The Making of 'Passchendaele'

Paul GROSS remembers the moment distinctly. He was a 16-year-old kid, fishing for pike with his grandfather on a lake in southern Alberta. Grandpa, Michael Dunne, fought for three years in the FIRST WORLD WAR, and had been wounded three times, but refused to talk about it until his grandson prodded him that day at the lake. "It was a big day," Gross recalls, "because it was the first time I'd been allowed to drive the boat. I remember his back was turned to me." Dunne then told the story of a grisly encounter in a French village after the Battle of VIMY RIDGE. His patrol exchanged fire with a machine-gun nest that was holed up in the ruins of a church. Dunne was the only one of his squad to survive. He crawled over the sandbags to find the German gunners all dead but for a scared, blue-eyed boy. "The boy raised his hand to my grandfather saying 'Kamerad,' " says Gross, "and my grandfather bayonetted him in the forehead."

That act of impulsive, inexplicable brutality haunted Dunne to his deathbed, and for his grandson it fostered a lifelong obsession. Now it climaxes the opening scene of Passchendaele, a $20-million all-Canadian war epic that Gross spent a decade making, and which premieres next week as the opening night gala of the Toronto International FILM FESTIVAL. Performing a kind of cinematic decathlon, Gross is the film's director, writer, co-producer - and star. He portrays a fictional Alberta soldier (not coincidentally named Michael Dunne), who returns from France wounded and traumatized, falls for a nurse of German descent (Caroline Dhavernas), then goes back to the Western Front to play a heroic role in the 1917 BATTLE OF PASSCHENDAELE.

Canadian cinema is virtually devoid of war movies. That's partly because they're costly to make. But it's also because Canadians are nervous about the very notion of war heroes. "We seem constitutionally indisposed to mythologizing," says Gross. "And there remains this terrible post-Vietnam fashion, where to teach military history is conflated with being militarist." The First World War is especially neglected, he adds. "We come out of this horrible crucible of the Western Front, yet most of us don't even know about it."

Although Canadian valour at Vimy Ridge is legendary, the Battle of Passchendaele, near Ypres, in Belgium was much larger. To capture a short strip of land that the Germans would soon reclaim, the Allies sustained 310,000 casualties, including 16,000 Canadians. The battle was waged amid relentless rain in a cratered wasteland of mud so deep men and horses drowned in it. "It was a truly god-awful blasted landscape," says Gross, who recreated the battlefield on the Tsuu T'ina Reserve in the Calgary area. Canadian Forces troops served as extras, and, adding an accent of authenticity, Brig.-Gen. Gregory Gillepsie portrayed Lt.-Gen. Arthur Currie.

The combat scenes were "exhausting and freezing cold," recalls the director. Water was trucked to the set daily from the glacier-fed Bow River to supply giant rain-trusses. On the first day of shooting, four extras were sent to hospital to be treated for hypothermia.

To even have such problems reflects an ambition that's rare in Canadian film. While $20 million is a pittance for Hollywood, it's enormous for a domestic production. After giving up on foreign co-producers, who wanted to make the story less Canadian, the filmmakers raised the entire budget locally, helped by $5.5 million from former Alberta premier Ralph Klein and $3.5 million from Telefilm.

For Gross, Passchendaele is an epic gamble. Famous for whimsical confections like Due South and Men With Brooms, here he's going for the gravitas, casting himself a kind of star without precedent in this country. But can an earnest Canadian war movie with a diphthong in the title triumph at the box office? We'll see. Less than half the film is combat. The rest takes place in the Alberta foothills, as Dunne courts the nurse - whose German ancestry makes her the target of xenophobia - before heading back to the front to protect her asthmatic kid brother. The romance has the sentimental sweep of Legends of the Fall, recast as a CBC miniseries. But the graphic images of horror and futility on the battlefield are astonishing. If the opening sequence of Saving Private Ryan raised the bar for combat movies, some scenes in Passchendaele are of that calibre. And there, as Gross struggles to drag his national heritage out of the mud, the valour of the character and of the filmmaker become synonymous.

See also FILM INDUSTRY.

Maclean's September 8, 2008