Passchendaele (2008)

 

 

 

Director:    Paul Gross.

Starring:    Paul Gross (Michael Dunne),  Caroline Dhavernas (Sarah Mann),  Joe Dinicol (David Mann),  Meredith Bailey (Cassie Walker),  Jim Mezon (Dobson-Hughes),  Michael Greyeyes (Highway),  Adam Harrington (Colonel Ormand),  Gil Bellows (Royster),   James Kot (Skinner),   Jesse Frechette (Peters),   Rainer Kahl (German Machine Gunner),  Landon Liboiron (Young German Soldier),  Patricia Benedict (Nursing Matron),  Hugh Probyn (Carmichael), Brian Dooley (McKinnon).

Battle of Passchendaele (June-November  1917) in which 10th Battalion of 1st Canadian Division set record for highest number of individual bravery awards for a single battle

 

 

Spoiler Warning: below is a summary of the entire film.

"In 1917, Canada was a young nation of less than 8 million people. The First World War had been raging for three years and Canadian troops were mired in combat. Over 600,000 Canadians entered the inferno. One in ten never came home . . ."

Canadian soldier Peters lays on a city street. An artillery shell hits the building next to him. He pulls himself up behind some rubble. A Canadian unit rushes over to Peters trying not to get hit by the machine gun fire. Everyone reaches him safely. A British soldierís headless body is seen close by them. It starts to freak out Peters.

Sargeant Michael Dunne tells Highway and Skinner to work their way up the street on one side, while he and Peters work their way up on the other side. Highway is hit and spins around in the air. Highway also gets hit while on the ground. Sarge grabs Highway and brings him back. Skinner canít move. Sarge shouts at him, but there is no response. Skinner has been shot. Meanwhile, Peters is scared out of his mind with fear.

Sarge tells Highway that he is going to get him out of here. He puts up a white flag and comes out. He tells Peters to come up behind him. Peters comes out but he doesnít get behind Dunne. Instead he starts taking off his belt. Sarge tells him to get his hands up. Somehow Peters picks out the grenade from his belt and is killed by the Germans when they see it. Sarge jumps behind some rubble. He uses the dead boy of Peters as a shield to get closer to the Germans and then throws a grenade into their machine gun nest. He then attaches his bayonet to his rifle and charges the position. One very young fellow is still alive. Sarge sticks his bayonet up to the manís head and then shoves it in. There is some type of explosion and Sarge is knocked out of the nest and onto the street.

Sarge awakens. He is back home in a hospital in Calgary, Canada.. He asks his nurse for her first name, but she says she is not allowed to tell him that. He calls her Kestrel for the bird of prey he saw in Europe.

On the floor of a newspaper office David is kissing Cassie. Mr. McKinnon comes in calling for David. The couple get up, but David canít catch his breathe. Cassie just holds him. McKinnon goes outside to hang up a newspaper for all to see. The headline is "Canadian Attack Smashes into Huns". Below it is a smaller headline saying: "Furious Fighting in a Conflict at Glencorse Wood".

David walks home. Stepping into the kitchen he sees McKinnon and his older sister Sarah sitting at the kitchen table. David has missed three days of work this month. Sarah says itís because of his asthma. The boss says that he is doing this for their father. He leaves.

Sarah tells her brother that she canít keep lying for him. David says Sarah doesnít like him. She denies that. David leaves.

At night at a party the Mayor tells a friend that his son is missing-in-action. David shows up at the house and Cassie Walker asks him if he is crazy because he asks to see her father, Dr. Walker. Dad comes to the door. David doesnít want to come into the house, but dad insists. He introduces everybody to David Mann. Then dad embarrasses the couple by saying that David has developed a passion for his daughter. The Mayor asks him why is he not in uniform?

Standing before a board of military officers, the Sergeant Dunne with his cane is asked about the nightmares he has been having. They already know that the nightmares keep showing a Canadian soldier and a cross. One of the officers says that in 1915 there was a retreat outside Ypres. The Germans had nailed a Canadian N.C.O. to a barn door and Sarge probably saw it. Sarge says he didnít see it.

Sarge is disturbed by his killing the young boy with his bayonet. He was decorated for his actions, but Sarge feels guilty about what he did. An officer explains that Dr. Walker would like to give him a clean bill of health, but that would mean he would be sent back to Europe, court-martialed for desertion and executed. In other words, tell them he is not well mentally.

Sarge says he has lost three brothers. Each time the bad news was delivered by a telegraph deliverer walking down the hill near their house. When he came the fourth time and the telegraph said her last son was missing-in-action, his mother assumed he was dead and died of a broken heart.

One of the officers, Major Nigel Bernard, Canadian Army Medical Corps, says into a recording machine that Dunne has neurasthenia (that is, a no longer used diagnosis of a combination of fatigue, anxiety, headache, impotence, neuralgia and depressed mood). Dr. Walker dissented. The Major recommends that Dunne be given duty on the home front, such as recruitment.

Dunne packs his stuff to get ready to leave the hospital. He talks with Miss Mann saying that he doesnít want to leave her. She says he doesnít even know her first name. Dunne says thatís true and itís a real shame. As he leaves, an older nurse tells him that nurse Mannís first name is Sarah.

Dunne is assigned recruitment duty. His officer in charge fills him in on his duties. Carmichael woks there too, but he has seen no combat. Heís as blind as a bat. The officer tells Dunne that he read his dossier and he is keeping an eye on Michael.

We learn that Nurse Mann is addicted to a medical drug that she administers to herself even while at work.

David Mann comes in to sign up for the army. Dunne tells him he was rejected previously because of asthma. David pretends that he is okay now. Dunne figures it out that Sarah Mann must be his sister. He tells David that he will never be approved as long as he (Dunne) remains at this recruitment desk. (His boss hears him say this.)

Dunne teams up with his friend Roy who has only one arm. They go to a bar for a drink. David Mann is there and he confronts Roy about his not letting him into the army. He starts to hit Roy, but Roy grabs him, pushes him down toward the floor and bangs his head into the front side wall of the bar. Dunne grabs Roy by the throat to stop Roy from doing anything worse to David.. Roy leaves the bar. Dunne tells David to come with him.

Dunne brings David home. Sarah comes out to thank him. He tries to ask her out on a date but she makes it difficult for him. He has to give up. He leaves. Roy sympathizes with his plight.

The next day Dunne comes riding up to Sarah on a horse with another horse in tow. She smiles and goes riding with him. Sarah tells Michael that she could fall for him in a heartbeat, but she wonít because sheís broken somewhere inside. She gives Michael a kiss.

While Dr. Walker gives a talk on wounds caused by artillery fragments, his daughter and David have sex on a hospital bed in his office. The doctor asks Dunne isnít it true that artillery fragments are the greatest challenge to an individual on the battlefield? Dunne says, no, the greatest challenge is how to keep his matches dry.

The recruitment officer is furious with Dunne. He scolds him at length for that smart ass remark. Then he warns Dunne not to get involved with Sarah Mann. Her father fought in the war alright, but on the side of the enemy. He fought against the Allies. The officer says Sarahís blood is tainted.

The recruitment officer gets Sarah fired from her nursing job. Dr. Walker agrees with the decision. The next day the Mann house is seen covered with the word Hun on it. Michael walks over to the house. He comes in to talk with Sarah. She leaves her syringe and case right on the table so Michael can see it. He ignores it and tells her to go to his place because it is not safe for her to stay in her house anymore.

A bunch of men come over to confront Michael and the Germans. Michael comes out of the house and hits the leader in the face, breaking his nose. The others do nothing. Michael goes to find David. He finds David kicking over the headstones of the dead with German last names. Michael yells at him to stop that. David takes off running, but Michael on a horse easily catches up with him. He explains to David why he shouldnít go to war.

Michael goes to see Sarah. She is in one of the stores of the town and says hello to Michael. He tells her that David is staying with a friend of his. Michael takes her to his place. She tells him that she is addicted to morphine. He says he robbed a bank once.

She sleeps on the bed. He sleeps on the floor. She starts having withdrawal pains and he holds her through the night. When she awakens the next morning, she finds Michael sleeping on the floor.

Dr. Walker says to David and Cassie that this letter from him should clear Davidís way to join the army and their wedding has his blessing.

Sarah tells Michael that she feels guilty for sending her father to Germany to fight because she made him choose between the Germans or his family. Michael tells her about his guilt over killing a German boy when he didnít have to. The two talk through the day and into the night. Sarah is going to kiss him, but there is one rule she says: Donít die! They kiss.

Sarah finds David in their old house packing his suitcase. She asks him what is he doing and he tells her heís going to war. Sarah begs him to explain to the army and get out of the service, but he insists on going. David tells her that neurasthenia means that her Michael is a coward! She says: "No, heís not!" Then he lies: heís the one who signed me up, the reason why Iím going to war.

The fellows in the army involved in recruitment and those working with the army celebrate the train leaving with a group of their hometown boys/men. Sarah marches in to the house, knocks a tray of drinks out of the hands of the maid and starts telling Michael off. Michael doesnít say a word. She asks who will be there to protect her brother? Sarah leaves.

During the night, Michael enters the home of his boss. He sits down on a chair beside the sleeping man and starts sharpening a bayonet. The noise wakes the recruitment officer. Michael wants the officer to sign a form sending Michael back with the 10th Battalion to fight in France. The officer signs, but adds: "You know Iíll track you down!"

Michael writes a letter to Sarah and leaves it on a table where she can find it. Cassie comes to visit Sarah. Sarah is packing up to go elsewhere to find a job. Cassie tells her that her father will help her find a job her. After all, Sarah is like family. Cassie explains that she is engaged to David. She then explains what happened. Sarah learns from Cassie that Dunne had nothing to do with signing David up. Sarah is very upset with Cassie and frankly tells her that her father gave his signature so that David would die in France. Cassie has a hard time understanding this.

Sarah finds the letter. It is a romantic letter, not even mentioning that he is not guilty of signing her brother up for the army.

Three months later. Soldiers are on a battlefield. The tress are nothing but blackened remnants. Itís raining and there is mud everywhere. Michael is with David in the trenches. David takes the position that he doesnít need any help from him.

Michael joined up again with a new name: McRae. Men come to take Pvt. McRae to headquarters. There he meets his old recruiting officer again. But the Colonel will not give Dunne over to the military police. Instead, he is going to make him a platoon leader of number 2 platoon. They are in the Battle of Passchendaele that is presently stalled. The Colonelís men have been selected to break out of their stalemate.

Major Bingham explains that there will be two thrusts. On the right the brigades from 2nd Division will clear the village of Passchendaele. On the left the Little Black Devils and the 7th Battalion, with them, will attack along the Mosselmarkt-Meetcheele Road There are three objectives: Venture Farm, Vindictive Crossroads and Hill 52. Dunne is given his orders.

The recruiting officer objects to the Colonel, but the Colonel tells him this is no time for personal vendettas. Thereís a war on and he desperately needs men. 16,000 casualties are expected. The man from Calgary backs down.

An officer confers with Dunne. An artillery shell hits knocking down Dunne, but wounding the officer. Dunne picks the man up and runs with him to get medical attention. As Dunne puts the officer on a table, he sees a nurse walking away from him. He thinks itís Sarah but is not sure. When the nurse turns around he see it is Sarah.

While they work on the wounded man Sarah says it took a month for her to catch up with Michael. She asks and he tells her that David is okay. Michael tells her where to meet him after her shift is over. He has to leave.

They meet again. They go into a building where they hug and kiss. Then they have sex. When they finish Michael has to go. She tells him to remember the one rule.

Michael and David are at their post. Their fox-hole is a bomb crater half filled with water from the never ceasing rain. Michael and David talk for awhile.

The assault begins. 7th and the Devils are in No Manís Land. Light resistance.

Headquarters is hit with a shell wounding men. The recruiting officer has fear written on his face. The Colonel puts him to work helping with the dead and wounded. The scared David has an asthma attack and is comforted by Michael.

The news is that objectives have been consolidated, both flanks. David comes out of the asthma attack. The Devilís left flank comes under a counter-attack. The Colonel asks to speak with 8th battalion, but the lines are down. Michael senses something is wrong. The 8th is taking a beating. Michael tells his men to get ready. This is it! The men on the front line are taking many casualties, as Michael and the relief come closer. When the relief arrives the other men start leaving the battlefield. Michael objects saying that they are 800, while his men are only 60. One man tells Michael if he wants him to stay, he will have to shoot him. Michael tells him to take off.

A message is sent to headquarters that Little Black Devils are pulling out; situation critical. The Germans are getting ready for a counter-attack. Michael has his men get into better gun positions. The Colonel is worried that with the pull out of the Devils their whole line will collapse. Artillery starts falling on their positions. The Germans start racing towards them. The Germans are almost on top of them when Michael gives the order to fire.

The Colonel is furious with the Little Black Devils for pulling out with a whole battalion. While telling the Colonel why they have to withdraw, the recruiting officer is hit and killed by a artillery shell fragment. Michael and David and the others have to engage in hand-to-hand fighting. A German boy just sits down watching the carnage all around him.

David is petrified with fear. A German thrusts his bayonet at Michael, who is able to hold off the bayonet thrust from entering his body. Stuck like this, he tells David to shoot. It takes David quite a while to respond, but he finally shoots the German in the back.

While Michael forms up his men, an unarmed David becomes crazed and goes after the German soldiers who are retreating. He just keeps running until he falls into the German trench. He is about to be shot by a German when an artillery shell lands nearby.

Knowing David is in front, Michael takes off toward the Germans with only a bayonet. The men give him covering fire. As Michael nears the German trench, he is shot in the right shoulder and goes down. He gets himself up and off he goes, unarmed now. The German officer stops his men from shooting him. They let him come. Michael stops at the base of a cross holding Davidís body which is laid out in a crucifixion pose. The Germans actually help Michael bring the cross down. Michael drags the cross back towards the Canadian position. He stops for a rest. The rain stops, the sky clears and Michael sees a kestrel flying overhead. He gets a sudden burst of energy and succeeds in getting the body back to the Canadian line. Stretchers are called for the two men. David is alive.

The news is that the line has held. Sarah and the doctors learn that they took Passchendaele. A big hurrah goes up. A doctor says he needs an assessment of the new man just in. Sarah turns him over and itís none other than Michael. He has a big smile on his face and he says that Davidís okay. Sarah starts to cry saying: "I think youíre trying to break the rule." He says no, but he dies.

Back in Canada David, Roy, Cassie, Sarah and others visit Michaelís grave, one of the many of the Canadian military dead.

"On October 26, 1917 the Canadian Corps entered the Battle of Passchendaele. Within a week they captured the ruined village at a cost of 5,000 lives. The entire campaign lasted four months and claimed 600,000 casualties on both sides. An enemy offensive the following spring recaptured the hard won ground in less than a week."

 

 

Good movie. The love story was good, but I was bothered by Michael Dunne not speaking up for himself at any time after his girlfriend Sarah accuses him of doing things he did not do. Rather than explaining the situation to Sarah, he goes right back into combat supposedly to watch over her brother David so nothing will happen to him. But no one can guarantee that they can prevent a loved one from dying in a combat zone. Itís a little silly.

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.

 

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