Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Paschendaele: A Film by Paul Gross

First thing to remember, it is a movie. Historians like to review movies as if they were textbooks, and then find fault with them for not being very good textbooks. Passchendaele does have a few unfortunate moments when it aspires to be a textbook. The couple of text screens to tell us What It All Means seemed to me unnecessary. We're movie people, we could have sussed that out.

But mostly Passchendaele knows it is a movie, and Passchendaele is a pretty good movie. A movie needs a story arc, a movie needs strong visuals, a movie needs characters we can bond with, a movie needs to set that emotional hook and carry it through to an ending that leaves you wanting to applaud or cry. Paul Gross knows these things. His Passchendaele delivers.

It's a movie: we should accept that the characters living in 1917 will have a pretty 21st century worldview. The only people with grimly realistic Edwardian attitudes about duty and class and empire and the right to demand sacrifice? Those are the villains, the malevolent recruiting officer and the arrogant doctor who conspire to send our asthmatic and shellshocked heroes off to the front. That just makes us all the more strongly bonded to the characters representing those who truly were sacrificed for those values. (It's particularly striking how the young women of 1917 Calgary have distinctly post-pill, pre-AIDS attitudes to sex, but hey....)

It's a movie: we can live with the coincidences that bring all the protagonists together in one small corner of the battlefield at the climax. We can live with the crucifixion symbol that stops the battle. For a movie works if it shows you scenes you have not seen before and evokes the feelings those landscapes -- physical and moral landscapes -- should evoke. Passchendaele is a well-structured, well-acted movie. I'm very grateful that it shows us so vividly the landscapes of early 20th century Alberta, for any Canadian place well evoked in film is still rare and precious.

Above all, Passchendaele takes us to the soldier's world on the Western Front in 1917. Not just the godawful physical landscape, but the emotional landscape of soldiers condemned to endless misery leading to horrible meaningless inevitable deaths -- by all their society values most highly. I'm sure the battlefield sets of Passchendaele can be nitpicked and detailed-mongered, but this film is the best, most gut-wrenching evocation of trench warfare I've seen, and the story arc Paul Gross has set up puts us right into the sheer, gutwrenching reality of those who were trapped in it without hope of escape or reprieve. Lest we forget.

I saw it at a suburban multiplex on a Saturday night, and I'm glad to say the theatre was full. The demographic inside that particular theatre skewed a fair bit higher than the average in the rest of the multiplex, but no matter. Go. Send your kids. It's a good movie.

Update: Discussion of the film has taken off on the Canadian historians' discussion list H-Can, available on the web here.
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