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.