Given all the American war films, Paul Gross decided to make one about Canadians in a First World War battle.
There have been several films and television movies about Canadians at war, dating back to the silent era. However, when most Canadians think about war movies, they think American. Americans have been saving the world on film for the better part of a century despite being late to the party in both world wars. (The First World War started in 1914 and the Americans entered in 1917. They entered the Second World War, which began in 1939, in December of 1941.)
When Canadian actor Paul Gross set out to make a movie about the First World War battle of Passchendaele—which he had learned about from a grandfather who had fought in the battle—he felt that it was important for Canadians to look at their own history in wars from a different perspective than that of Americans.
“I think it all comes down to how we think of heroism,” he says over the phone from Halifax, where he is promoting the film. “When I first completed Passchendaele [which opens Friday, October 17], someone said, ”˜You seem to be making heroes out of these people in the context of American heroism.’ I said, ”˜I don’t think so,’ because I felt that the heroism that our forefathers had was on a human scale, a scale of generosity and self-effacement and sacrifice. I think heroism was, to some extent, defined by American war films: these upscale, ludicrous things that were set up by European immigrants in the original studios of Hollywood. I don’t think that was genuine heroism, but I do think there was genuine heroism inside World War I which I would call ”˜Canadian’, in that it was, ”˜I will do this for you. I will sacrifice and I will not stand there and yell about it and point at myself.’ ”
The film follows Sergeant Michael Dunne (Gross), who returns to his Alberta hometown from the First World War with severe injuries and takes a job as a recruiting officer. He falls in love with a woman named Sarah Mann (Caroline Dhavernas), a nurse who attended to him upon his return to Canada. She and her brother David (Joe Dinicol) are outcasts in the town because their immigrant father returned to his German homeland to fight for the enemy. When David decides to cover up his asthma and fight for Canada in order to prove his patriotism, Dunne changes his name in order to reenter the war and sets out to protect him.
Because most of the war movies he had seen were American, it’s not surprising that Gross’s inspiration to tell the story of his grandfather and men like him came from a moment in an American film. “I find Saving Private Ryan to be amazing but also kind of dumb at the same time. It comes across as a John Wayne film at times, but there is this scene where [the film’s star] Tom Hanks talks about what he did before the war and he says he was a high-school teacher. So that opens up this whole new thing, because you can suddenly see him in his normal life and yet now he is here in this slaughter yard. I knew my grandfather as a postman and as someone who worked in irrigation ditches in Alberta, and I was always fascinated at imagining him in this other context as a man who killed other men.
“As a result of that sense of the telling of the story, I always wanted it to be as much about life before and after these men fought in the war as it was about life in the trenches. I was also captivated by the intimate casualties of war and what it did on the home front and how it impacted love and innocence and neighbours. It’s interesting too because usually I write something and I have an idea of where it is going, but this one sort of unfolded almost on its own, in a way. I would work for a few weeks on it and then I would put it away for months and then work harder on it and then put it away again. I eventually came to the conclusion that my real interest was in the human geography of the war. It wasn’t in the movement of great power or necessarily in the misery of combat, although you need to have that, because it was miserable. I felt that if you were going to have action and show the horror of battle, you should have a context, and I felt the context should be: ”˜Where did these men come from?’ ”
To reenact the war scenes, Gross hired Canadian soldiers. Some of them had already served in Afghanistan while others headed there after shooting the film. Gross says that there was never any intention to make a comment on the Canadian military’s involvement in that war. He had, in fact, begun the process of writing about the battle of Passchendaele a dozen years ago when the Russians were still in the country. He does admit that having modern soldiers involved in the making of the film reminded him of the connection between today’s soldiers and their predecessors who fought in foreign wars.
“When I was at the premiere in Ottawa, Lt.-Gen. Andrew Leslie, the chief of land staff, who I have come to know fairly well over the years, pulled me over and said, ”˜I just want you to know that some of the boys in your show are currently in a firefight in Afghanistan.’ When they were with us on the set they could just slide away into make-believe, but having real soldiers there really grounded everyone involved with it. It made it extremely clear that there is a direct line from the men and women in the sands of Afghanistan today that goes all the way back to the Korean War and the two world wars, in that we as a nation are still asking our fellow citizens to go out and die for a cause we have agreed upon. It was extremely important to us to make that point, but it’s interesting that when we ask for questions following the screenings, people are always asking, ”˜What do you think about Afghanistan?’ While I don’t have a particular opinion about it, I like the fact that if it can ignite an interest in where we come from, it can help inform where we are going. I don’t mean that a movie will change our lives, but, hopefully, it can contribute to the conversation.”
That conversation will hopefully include young Canadians, most of whom are removed by at least two generations from the last world war. Gross says that he has always seen Passchendaele as having an educational component, one that will allow Canadians to connect with the sacrifice of their ancestors.
“One of the things that we had running beside this thing right from the beginning was this interest in trying to get to the youth,” he says. “We had this big educational initiative that saw us partnering with the Dominion Institute. They made a study guide to accompany the film, so we are getting school bookings, and when the film is done its run it will be distributed to schools across the country. I thought the idea of taking a class to the film would help them to be energized by it. Maybe we can cut though the mothballs of history so that they can see that this event from 90 years ago has some relevance to their own lives. At least that’s my hope for it.”