“Passchendaele” is a Canadian movie written, directed, and starred in by Paul Gross. It was the most expensive Canadian movie when released in 2008. The movie begins with an impressive set piece that has Sgt. Michael Dunn’s (Gross) unit in house to house fighting. With “Saving Private Ryan” type cinematography, the action is intense. It culminates with Dunn stabbing a German in the face and then being wounded by an artillery shell. He ends up in the hospital as the sole survivor. This incident was based on a story told to him by Gross’ grandfather. The story inspired the movie.
Mike is sent back to Canada to recuperate from shell shock and to recruit. He meets a nurse named Sarah (Caroline Dhavernas). She is a morphine addict who has been ostracized from the local community because her father joined the German army and died at Vilmy Ridge. Her brother David (Joe Dinicol) wants to enlist to clear the family honor, but is prevented by his asthma. The head of recruiting is a loathsome super-patriot named Dobson. He hates Mike (a coward) and David (a Hun). He enlists David, but Sarah mistakenly blames Mike. He returns to combat to protect him. Three months later, the foursome is on the Western Front. It’s a small world!
The Battle of Passchendaele arrives with Mike and David in the front lines. Specifically, a shell crater full of muddy water. Their unit is ordered forward, but in a misunderstanding the unit they are reinforcing assumes they are being relieved and withdraws leaving the much smaller unit in the front. It’s back to SPResque action. A soldier loses an arm, there is a stretch without sound. The blood and guts and mud and rain are realistic, but the artillery fire is much too accurate. Those Germans could hit a fly! The violence is very graphic, especially the hand-to-hand with whatever weapon is handy.
The scene takes a bizarre turn when David goes running to the German trench and leaps in. Is he a traitor or does he want to negotiate an end to the war? Before we can find out, an explosion lifts him out of the trench and onto a crucifix-shaped wooden form. Mike goes after him with every German on the Western Front shooting at him. One of them hits, but the German commander orders the army to cease-fire. The entire battle stops as Mike carries the cross back to his lines. He is doing his best Jesus imitation. Cue the rain ceasing, sun coming out, hawk soaring overhead.
“Passchendaele” is an entertaining, but implausible movie. You really have to suspend disbelief to enjoy it. The acting is pretty good and you have to admire their ability to keep a straight face. The combat is some of the best filmed and is a worthy Canadian attempt to replicate the feel of “Saving Private Ryan”. What sets the movie apart is the overt religiousity of the crucifix scene. Did I say overt? I meant heavy-handed and ridiculous.
“The Trench” is a British movie released in 1999 and written and directed by Paul Boyd. It stars a pre-superstardom Daniel Craig. The movie is set in the Somme valley in 1916 in the days leading up to the battle. The action is confined to a trench and the movie has the feel of a play to it. It is fairly realistic in its look, but too sanitary and lacking in mud. It also has a lot of talking like a play. The soldiers sit around and chat in their thick British accents.
A British soldier looks through a loophole and describes the bucolic no man’s land. The trench faces a green hill. You wouldn’t think there would be snipers in all that green. Oops! The Colonel arrives to boost morale and get filmed doing it. He assures them “you’ll be able to go over the top with a walking stick”. Sure! Then we get more conversating. Unfortunately, most of it is boring. The soldiers are mostly stereotypes. Sgt. Winter (Craig) is gruff, of course. The captain is alcoholic and disillusioned, of course. Cliches are on display. For instance, Winter shows off a picture of his wife and kids. Several women in the audience faint from foreboding.
As the battle approaches, tensions rise. They will be in the first wave. The captain gives each company a soccer ball – first to kick it into the German line wins beer. One soldier shoots himself in the calf. I guess he doesn’t like beer. The bombardment begins which is bad enough, but the rum ration gets destroyed. The lieutenant provides his private stash of whiskey to give the men “Dutch courage”. Now it’s all about the waiting. The audience also waits to see if there will ever be any action in this movie.
“The Trench” would be better as a play. That way you would not expect any action. However, you would expect better dialogue and acting. The soldier talk is trite and boring and gives little insight into soldier life. The acting is average and even Daniel Craig is not at his best. He does dominate over the rest of the cast, however. The scenario is not realistic. The trench is too wide and pristine. They are supposedly in a very dangerous position, but other than a sniper shot, nothing really happens.
“Passchendaele” is a better movie than “The Trench”. They approach the war from different perspectives. “The Trench” wants to be about the soldiers. “Passchendaele” is aiming more at the stress of combat. It also is more melodramatic and romantic. Subtle, it isn’t. “The Trench” is too subtle. More importantly, “Passchendaele” does a better job giving the viewer an idea of what that battle was like than “The Trench” teaches about the Battle of the Somme.
Passchendaele - no man's land
The Trench - sniper scene