September 6, 2008 / 1:51 AM / 10 years ago

WWI drama can't make up its mind about war

TORONTO (Hollywood Reporter) - The raison d’etre for “Passchendaele” is a savage World War I battle by that name, a proud yet horrific moment in Canadian history that cost the still-young and underpopulated country so many of its finest young men.

Director Paul Gross gestures during the news conference for the film 'Passchendaele' at the 33rd Toronto International Film Festival, September 5, 2008. REUTERS/ Mike Cassese

But to get several major characters from a small frontier town in Alberta to the bloody fields of Ypres, Belgium, Paul Gross, the star-writer-director of the film, dives through hoops of increasing mawkishness and strained melodrama. The carnage of the battle has undoubted impact, but much less than it deserves since the audience has lost all hope in the cardboard characters.

The film might play entirely differently here in Canada — where it is meant as a heartfelt tribute to Canadian troops in their first major international combat — than it will elsewhere. So exposure beyond festival slots is iffy. A war film about pride, honor and glory is a tough sell anywhere else these days. The film will be distributed in Canada by Alliance Films.

WWI was the first major war when the devastation of heavy artillery to the human body became shockingly clear. As the story involves a doctor and nurse all too familiar with such wounds — when there is even a whole body to examine — Gross makes certain the audience is well prepared for the slaughter.

The film opens with a brief but ruthless sequence in northern France where Sgt. Michael Dunne (Gross) — not coincidentally the name of Gross’ grandfather, who served in the 10th Battalion — is the sole survivor of a battle against a German machine gun nest. It ends when he bayonets a boy soldier in the forehead, an image that will forever haunt him.

Returned wounded and shell shocked to his hometown, Michael falls for a nurse, Sarah (Caroline Dhavernas). Sarah and her brother are ostracized by the town because they are not only German but their father left to fight for the “godless Huns.” Sarah has become a morphine addict, while David (Joe Dinicol) is determined to demonstrate his patriotism and manhood by volunteering despite chronic asthma that makes him unfit for duty.

The home-front sequences pretty much stop the movie dead in its tracks. The writing is stilted and prone to cliche, while the acting ranges from cartoonish in smaller roles to workmanlike in major ones. Although no one plot twist or coincidence is entirely improbable, the culmination of all the plot mechanics makes one lose confidence in the storytelling.

Gross demonstrates a striking ambivalence about the film’s graphic climax. Taking place in pouring rain and a deluge of exploding mortar shells and machine gun fire, the deaths of Passchendaele have no nobility whatsoever. Yet Gross means to wave the flag. He tries to imagine what it must have been like for his grandfather to experience chaos and carnage on every side with no sense of purpose or reason. He does this very well, in fact. But his insistence that this battle is nonetheless a shining moment for Canadians is at odds with the utter degradation and cruelty of those deaths.

Michael has the right perspective on what war really is — a pointless bayonet to the forehead. He refuses to buy into any of the patriotic fever or bigotry that inflames his hometown. There’s no romance in the trenches, he tells David. And yet he rushes back into battle to protect David because of his great love for Sarah. Then Sarah turns up on the front line as a nurse. No romance indeed!

Reuters/Hollywood Reporter

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