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cast: Paul Gross, Caroline Dhavernas, Joe Dinicol, and Jim Mezon

director: Paul Gross

110 minutes (15) 2008
widescreen ratio 2.35:1
High Fliers DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 7/10
reviewed by Jim Steel
Paul Gross wrote, directed and starred in Passchendaele. Much of his career seems to have been consumed by Canadian television shows and so most British viewers will recognise him solely as Constable Fraser, the mountie from Due South. He's had the good sense not to cast himself against type in Passchendaele, where he plays a square-jawed Sergeant Michael Dunne in what turns out to be a flawed but intriguing film.

Whereas World War II offers itself to cinema as a great big adventure playground with a whole variety of approaches, World War I has a much more limited palate. It offers fear, horror and the promise of redemption and, therefore, any filmmaker who chooses to make use of it is telling us his themes in advance.

There is a brief but brutal opening section in a ruined town somewhere on the western front in 1915 that causes a few worries for the audience. Dunne's platoon is fighting a German platoon to the death. Does this mean that the film is going to be hamstrung by a small cast and a lack of budget? Sam Fuller's Big Red One kept pulling the viewer out of the film by only seeming to have two tanks available at any one time and, again, two ships to represent the D. Day landings. And Fuller's film is a classic.

The men thrown into the air by explosions in Passchendaele are too-obviously jerked by wires, and the direction of the force exerted on them seems to be the opposite of what it should be. There are also a few empty metaphors such as a rider-less horse and a circling kestrel that appear to be attempting to inject an unearned depth into proceedings. Then Dunne awakes in a military hospital in Alberta, where he takes a shine to nurse Mann (Caroline Dhavernas) who, unfortunately for him, doesn't date soldiers. Narrative conventions (and the title, of course) have already told us that Dunne is going to be heading back to the front at some stage. So far, so ho-hum...

But this is where the film starts to get interesting. Dunne has been classified as unfit for duty due to shellshock, so he is placed in the local recruitment office and is marched out now and again for public meetings. His new CO, Dobson-Hughes, is a British Boer War veteran (played by Donald Pleasance look-alike Jim Mezon) who clearly regards Dunne as a shirker, if not a coward, but who has no qualms about using him in every way he can to push young men into uniform. In one chilling scene, Dobson-Hughes is addressing a gathering in a tent when he tells everyone to rise to greet a hero of the war: Sergeant Dunne. Then Dobson-Hughes tells the women who are present to sit down, followed by the men who are too old, and then those who are too young. The remaining men realise too late the trap that has been set for them.

Dobson-Hughes also hints that the minimum guidelines that have been set for new recruits can be interpreted liberally. The important thing is to fill those uniforms. Dunne, however, aware that the rules reflect the chances of survival for the recruits, applies them to the letter. When asthmatic David (Joe Dinicol) attempts, for a second time, to sign up, Dunne flat-out refuses him. Then he looks more carefully at him and asks if he has a sister who is a nurse. The romance is back on track, although with a couple of new twists. It turns out that the Manns' father was killed at Vimy Ridge, scene of the most famous Canadian battle of the First World War. Then it turns out that he was fighting in the German Army, and the psychology of the Mann offspring is laid out before us.

This, naturally, throws up the ugly, racist side of Canada (it could any nation, really), which also has to be confronted by Dunne. Pushed into this mix is the fact that David Mann is boffing the local doctor's bubble-headed daughter (Meredith Bailey), and we obviously have a medical man around who will be more than willing to certify Mann fit for duty. As stated earlier, everything is clearly putting Dunne back on the road to France. The joy is that the hour of screen-time that it takes to get him back there is packed with incidence. The Canada of 1917 feels alive and authentic here, and there are several supporting characters who round out this section wonderfully.

And then it's off to Passchendaele for everyone. Dunne signs up under a false name to look after David, Dobson-Browne (somewhat unbelievably) follows Dunne across the Atlantic to try and get him arrested (only for his character to be squandered, almost as if Gross had just realised that his film was marching towards the two-hour mark and had to start trimming plot threads to finish it up on time), and, of course, Sarah Mann gets to the front in full Florence Nightingale mode. Just as the gargantuan mass of the western front looks as if it is about to be conflated to the size of a soap opera, Gross unleashes his great set piece: the Battle of Passchendaele.

The carefully blended CGI which is layered over the mud and men gives a feeling of desolation and scale that's only rarely achieved in war films. And the size of the place! The mud seems to go for miles in every direction in the aerial shots, and it is certainly a land laid waste. There are also some truly horrific sights on the human scale which I will leave as a surprise for the viewer. Dunne and Mann's section is eventually left in an exposed forward position after an Allied advance and it then has to bear the brunt of a German counterattack that descends to a brutal, animalistic hand-to-hand scrabble. And there, out of fairness to both filmmaker and viewer, we will end the summary of the plot.

There is a brief, clumsy survivors' coda at the end that feels wrong, and the film sinks, once again, into the mire with a painfully earnest power ballad that's sprinkled all over the final credits. The director must take more than the usual amount of blame for that: he also wrote the song. The faults are minor; the film treats its subject with dignity, for which everyone must be grateful. Unlike the abominable Pearl Harbour (to pick an example), there is no danger of this battle ever being reduced to being a stage for a buddy movie or any similar travesty.

Also included with this release is a documentary called The Making Of Passchendaele. It's not on the preview copy but I assume it's about the production of the film rather than the Allied high command decisions of 1916-7.

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