The National Post’s unholy obsession with Passchendaele

The National Post & other CanWest papers have now published multiple reviews of Paul Gross’ epic WWI picture Passchendaele. Their interpretation and obsession with Passchendaele is peculiar because none of the reviews seem to be particularly thrilled with the movie overall, but at the same time, they all seem to spare no energy praising the fawning and glorious portrayal of Canada, the Canadian military, militarism, Alberta, and the valour of combat in Passchendaele which were precisely the parts of the picture which I had the most difficulty with.

Now, it’s one thing to be obsessed with a movie that one believes to be of superlative value and merit. I certainly have movies of my own where I am guilty of precisely this and so it would be hypocritical of me to begrudge any reviewer of any movie the same leeway. However, neither Nigel Vhannaford of the Calgary Herald nor Chris Knight of the National Post see the movie in this way. On the contrary, both men hated Passchendaele for precisely the reasons that most of the audience in my movie theatre seemed to enjoy it and yet they praised it for the two-dimensional parts that promoted blind jingoistic nationalism and uncritical patriotism.

For instance, Knight of the National Post takes a poke at Passchendaele for not focusing on praising the province of Alberta (where much of the movie is set) enough for his liking. Passchendaele – which, admittedly, is similar to the Hollywood movie Pearl Harbor insofar as the picture takes its name for a particular battle/event that is not necessarily central to the plot – also gets slammed by Knight for not focusing enough on the glorious war and instead focusing too much on the inter-personal relationships between the main characters.

Knight writes: “Some cross-cutting between the home front and the European theatre might have helped remind us that there’s a war going on. Instead, the only clue is the behaviour of the local head of recruitment.”

I mean, it’s just madness, shear madness I say! It’s almost as if this meaningless war between the inter-related royal families of Russia, the U.K. and Germany which began over nothing isn’t the all consuming event for every single human on the planet every waking hour of every day as Knight had in mind. Knight’s disappointment that “the only clue” that we’re at war in the movie is by the behaviour of certain people in the film is borderline childish with the refrain “you mean we don’t get to see blood and guts more often” replacing the more common teenage boy obsession with wishing he got to see more breasts and asses “more often”.

But as ridiculous as Knight’s review of Passchendaele is, it pales in comparison to Vhannaford’s review.

Vhannaford went so far as to title his review “Gross’s Passchendaele does teach one thing – patriotism” which obviously lets the cat out of the bag as to what he sees as the movie’s key virtue.

Vhannaford’s critique of Passchendaele borders on Puritanism when he writes (I kid you not):

“But, it’s not all in the film — no U-boats or mutinies for instance, that would explain why it was so important so many Canadians should risk so much to kick the Germans out of Passchendaele, and why they deserve their place in the national narrative.

“What was exhaustively covered were the dynamics and dilemmas of a handful of Calgarian families circa 1917. Gratuitously so, in fact. We suspected teen sex went on in those days, but now we know. And in a doctor’s office, by George.

Anyone who’s seen the movie will know which scene Vhannaford is referring to above. Anyone who has not seen the movie would likely think from the above passage that the scene in question is like something out of the American Pie franchise.

Not to be outdone though, Vhannaford concludes his review with this jingoistic and demonstrably false assumption:

“If all people get from this was that Canadian troops were the best of the best and saved the day for the British Empire in 1917, and there was once a place called Passchendaele that should be spoken of in awed tones, it was a well done thing. For, on this kind of shared understanding of history is patriotism based.”

So, by his own words, Vhannaford would be happy if moviegoers got nothing from the movie except how great Canada, Canadian troops, the Canadian military and the salvation of the British Empire was. The only problem with this – other than the fact that Vhannaford couldn’t bring himself to mention the anti-German hysteria which gripped Canada during WWI and which was a significant part of the storyline (indeed it was perhaps the most significant part of the storyline) – is that the Third Battle of Ypres (AKA the battle of Passchendaele) was not the salvation of the British Empire any more than it was a significant military victory. The movie and Vhannaford both gloss over the fact that any military significance of an obscene number of Canadians dying only to capture a shelled out and destroyed hamlet called Passchendaele was erased and undone in less than a fortnight by the Germans the following year who were able to easily re-capture the village.

The battle of Passchendale, in short, was significant only for the same reason that Postmodernism was significant: for its sheer absurdity.

But instead of attempting to understand the battle’s full historical context, Vhannaford and company would rather turn Canadians into mere Saraphim for the Canadian state and thus it’s no wonder they both hate and love the movie. They love the movie because — like the six-winged Seraphim angels in Christian mythology whose sole job is to uphold God’s Throne and do nothing else other than continually sing his praise for all of eternity – they see Passchendaele as instilling this same kind of uncritical praise for our secular god: the Canadian state. Conversely, they hate the movie because it dares to suggest at times that there are other things in life worth doing than praising and upholding our secular god’s throne.

8 Responses to “The National Post’s unholy obsession with Passchendaele”

  1. 1 Travis Fast 25 October, 2008 at 3:38 pm

    Good review. Nice piece of writing.

  2. 2 Larry Gambone 25 October, 2008 at 7:42 pm

    And who in their right mind – other than the ruling parasites – would want to save the British Empire – or any other empire for that matter? Why doesn’t somebody do a movie on Ginger Goodwin – a real hero who died fighting war and imperialism?

  3. 3 Lina 25 October, 2008 at 8:06 pm

    Arg! You’ve just reminded me of my futile efforts to understand Postmodernism when I studied it in University. So many meaningless poems…

    Sorry, I realise that this is a slight deviation from the true point of your writing, but I found your comment amusing.


  4. 4 Deb Prothero 26 October, 2008 at 12:30 am

    Given that the NP heartily supports the neo-con government we’ve just elected, what more could one expect even from the movie reviews. I expect we’ll witness more of this type of hogwash from the corporate media as they try to assist Harper in making Canada more conservative.

    Brilliant article, by the way. Haven’t seen the movie but it was on my to-do list although it’s sunk a couple of spots further down now.

  5. 5 Jennifer Smith 26 October, 2008 at 12:33 am

    Wow. I guess people really do see what they want to see. I loved the movie, but then I took it as a scathing indictment of war – and this war in particular.

    I still thing the funniest bit was the fact that Gross named the boorish, bigoted neighbour across the street in Calgary ‘Mr. Harper’.

  6. 6 Emilie 28 October, 2008 at 10:00 pm

    As global and worldy this War was, it was also very personnal. Such a carnage can only be felt and « understood » through your own personnal perceptions and construct.
    The mixed reviews go to show just that.

    WWI was particularly brutal and, as said, absurd. And although Canada played a great part in the unfolding events, we have been under the shade of the Great Brittish Empire and of the USA for most (if not all) major motion pictures depicting the Great War. Wether or not we agree on the movie’s main values, flas or quality, we should still be proud that Canada was able to produce such a major movie about our own historic heritage. And although it is not an educational film (far from being a documentary), may I also say that this movie is historically acurate and truly impressive in the details shown.

    What about the movie itself?
    A trained eye will see how much effort was put in what may seem like futile details.
    As a big picture?
    Yes there is blood. There was blood. Alot of it.
    Yes there is love. We tend to forget that soldiers had personnal stories and families.. after all they are only human.
    No there isnt cross-cutting between the home front and the European theatre. On the Canadian home front, the presence of war was felt through economy, newspapers, personnal loss and military recruitment. They could not see, smell, hear or feel the atrocities across the ocean.

    And as the trailer says : as the world came apart, a nation came of age.

  7. 7 Paddy 15 November, 2008 at 6:00 am

    Not mentioned yet, oddly enough, is that Canwest was a major funding partner for this film, and in fact Mr. Asper is personally acknowledged (as in “thanks to,…”) in the final credits.

  8. 8 paulitics 15 November, 2008 at 7:34 am

    Good catch Paddy!

    I definitely did not notice that.

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