I’m getting some quite confused messages from the trailer.
‘One man found his courage… One nation found its heroes…’ and the repetition of ‘Canadian Corps’ makes me think this is going to be the Maple-Leaf version of Gallipoli (and as such, could be the third part of an article which has long been on the backburner about comparing Gallipoli and Once On Chunuk Bair (a play and film about the real heroes of the peninsula, the New Zealanders… Yes, I have just put that ‘real‘ in because I like abusive comments from Australians, Frenchmen, Irishmen, representatives of the New Army and Turks).
Passchendaele‘s tagline is ‘In love there’s only one rule: don’t die’ (and not, as I had been led to believe, ‘Don’t leave the seat up’). So is it also war-rom? A straight version of Gallipoli, perhaps? And how will that be fitted to the attritional slog up to the destroyed village in the late autumn of 1917? There seem to be some indications that someone’s been reading history books as well: note the suggestion in this trailer that the Canadians were using ‘storm trooper tactics’ in 1917 (quite how this will go down in cinemas, where the audience might expect to hear the Imperial March from Star Wars, I don’t know).
This reminded me of an august military historian telling me that if only Richard Curtis and Ben Elton had come for a talk, Blackadder Goes Forth could have been really accurate and still as funny… Could you make an ‘accurate’ version of Passchendaele on screen?
‘It was a time of war….
It was a time of pre-registered artillery bombardments and machine guns firing on fixed lines….
It was a time of gradually improving logistics systems…’
The greatest challenge for anyone producing an ‘accurate’ version, however, is that the randomness of death in war is directly opposed to expectations of narrative. The only time I’ve seen this well handled was the recent stage version of A Matter of Life and Death. Here the company departed from the film, with the judge in heaven presiding over Peter’s case announcing that the only way to restore justice was for his life or death to be decided by chance. At that point, they made someone in the front row of an audience toss a coin. Heads he dies, tails he lives. On the night I went, he died – but he could have lived, they’d prepared different endings. This was a brilliant subversion of the audience’s expectations and hopes, made a very strong point, but totally flattened the end of the play. Some critics hated it, not just because it monkeyed around with a film they loved, but because they didn’t like the hero’s life being rubbed out seemingly without reason.
Now, if you had an interest in Canada and the Great War, and you couldn’t wait until Passchendaele comes out, what could you do? You could go and look at the new Canadian War Museum online exhibition, that’s what. The ‘Objects and Photographs’ section is well worth a look, with some but not all artefacts ‘zoomable’, and most covered by a conditional free non-commercial use licence. One of the historians who has advised on the site is Dr Tim Cook, whose book Clio’s Warriors is also required reading.