Today, the Great War which would later become known as World War I is often remembered as a futile and pointless war that claimed the lives of thousands of people. So many casualties were faced on all sides it is nearly impossible to gain a reliable number or to keep a record of everyone lost. That view is not an unjustified one. The whole war began because of various bad political decisions and alliances, with everything being set into motion by the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914. From there, it was only a matter of time as a complex string of alliances led to different European nations entering one by one until most of the continent was at war.
But this is not how the war was perceived in its day, at least not on the homefront. Military propaganda worked hard to suppress the realities of war and tried to make it seem glamorous and heroic. Everyone foolishly believed the war would be short, and advertisements liked to promote the idea that men who enlisted would go out, kill a few Germans, and come home in time for Christmas. Men were rushing to enlist, some below the regulation age, and any who failed to do so were likely to be labelled as cowards, usually by older men who themselves were not fighting and lacked any real understanding of the war.
Few could have anticipated just how much the Great War (as it was then known) would have changed so much. While different nations fought over inches of land, generals trained in Victorian tactics struggled to adapt to the introduction of new war machines. The innovations of already existing technologies such as machine guns, mortars, and grenades combined with the introductions of u-boats, tanks, and airplanes to the battlefield allowed the war to develop on a scale never seen before. Four years men fought and died while living in the miserable conditions of the trenches.
And as if that were not already enough, there was the so-called Treaty of Versailles which finally brought the war to an end. The "negotiation" consisted entirely of nations from the same side, and focused on trying to find someone to punish for starting the war. They eventually decided that Germany was to blame and forced it to pay, and more or less bankrupted its economy. Over the following years, Germany would struggle financially, with things only being made worse by the Great Depression. It was the impoverished state of its people that led to extreme antisemitism and a desire for a strong leader to restore Germany to its perceived former glory. In short, the "treaty" (if you can call it that) which ended World War I ended up being directly responsible for World War II.
Among the various battles that were fought in the war one of the most infamous, especially among Canadians, is the Battle of Passchendaele, fought near a small village in Belgium in 1917. This battle would become one of the most devastating moments of World War I, with casualties so high nobody can even agree on an estimate for how many were lost. The battle lacked even the trenches for cover, with soldiers forced to live in deep mud and foxholes, presenting some of the worst conditions faced by anyone during the War. Given its role in Canadian history, it should be surprising that actor and director Paul Gross would choose this moment as the backdrop when he began production on his World War I drama.
Inspired both by the historical battle and stories from his grandfather (a WWI veteran), Passchendaele is a bleak film about the difficulties faced during the war both by soldiers and civilians. In what has become a rare move for war films, Gross opts to show the Canadian perspective, and breaks the story into two main parts. The first half of the film focuses on the impact of World War I on civilians, with a particular emphasis both on the experiences of returning soldiers and the role of propaganda in shaping perceptions of the conflict. After establishing how the war is imagined by those who have never seen it, that image is shattered in the second half which shows what soldiers in the field actually experienced.
The film's opening scene quickly sets up the major themes of the film, when we are introduced to Michael Dunne (Paul Gross), who is leading a squad in an unidentified ruined town trying to take a German machine gun nest. He is able to succeed, but only after losing most of his squad in the process. Although the film aligns us with the Canadians, Gross also takes measures to ensure the viewer understands that the Germans are human, as we see when they initially respond to Dunn carrying a white flag (they only open fire because one of the few remaining soldiers looked like he was going to throw a grenade).
This theme first gets introduced when Dunne is sent to Calgary for medical care. He meets nurse Sarah Mann (Caroline Dhavernas), the two of them being the only ones who have any idea what is really going on. Dunn has been to the front and knows what has been happening, while Sarah has likely seen her share of wounded men. During World War I, it was also not that unusual for nurses to develop close relationships with their patients, sometimes even leading to romance and marriage (in some cases, this was actually encouraged). So the idea of bringing these two together would have been fairly normal.
What we also learn is that Dunn has found himself in a difficult position, being accused of desertion after going AWOL when he received a medal. The people questioning him are unable to comprehend his motivations, even after Dunn states that he feels like he received a medal for murdering a young boy. The fact that Dunn's actions were seen as a success present an obvious disconnect between rank, with the soldiers in the field who know what is really going on, and the generals behind the lines who fail to see the full picture.
As the film explores Calgary, Paul Gross wastes no time introducing us to the world of propaganda. One of the first things we see is a banner that refers to the Germans as "Godless Huns." Several similar banners appear throughout the first half, all using the same phrase of "Huns." This was a common tactic in World War I propaganda, taking away the Germans' humanity and making it look like their deaths were necessary. It was promotions like this that led to the idea that the whole war would end by Christmas of 1914 (when in fact it ran until 1918). We also see different tactics used, which include outright making up atrocities performed by the Germans.
But Dunne is not the only one with problems. Sarah is revealed to have a morphine addiction, which developed as a means of coping with the loss of her father at Vimy Ridge. Even worse is her brother David (Joe Dinicol) who serves as an unfortunate victim of wartime propaganda. David is shown to be in a relationship with Cassie Walker (Meredith Bailey), the daughter of a wealthy doctor who thinks David is a coward. David is faced with constant peer pressure, even though he is unable to serve due to asthma. These experiences of constant bullying lead him to become stubbornly determined to enlist, unable to understand the advice of Dunne who tries to tell him what war is really like.
Things only get worse later on, when word gets out that David and Sarah's father was fighting for the Germans. From the moment Dobson-Hughes (Jim Mezon) informs Dunne of the connection, it is clear that a witch-hunt is about to start. We begin seeing shots of Sarah's house being vandalized, with the word "HUNS!" being painted multiple times and rocks being thrown through windows. Dunne even witnesses the gathering of a lynch mob at one point and has to find them a different residence. Dunne is eventually able to get Sarah a room at an apartment (where he also manages to support her through morphine withdrawal) and gets David set up with his friend.
This only manages to work as a temporary solution. David's own insecurity due to the bullying he has faced has left him extremely anti-German. In one scene, he goes to a graveyard where he kicks over gravestones that have German-sounding names written on them. This prejudice is clearly a classic case of the bullied becoming a bully, in that he makes himself feel superior to Germans as a means of coping with the ostracization that has happened due to his family connections. It eventually gets to the point where Cassie's father, a doctor who was seen lecturing about the effects of shrapnel wounds, outright lies about his asthma to get him enlisted.
This sets up the film's second half, which shatters the image of the war presented throughout the first. This section moves the three main characters directly to Passchendaele, three months later. We learn that Sarah has returned to nursing, while Dunne is serving with David and trying to protect him, a task that proves easier said than done. The first mortar strike occurs seemingly out of nowhere, when Dunne is casually talking to a fellow soldier and about to hand him a match, only for the man to suddenly be wounded in what had otherwise been a quiet moment. Even the generals are only relatively safer than the soldiers, as we see first when a stray mortar strikes their dugout and later when a blast accidentally kills Dobson-Hughes.
But most of the fighting is initially delayed, with a focus instead on the living conditions of Passchendaele and the disconnect between the infantry and command. Dunne attends a brief meeting with the generals, during which they attempt to brief him on their tactics, though this is hardly useful. Their efforts to point at a map and give instructions don't seem to mean anything. When Dunne reaches the spot where he was promised a trench, there is none to be found. Dunne and the other soldiers find themselves forced to spend the night in foxholes that have already been flooded with likely freezing water. At least one soldier dies of hypothermia during the night from this, and stays long enough that a rat is able to crawl into his mouth.
When the battle finally begins, the film moves between three different locations: Dunne and David in No Man's Land, Sarah in the hospital nearby, and the dugout where the generals attempt to plan their strategies. The depictions of the first two create a remarkable dissonance with the third. After witnessing heavy casualties with no apparent accomplishment, we hear an officer utter the phrase "so far, so good." They are constantly talking about lines, holding positions, and pushing back, but when we see No Man's Land, this has very little meaning.
The place looks more or less the same all around, with soldiers trying to take cover behind mud piles or from flooded foxholes in what appears a struggle to survive. The boundaries which the officers keep referring to are nowhere to be seen on the battlefield, especially once the Germans get close. The battle is chaos, with soldiers on both sides getting killed left and right. Guns are firing, there is the occasional explosion. Eventually the Germans get in close and the whole thing turns into a disorganized brawl. Adding to that, the weapons they do have prove unreliable, with rifles and machine guns constantly jamming.
Amidst all the chaos, we also see David become too confident in himself, recklessly charging towards the Germans alone and getting struck by another mortar. This one moment gives us a brief glimpse into the humanity of the soldiers, and shows that just because we are following the Canadians does not automatically make Germany the bad guys. It is here that Dunne, trying to keep his promise to bring David home, makes the risky decision to run into the field alone to save him, an act which gets him wounded in the process. But interestingly, there is a ceasefire that occurs, and it is started by the Germans.
As Dunne approaches, the German commander quickly realizes he just wants to rescue his friend, and orders his soldiers to stop shooting. The Canadians take longer, but eventually stop when they realize they are not being fired on. This brief moment brings a calm to the battlefield. Dunne makes eye contact with the German commander, who presents a momentary gesture to state that he is allowing Dunne to recover his friend. Such an act establishes that, at the very least, this commander has a sense of morality and Dunne's early action of killing a surrendering German at the film's opening. Both sides watch as Dunne struggles to carry David across the field, momentarily putting aside their differences. But all it takes is one shot. Another mortar and the fighting starts back up again.
In the end, it is stated that Canada has succeeded in taking Passchendaele, but what exactly does a "victory" mean in this war? As far as Dunne, David, Sarah, and the viewer can tell, the whole thing amounted to a bunch of people killing each other for no clear reason. The Canadians have suffered heavy casualties, including Dunne, but did anything really get accomplished? The officers seem to think so, but no evidence in the film supports the conclusion that there was in fact a winner. If anything, both sides lost. The entire battle accomplished nothing.
This realization is finally brought full circle in the film's epilogue, which gives numbers of how many Canadians were killed, before ending with the statement that the Germans eventually took back Passchendaele. This cold realization leaves the viewer to ask what exactly Dunne and his fellow soldiers died for. The entire battle ended up being pointless, poorly executed, and costly. The film's final scene brings these themes to a conclusion when Dunne's grave is visited by David, Sarah, Cassie, and a few others.
David has finally come to understand the reality of war, as well as the price. Far from heroically killing Germans, David has been left with only one leg, a permanent reminder of his experiences. It also shows that even for those who survived, life would never be the same again. The final shot of the movie zooms out from a shot of Dunne's grave, revealing a massive yard filled with hundreds if not thousands of graves belonging to fallen soldiers. As the camera moves, more become visible, so many that they are impossible to count. This mass graveyard contrasts the one survivor, and reminds the viewer of just how many people have died in the war until now.