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Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Passchendaele (2008)

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Paul Gross will forever be remembered as that Mounty who rode on that brown horse in that Canadian television series Due South. But now he comes out of left field with a Canadian war film about the battle of Passchendaele, also known as the Third Battle of Ypres, in Belgium. The British were trying to destroy the German forces there with brute force and were backed by, eventually, up to 600,000 Canadian troops. I wish all of this was in the film; at least a mention of it would have been nice. I had to look that up on Wikipedia.

The first 7 minutes of the film take place in France where Sergeant Michael Dunn (Gross) and a platoon of soldiers, whose number you could count with one hand, are outgunned and outnumbered by German soldiers. They fight back until Dunn is left alone with only one other German boy. When the boy asks for a truce Dunn stuffs his bayonet in the kid’s forehead, because earlier he had asked for a truce and didn’t get it. Dunn is hospitalized and diagnosed with Neurasthenia but pretty much everybody, including the military doctors use it as innuendo, calling him a coward for not wanting to return to battle.

Paul Gross’ grandfather is the owner of the aforementioned story and he died some time later while he was still incarcerated in the hospital. But in film terms, the show must go on.

Dunn falls immediately in love with Sarah Mann (Caroline Dhavernas), the nurse that is treating him, and she plays hard to get for a very long time. Her brother David (Joe Dinicol) is old enough to join the army but cannot, for he is asthmatic. He wants to prove to his girlfriend’s father that he’s a real man but alas, it was not in the cards for him. That is until a doctor (his girlfriend’s father) describes him as medically eligible and he goes off to war in Belgium.

I skipped, roughly 75 percent of the film because between Dunn meeting Sarah and David joining the army, I am sad to say, not much happens. Throughout those ninety minutes we learn that Sarah and David’s father was of German descent and when he joined the army at the start of World War I he joined the Bavarian side. Prejudice ensues through the town and Sarah and David begin to hate their heritage.

Dunn and Sarah develop a great physical and mental relationship and cannot be separated again. That is until David leaves the country and Dunn feels obligated to look over him on the front, entirely for Sarah’s sake, not David’s.

I really wanted to like this film because a) I am a Canadian citizen and have lived in Canada for most of my life, b) I heard that it’s a wonderful or excellent film, and c) I like Paul Gross as an actor. But when I was bored nearly to tears watching grass grow I found myself laughing throughout the last 20 minute battle sequence.

60 Canadian soldiers, containing Dunn and David are dispatched to a German battlefield and the 800 that were situated there think that they are their backup. Dunn asks a random soldier, “Where are you going?” He replies, “We’re leaving. We’re tired and hungry and have been sitting here for 8 hours.” Dunn then says, “But there are 800 of you and only 60 of us.” The soldier shrugs and the entire platoon leaves.

Dunn tells his men to wait for the Germans to come closer and when they’re 10 feet away a brawl takes place. The fight consists of bayonets, shovels, and big rocks to smash heads with. I will say nothing further except that what followed made me laugh and shake my head; just think The Passion of the Christ (I am not kidding).

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It’s a well made film. Paul Gross received a 5-million-dollars grant from the Province of Alberta and the overall budget came close to $20,000,000. The war scenes are shot well, with plenty of grit and dirt and high helicopter shots, but the actual battle choreography and cinematography were laughable. Whenever a mortar struck the ground, soldiers spun horizontally in the air as they flew away from the blast. And not once was the word “mortar” actually used, they called them missiles.

The music is effective and is composed by a full orchestra and Paul Gross plays his character well, but everybody around him were complete morons. A love story was necessary but it did not have to hog sixty minutes of our precious time and, personally, Joe Dinicol is a terrible actor. He lacks conviction throughout and embodies a fourteen year old boy.

Even though it's a terrible film, I don't hate it. And I'm surprised that I'd managed to stay awake the entire time. Whenever Dunn speaks to Sarah they are either seated or standing. You can cut to another ten minute scene involving other characters but when you return to them they are still either sitting or standing and simply are having a different conversation. Either make it a wartime film or make it a war film. The advertisements showcase a lot of warfare but that is what’s greatly lacking from this film, and I wish it took place entirely on the battlefield and not behind the scenes because it had great potential.

It’s not a very patriotic film either; I did not see a single Canadian flag anywhere.

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