Canada and the Great War

One to add to the big list of Passchendaele related popular cultural artefacts (alongside the Iron Maiden song), and with a hat tip to George Simmers – shortly forthcoming is Passchendaele: The Movie

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.


6 Responses to Canada and the Great War

  1. Maybe Saving Private Ryan and Band of Brothers have contributed to a climate in which it’s slightly easier to portray realistic tactics in film, but of course that’s most likely outweighed by different perceptions of WWI and WWII. Everyone expects the 101st Airborne in 1944 to have more sophisticated tactics than anyone in 1917.

    On Blackadder I think making it accurate would be missing the point. A large part of the first two series involved confounding people’s expectations with bizarre counterfactual stuff (the Yorkists won Bosworth but Richard III was accidentally killed by Blackadder; Elizabeth I was really stupid and immature). What was really disappointing about Goes Forth is that it coincided exactly with most people’s expectations. Maybe that shows that the myth of the futile war is so powerful that even iconoclastic alternative comedians had to respect it.

  2. Dan says:

    I’m with you on missing the point – but I also agree that BGF was surprisingly conventional. In The Great War, Myth and Memory I point out how the much-loved ending actually fits very well with conventions about the transformative effect of nature on death that go back to the war itself. Is there a ‘comedic arc’ which such series travel, in which they go from being challenging to being the mainstream, or was this just the subject matter I wonder?

  3. It could be a bit of both. My personal view of Blackadder is that each series was more lazy and predictable than the last one (although I enjoyed all of them at the time apart from the ending of BGF, which always really annoyed me). Third had already abandoned the weird counterfactuals – they made the Prince Regent stupid and obnoxious but not quite as stupid and obnoxious as the real one. Ben Elton’s whole career is an arc from challenging to mainstream, and I personally think (although not many people agree with me) that Blackadder went downhill when he started co-writing it. As one of my friends pointed out, most Blackadder jokes from the Ben Elton period tend to follow the formula “a thing is like a thing with a thing”.

    Having said that, I don’t think they could have challenged the dominant view of the Great War even if they wanted to. But if they didn’t want to there’s no reason why they had to choose that setting.

    Also, if they were going to confound people’s expectations then doing an accurate revisionist version would achieve that really well and could be very funny. Baldrick could be set up as the voice of the old myths to be sarcastically deflated by Blackadder.

    BALDRICK: Oh no, we’re going to be stuck in this horrible muddy trench for years and years!

    BLACKADDER: Baldrick, we’re going to be here for four days.

    On death, it’s kind of a paradox that the semiotics of futile death in the poppy fields seemed to make their deaths more meaningful than the pointless and random deaths at the end of the each previous series.

  4. Stuart Mitchell says:

    Gavin, I agree with you there on Blackadder. It certainly would be possible. There’s clearly a debate here over which is more successful in general: reinforcing or confounding people’s expectations. Given the general reception of BGF I think reinforcement just pips it.

    Returning to the original point, does it not strike anyone as slightly odd that the Canadians chose Passchendaele rather than Vimy? To bring it full circle could the film-makers be engaging in a little bit of expectation confounding themselves by not choosing Canada’s Trafalgar? I cautiously look forward to this one, although it’s with some trepidation. After all it can’t possibly be as bad as Flyboys.

  5. Christina says:

    One man found his courage… One nation found its heroes… And one film-producer found that people who bought mud also bought…

    The article about Gallipoli – my pet hate (but have you seen The Anzacs, a 1985-TV miniseries) – and the Chunuk Bair film is a good idea (let me know if you need a co-author well-versed in Aussie lore), but a more commercially viable one would be war war-film software for Windows: “Where would you like to sob today?”

  6. Errol says:

    If you want an example of how a newspaper can turn some reasonable comments from a historian into a beat-up about a film, see
    Film ignores NZ heroes in bloody battle.

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