A nation forged by war

Actor-director Paul Gross tells forgotten Canadian story

So there’s this Mountie in Chicago. He has the red jacket the wide-brimmed hat and everything. With his firm square jaw and his unassailable Canadian sense of right and wrong he sanitizes the windy city with his small-town spit-and-polish attitude. He’s friendly disciplined and charmingly naive.

Now take this same man and send him back 80 years through time to Europe to France to the front of the First World War. Put a rifle in his hands shove him face-to-face with a surrendering German soldier and see his northern reserve shattered as he looks that German in the clear blue eyes and bayonets him through the forehead without a blink.

Paul Gross has waited a long time to make Passchendaele the $20-million First World War epic that hits theatres on Friday October 17. He was already jotting down notes for the film 12 or 15 years ago back when he was still Const. Benton Fraser that lovable fish-out-of-water Mountie in the comedy series Due South. His role in the hit show nailed the self-perpetuating stereotype of the polite accommodating non-confrontational Canadian. With Passchendaele a movie he wrote produced directed and starred in Gross exposes Canadians in a very different role — as powerful admirable war heroes — a role he believes we have too quickly let fade from the national memory.


“We come from a tradition of extraordinarily good fighting men” Gross tells me over cappuccinos at the Alliance Atlantic offices in Toronto. “It was somewhere in that period post-Watergate and post-Vietnam that it just receded; we let it kind of go away.” This quintessentially Canuck actor thinks that compared to other nationalities we Canadians are “weirdly silent” when it comes to discussing our military legacy in film or otherwise.

“We’ve forgotten the major size of the sacrifice” says Gross. “We sent more than 620000 men and boys over there at a time when our population was something like seven and a half million and of those 620000 one-tenth were killed and one in two were hurt. These are numbers that we just can’t comprehend. It was the time that our country came into its own and we’ve never looked at it cinematically.” Gross is hoping that Passchendaele will fill this void and open up dialogue. “If we’re going to have a legitimate discourse on what fighting soldiers ought to do what we ought to commit them to do then we need to see that in a broader historical context if for no other reason than to inform the decisions that we make about it.”

Passchendaele ’s protagonist Michael Dunne is named for Gross’s own grandfather a Second World War veteran who was shot 15 times at the Battle of Amiens. The opening scene in which the fictional Dunne gruesomely bayonets a German soldier through the forehead is based on a story Gross heard from his grandfather as a teenager. “I used to bug him constantly” Gross says smiling. “I’d say things like ‘Did you bayonet the Hun? Did you kill Germans?’ Most of the time he would completely brush off my questions but one day we were fishing on Tilley Lake in Southern Alberta and he started talking. The first story he told me is the first scene in the film.”

Passchendaele traces the semi-fictional Dunne from the front back to his hometown where a complicated love affair eventually forces him to return to Europe to fight in the battle for which the film is named. Though this plotline is fabricated there are elements that reflect both Gross’s grandfather’s story and his own. Gross chose to use Calgary as the home front because it was where his grandfather enlisted and where he himself is from. He also admits to some purely esthetic reasoning behind the choice: “I also wanted to keep it there because of the mountains; so that you could have this landscape that was monumentally beautiful and the home front would have this solidity to it this perfect kind of glow — the end of the romantic era the end of the pre-modern age.”

While the sweeping panoramic shots of the Alberta landscape are impressive it is the battle scenes that reveal the film’s record-breaking budget. Infamous for its ceaseless rain and muddy conditions the Battle of Passchendaele was re-created on a patch of Alberta prairie barely outside of Calgary. “We had to destroy a lot of ground” says Gross. “We really tore up 50 acres. We needed it so that no matter which way you turned you wouldn’t see bucolic prairies.” At times the cast including hundreds of extras sat in freezing water-filled craters for up to 10 hours in an effort to re-create the deadly campaign. The result is a film with violent clashes powerful and realistic enough in their flesh-slashing realism to rival any wartime blockbuster.

But do we really need a Canadian Pearl Harbour ? To those who might question Gross’s motives in this $20-million portrayal of Canada at war he responds: “This is not to say that I support war or that I would like to go and invade somebody for no particular good reason but that I think war has such an extraordinary effect on a society. It changes everything. And this particular war had an indelible impact on our country. I don’t think it’s stretching it to say that what we are what we understand it to mean when we call ourselves Canadian was forged in the slaughter yards of the Western Front. We came out from under the shadow of Great Britain and stood on our own feet in the course of that war and there isn’t a corner of Canadian society that wasn’t affected by it.”