Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Film Notes: Passchendaele

Paul Gross' film Passchendaele is a World War One epic, which brings home the mass horror of trench warfare by telling the story of one family's involvement in the rain-sodden battle of Ypres.

Many of the events depicted in this film are reconstructions of known historical events. The main character is based on Gross' grandfather, and the battle details and the enormous bravery and suffering of the Canadian Expeditionary Force is also factual. Gross uses this historical framework as a springboard for an imaginative plot full of romance, tragedy, soldier-bravery and officer-cowardice.

The battle-scenes are shocking, terrifying, and reflect the mental pictures of the organised hell of trench-warfare described by the famed First World War poets. History books note the endless torrential rain that turned the Passchendaele battlefield into a ghastly quagmire, a horror which the film-makers reconstruct with great care and powerful effect. Some of the battle-scenes come across as a deliberate attempt to do for the memory of WW1 what Saving Private Ryan did for the Second World War. It does so quite movingly and effectively. The most dramatic moment in the movie involves a soldier blown by a shell onto a cross where he hangs, apparently crucified. In a scene dripping with Christian imagery, Gross' character Dunne carries the victim back to safety, while he is still on his cross. Dunne, staggers under the weight of the cross as he seeks to bring the victim to safety.

This film should have been brilliant - but despite its many great elements, as a whole it somehow doesn't come together to fulfil its undoubtedly enormous potential. Part of the problem is that the balance of the film is odd. The war is sidelined as a postscript while the very-slow love story (that brought that mass-tragedy of the war to life through individual narrative) dominates the film. Then there is the comedy villain, a British recruiting-officer-coward-cad who is so over the top that he would have been at home in a Victorian melodrama or a Panto. Then the ludicrous love-scene. Then the improbable elements in a historical film. Then the back-story of minor-characters takes up too much time and ends up not giving perspective to the battle, but ends up making the Great War a sideline in a film in which it should have loomed as large as it did in the 2nd decade of the Twentieth Century.

This film could have been so, so good. But despite its many, many great points, it ends up leaving the viewer feeling a little frustrated by the film-maker - rather than simply moved by the power of the story and the history, which should have been the case. Oddly one of the most moving parts of the film were the final credits! It does sound like a strange observation, but when the credits roll, it presents some of the stark facts of what the Canadian troops suffered in a battle where a quarter of their 20,000 members perished. The final word details the paltry amount of land which this sacrifice prized from the hands of the Germans, who subsequently regained it only a few months later. For all its faults this film ends on a tragically stunning note.

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