these chaps up. But in reality, Canadian forces were not so blindly bound to nineteenth-century military dogma, which entailed putting large numbers of enlisted men under lieutenants and sergeants with no room given for individual initiative. When the principal tactic of warfare was to stand in long lines and blast away at the enemy with muskets at close range, this kind of fierce discipline was what won battles (and what made the Redcoats the most formidable infantry in the eighteenth and nineteenth century). It does not however tend to work that well when confronted with accurate, quick-firing long-range rifles and machine guns; but marching wave after wave of soldiers at a brisk walk into enemy fire was what Sir Douglas Haig, commander of the British Expeditionary Force, did in battle after battle (leading a German general to morosely observe that the British soldiers were “lions led by donkeys”).

Given more or less a free hand at Vimy Ridge—which his British superiors did not expect his men to take—Arthur Currie encouraged individual initiative, breaking the massive blocks of soldiers employed in British-style attacks down into smaller squads of eight and four men under the command of corporals and lesser sergeants. This gave the Canadian line both more flexibility and a greater esprit de corps as the smaller squads vied with each other over the successes of the night-time raids on German emplacements in the weeks leading up to the assault on the ridge. These changes, combined with a more flexible and effective system of communication between officers and the troops in the battle and the refinement of the creeping barrage, took Vimy Ridge in mere hours and won for Canadian troops a fearsome reputation on both sides of no-man’s land.

Sorry for the history lecture—in my alternative life where I’m still an academic, I’m a military historian.

All the foregoing I say to emphasize the desire I had to love Passchendaele (and to inform those who might not otherwise know, that I’m a history geek). I was also very concerned that it was going to be very bad, as the trailers made it look like it would commit the typical sins of earnestness and clumsiness that mark so many Canadian filmic projects. Indeed, if you had somehow missed seeing the spelling of “Passchendaele” in the ads and had a general ignorance of WWI, you could be forgiven for thinking the film’s title was “Passion Dale,” for all the lingering pastoral shots of Paul Gross and Catherine Dhavernas. I worried that this film would awkwardly suture a stilted love story onto an overly sincere rah-rah-Canada war narrative. And ... well, it sort of did, but it wasn’t quite as cringe-inducing as I had feared.

For those who don’t want to know details of the film’s plot, here is where I say SPOILER ALERT.

The uncharitable would call this film a vanity project on the part of Paul Gross, but I don’t agree. I honestly believe it was a labour of love for him, and while the distinction between those two things can sometimes get blurry, I applaud his dedication to this project. The problem however is that it becomes more difficult to distance oneself when you’re writer, director, co-producer and star. Paul Gross really needed to step back a little and let some other, subtler hands work on the script. It felt as though he were trying to cram everything possible into the story.

To wit: Paul Gross is Michael Dunne, a sergeant in the CEF. At Ypres, he watches his buddies get taken out by a machine gun nest, which he then blows apart with a grenade, and in a moment that haunts him for the rest of the film—his original sin, if you like—he bayonets through the forehead (ouch) a very young German soldier who was trying to surrender . Unable to reconcile that act with the medal he is awarded, he goes AWOL, is invalided back to Canada, and rather than being tried for desertion is diagnosed with neurasthenia, or shell shock, and assigned to the recruitment office. He falls in love with Sarah, who was his nurse, whose father was killed at Vimy Ridge. Sarah’s younger brother David is in love with Cassie, the daughter of a local doctor. David is asthmatic, and has for that reason been rejected from military service. Cassie’s father effectively tells him that until he sees fit to serve in uniform, he’s not man enough to marry his daughter. Michael Dunne refuses to enlist David, even though his superior officer is willing to look the other way on the asthma.

We discover at this point that Sarah and David’s father, born in Bavaria, had died at Vimy Ridge fighting for the Germans. Apparently Sarah and Michael’s neighbours discover this at the same time as us in the audience, because there is quite suddenly an awful lot of anti-German sentiment expressed, as Sarah loses her job as a nurse and her house has its windows broken and “HUN” painted in red on the walls. We similarly discover that David’s desire to enlist stems as much from his hatred for his father’s choice and his desire to symbolically kill him as it does from satisfying Sarah’s father. Michael has meanwhile come to Sarah’s rescue, of course, spiriting her away from her house and holing her up at his small flat, where she can get clean. Oh, wait—I didn’t mention that Sarah’s addicted to morphine? Sorry: Sarah’s addicted to morphine. She and the sweet and gentle Michael Dunne naturally hook up at this point, and while they’re dallying David gets Sarah’s doctor father to write him a medical note allowing him to enlist. Sarah gets the mistaken impression that it was Michael who enlisted him, so of course Michael re-enlists so that he can protect David. Sarah discovers her mistake and volunteers as a nurse on the Western Front, very conveniently getting assigned to the very place Michael and David end up.

With me so far? The general bones of the narrative are pretty strong, if not particularly original—but then again, one does not go see a war movie, at least not one that is self-consciously “epic,” for originality. The problem, besides this seeming need to cram as much business as possible into the plot, is that much of the above feels extremely stagy and contrived, and the dialogue is at times painfully stilted and awkward. There is, also, something of a requisite tokenism in the Canadian ranks, with a French-Canadian and a native soldier featured fairly prominently. The imagery and symbolism is similarly heavy-handed, with a recurrent bird motif in the form of the kestrel , and a sort of “sins of the father” theme that builds to a rather ham-handed ending sequence. Something we hear about frequently is an occasion where the Germans ostensibly crucified a Canadian soldier against a barn door. Michael Dunne is having none of that however, repeatedly telling people that “artillery explosions can throw bodies into the most bizarre poses.” At this point, the foreshadowing bell goes off in the head, and we know someone’s getting crucified by artillery before the film is out. The question is: is it David or Michael?

As it happens, it’s David. After the hard-pressed Canadian forces repel the first German assault, David goes a little nuts and starts charging after the retreating enemy, somehow making it all the way to their trenches where he finds himself about to be shot by a German officer. Before this can happen, a shell lands in the trench—throwing the duckboards up vertical, with David pinned there by barbed wire (a veritable crown of thorns). What follows could have been a very moving and powerful scene if it had been a bit less painfully symbolic—if David had been wounded in no-man’s land and Michael Dunne had run out to rescue him. Because of course Michael goes to the rescue: at first dodging bullets and mortars, and taking a wound high in the chest. As he nears David however, the German officer calls ceasefire and they all watch in awe as Michael drags himself toward David—again, a potentially powerful moment if it weren’t for the literal crucifixion, to say nothing of the fact that Michael pauses a moment, apparently spent, on his knees in the mud before David. And then of course we have the excruciatingly long sequence of Michael carrying David—still affixed to the cross—back to Canadian lines. I honestly haven't seen such self-indulgent Christ imagery since the closing sequence of Kenneth Branagh's Hamlet. I suppose we should be grateful the Michael and David weren’t named Peter and Christian.

Considering the symbolic logic in place, it comes as no surprise that David survives and Michael dies from his wounds: expiating his original sin of killing the young German at the film’s start, and sacrificing his life that David may live. It may have been David that was crucified, but the Christ figure comes through pretty clearly at the end.

My problem with all this is that, to paraphrase Rupert Giles, the subtext of the film quite emphatically becomes text. There’s a painful earnestness here: as if Paul Gross was concerned that we might not get it. Well, we got it. Again and again and again. Which is truly a shame, because otherwise Passchendaele is a very noble endeavour. The problem with noble endeavours however is that they often simply don’t make good art.

That being said, I will cop to my own moment of helpless sentimentality: at the very end, when Sarah, Cassie, David and Highway—the native soldier—stand before Michael Dunne’s grave, the final shot shows the lonely grave-marker suddenly surrounded by the gravestones of hundreds of Canadian soldiers. That was when the weeping started for me.

What can I say, I'm weak.


Nikki Stafford said...

Military history buff! I learn something new about you every week. :) You know, last night Rob and I went out to our first movie in, oh, forever, and it came down to Passchendaele or W, and we went to the latter. I was sitting in the theatre thinking, "Does this make a very bad Canadian?" But it sounds like we might have made the right choice.

Anonymous said...

You posed the question did we get it? A friend of mine, a long time military historian was also put off by the crucifixion theme. He thought it "over the top". I too was shocked to see such a stark use of the Christian symbol for a moment, but then, as I thought about it, I wondered if Gross understood more than some, that the Christian religion, story and imagery were so much a part of the WW1 era society. This is the society where you either were going to hell or going to heaven. Your social life either centred around the barroom or the church. The Christian world view was the predominant view in society. It would be particularity unusual for a man or woman to be areligious. All the metaphors and similes you would use would be from that religion and I believe, whether consciously or not, Gross realized that. The soldier of that era had not trouble with the "ultimate sacrifice" of Christ being the model for what he was doing "laying down his life for the salvation of society". So the imagery fits the time period very well. Again for our secular atavistic society, with its metaphors and similes rooted in commerce and hollywood, maybe it's too much to expect that we'd "get it"

Chris in NF said...

Sarge: My problem isn't with the crucifixion imagery per se -- if it was, I'd have to relegate a huge number of my favourite writers to the dustbin (starting with James Joyce and T.S. Eliot) -- but with the breathtaking lack of subtlety with which Paul Gross employs it. I can think of many many ways in which the film could have articulated the same themes without resorting to bludgeoning the audience.

I have no doubt that this film would play well for people in 1917, if we could somehow screen it for them -- indeed, it would be an excellent piece of propaganda for the recruitment office then. But right there, that's the problem.

Also, you're right to say that the pulpit was far more prominent in day-to-day life during WWI; you're being overly simplistic when you say that "Your social life was centered around the barroom or the church." Life was an awfully lot more nuanced than that, and a good number of people managed to admit equal measures of liquor and liturgy, and everything in between.

Anonymous said...

"There’s a painful earnestness here: as if Paul Gross was concerned that we might not get it."

He'd have to be, wouldn't he? Considering he was making a movie that he hoped would appeal to the masses who flock to Hollywood movies? Did many people "get" the Christ imagery in Men With Brooms, hidden behind the "romantic comedy" label?

I'd love to see what Gross could do if he made a movie without trying so hard to be accessible because his themes always interest me (sin, redemption, love, duality).

With Passchendaele, I think I had a bigger problem with the temporary cease-fire than with the literal passion. Admittedly, I've never fought in a war, but it struck me as rather doubtful that they'd interrupt the battle like that. Sure, I can see each side letting the other retrieve their wounded afterwards, but in the midst of a battle?

Anonymous said...

Anytime you want to get it out of your system you're welcome to come give a guest lecture for me. I've got classes aplenty where I talk about Canadian military from my wierd kinda leftist, pacifist perspective. And I've got a history of Canadian popular culture course too where discussion of such a film would fit very well. Tempted? Course there is the vast yawning distance thing ...

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The director make a great job, because the movie it's not like the other ones, this have action, drama, even some fantasy, and the military story.
Thanks nice post.

popi said...

One thing that practically never fails me is that when a critic pans a film I know for sure that I will love it.

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