Passchendaele Revisited: Examining Fact and Fiction in a Historical Film

“You can only get so close to it…”
(Director Paul Gross on historical content in the movie Passchendaele)

Passchendaele's official movie trailer, released in 2008.

               In 2008 renowned Canadian actor and director Paul Gross released Passchendaele, illustrating the Battle of Passchendaele, or the 3rd Battle of Ypres, the 1917 engagement on the Western Front where Canada suffered extreme causalities but distinguished itself as a formidable foe against the German army. Released to the general public on October 17, 2008, it was the most expensive movie ever made in Canada to date ($20 million, versus the typical $7-8 million spent on making a movie in Canada), but it also became the highest grossing Canadian film that year. As the 100th anniversary of the First World War approaches, war history will gain more attention and many Canadians will look to various sources such as Passchendaele to both entertain and educate. I have always believed that historical films have a role to play in educating society, and that any genre that promotes history and encourages people to learn more about their own past should be encouraged. Others, however, fear that a fictional work touting itself as “historical” can potentially mislead the public, blurring the many critical facts painstakingly unearthed by professional historians. Given my limited knowledge of war history, Passchendaele was an interesting “case study” on which to test my assumptions, giving me an opportunity to answer some crucial questions about the utility of historical fiction such as films. First, is Passchendaele historically accurate, and if inaccuracies do occur, are they significant enough to mislead the public? Moreover, can historical films like Passchendaele play the educational role that I believe they can? If not, then how can this genre, one that has the potential to reach so many people, be improved?

The “Story” of Passchendaele
Paul Gross discusses Passchendaele

               Passchendaele was not the first Canadian movie to depict the Great War (others had been attempting documentary-style adaptations since Carry on Sergeant in 1928), but it has certainly been the most successful. Gross based the film on protagonist Sergeant Michael Dunne, a character loosely based on his grandfather who had served in four different Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF) battalions during the war. In the opening scene, the viewer meets fictitious Dunne (played by Gross) in a skirmish following Vimy in 1917, where he brutally murders a young German soldier after a tragic battle scene in which only Dunne survives. Afflicted with shell shock, he is then shipped back home to Calgary where falls in love with nurse Sarah Mann. We also meet Sarah`s younger brother, David, who has been denied admission to the army because of his asthma. While in Calgary, both siblings endure enormous amounts of prejudice because of their German heritage. David eventually manages to enlist, and Michael follows him back to the Front as a promise to Sarah. There, Michael is killed while trying to save David, who is wounded and returns home.  As I watched the story unfold, three important historical themes emerged. First, the aggressive and arguably brutal tactics used by Canadian soldiers was contrasted with the more compassionate German tactics on the battlefield. Second, the anti-German sentiment prevalent in Canada at the time was illustrated through the lives of Sarah Mann and her brother David. Finally, the film dealt with the stigmatization of men who were unable to enlist in the Canadian military.
               As I expected, the battle scenes in Passchendaele bore a striking resemblance to the renowned American war movie Saving Private Ryan, a watershed work with regard to its portrayal of violence in war films. In Passchendaele, viewers are immediately inundated with brutal war scenes, bloodshed and atrocities. Particularly striking is an early scene in which a young German soldier pleads with Dunne to spare his life, murmuring the words “Kamerad.” Dunne kills the boy anyway, later confessing that he was neither scared nor in danger, and that he still cannot understand his actions. Later, when occupying a trench with young David Mann, Dunne confesses that for Canadian soldiers, often referred to as relentless “storm troopers," “[killing is] something we do all the time because we’re good at it and we’re good at it because we’re used to it and we’re used to it because we do it all the time.” Conversely, the Germans are shown as arguably more compassionate. Near the end of the movie Dunne rescues David who has been literally “crucified” to rubble on the German line. Remarkably, the Germans are shown initiating a ceasefire while Dunne, in scenes that conjure images of Christ carrying the cross, drags David on his back to safety. The battle scenes and the Christian imagery piqued my curiosity. I wondered about Gross’ decision to depict Canadian soldiers as brutal while Germans were portrayed with more compassion. Moreover, the Christ-like visual at the end of the movie was confusing, and the ceasefire seemed both contrived and implausible. As the movie concluded, I wondered if there were any truths in these details.

One of many brutal war scenes from Passchendaele. Mud, a defining feature of the actual battle, was well illustrated in the movie (source: passchendaelethemovie.com)

               A second theme from the movie was the unrelenting jingoism present in Canadian society during the First World War, played out in several scenes in Calgary. Sarah and David are the grown children of a German immigrant who, upon learning of the war, chose to return to Europe to fight for the German side, only to be killed at Vimy. The two siblings face immense persecution and prejudice from Calgarians. When news of their father’s affiliation breaks out Sarah is fired from her nursing job, the family home is vandalized with red paint depicting the word “Hun,” and David faces internal struggles as he tries to come to grips with his German ancestry and his own anti-German sentiments. Similarly, Sarah turns to morphine to dull the pain of what we as viewers assume is both the strain of war and her own inner conflict over her mixed heritage. Overall, the intimate storyline allows viewers a unique opportunity to live through the prejudices Canadians such as the Manns endured, subsequently witnessing the more subtle battle lines that were drawn here in Canada. If these were indeed Gross’ intentions, the movie captured them brilliantly.

Sarah and David Mann faced acts of blatant hatred as children of a German soldier. In this scene from Passchendaele, a recruiter hangs a sign with the words "Fight the Godless Hun," sentiments that furthered racist attitudes toward 2nd-generation German Canadians (source: passchendaelethemovie.com)

               Also observable in Passchendaele was the personal rejection and shame non-enlisted men felt during the First World War period. As we meet asthmatic David Mann, we learn that he had previously been rejected from service numerous times. Viewers witness how David, fuelled by his hatred for his German father, is torn apart by his desire to “serve Canada,” or rather to simply “kill Germans,” and his inability to enlist. David’s personal life is further complicated by the myopic views of both his girlfriend and her father, the former influenced by the romanticism of the fighting soldier and the latter who wishes for David to prove his “manhood” before courting his daughter. As viewers, we are told of the Canadian army's overarching need at this late date (1917) to fill its recruitment and, as a result, David’s medical records are falsified and he is enlisted. When later confronted by his sister, David echoes the sentiments of many Canadians who deem anyone appearing fit and yet not serving as cowardly, and he insists that Dunne's own return from Europe is a result of cowardice rather than mental illness. Later, we can understand why the military tried to prevent unfit soldiers from entering service as we watch David’s asthma attack in the trenches. In the end, David and Dunne’s courage at Passchendaele contradicts the rumours and conjecture of those at home.
Sergeant Dunne comforts David Mann on the battlefield following an asthma attack (source: passchendaelethemovie.com)

The "Real" Passchendaele

               In my opinion, Passchendaele succeeded as a work of fiction. I was expecting an overly-sentimental version of a wartime love story, but I ultimately found the movie both riveting and entertaining. However, I was curious about its value as a work of historical fiction, and as such I endeavoured to find out as much as I could about the movie’s plausibility and Gross’ larger objectives. Given that I had little background on Canadian war history in general and Passchendaele in particular, other historians' reviews gave me much-needed background and perspective. In particular, a review by Tim Cook and Christopher Schultz and another by Nic Clarke were crucial in helping me ascertain the movie's historical accuracy. I wondered what they would say about the movie’s factual content regarding the three themes I garnered from the movie; Canadian brutality in war, jingoism and the perils of un-enlisted men. Moreover, I was curious to see if they came to similar conclusions about Gross’ intentions in making the movie.
The real Sergeant Michael Dunne, c 1918 (source: the Dunne family).

               From my additional research I discovered that the movie contains numerous historical accuracies, and that the themes I garnered from the movie were indeed played out as Gross had intended. Gross also admits that Dunne’s execution of the German soldier was based in fact: His grandfather recounted the story to him decades later, and he recalls his grandfather’s final days in which he pleaded (in his sleep) for forgiveness, likely from the young soldier. In “New Theatres of War: An Analysis of Paul Gross’ Passchendaele,” Cook and Schultz further extol the movie’s virtues as a work of historical fiction. In particular, they clarify evidence of the brutality depicted by Canadians in the movie, that Canadians were indeed referred to as relentless “storm troopers,” and that “the horrors of war and the brutality of person-to-person combat is precisely where the film remains effective” (pg 52). They also mention the ceasefire as another plausible element, which is not unlike the Christmas Truce of 1914 (pg 54). Moreover, they discuss the myth of the “crucified soldier,” which I found to be a particularly curious detail in the movie. At the 2nd Battle of Ypres Canadians reported seeing a Canadian soldier crucified to a Belgian barn door. Although the German army denied the act and the Canadians' story was not corroborated, the myth penetrated the Canadian military psyche nonetheless. Gross refers to it early in the movie, and he uses the visual to further the notion of suffering, selflessness and bravery in wartime when David is seen crucified to rubble on enemy lines and it later saved by Dunne. Finally, Cook and Schultz confirm that racism and, in particular, anti-German sentiment was rampant during the First World War era, and that the “conflicting nationalisms” that Sarah and David face in the movie were entirely plausible (pg 53).
A bronze sculpture, made by British artist Francis Wood in 1919 and entitled Canada's Golgotha, depicts the crucified soldier at the heart of the 2nd Battle of Ypres legend and referenced in Passchendaele (source: public domain).

Cook and Schultz still address a variety of inconsistencies in Passchendaele’s script, but they consider them inconsequential. Although they are curious about the impossibly quick time line of Dunne fighting in Vimy, convalescing from shell hock at home, falling in love, re-entering training and then being assigned to the front with Sarah’s brother, they are unconcerned about it misleading the viewer or detracting from the movie's intent. Moreover:

Should anyone worry that the 10th Battalion, from the Calgary area, did not recruit in Calgary after the unit had gone overseas? Should we be concerned that it is highly unlikely for a commissioned nurse to cavort and have sexual relations with a non-commissioned officer? (pg 54)
Indeed, these details would have escaped unknowing viewers like myself, but like Cook and Schultz, I believe that the smaller details are largely irrelevant to the greater story Gross is trying to tell, and their inaccuracy does little to detract from the broader, more significant issues addressed in Passchendaele.

               In his article “Passchendaele Highlights Uncounted Causalities,” historian Nic Clarke discusses the rejection and stereotyping that non-enlisted men faced on the home front, as illustrated by the character of David Mann. David is rejected by his girlfriend’s father as not being “man enough” to date and potentially marry his daughter, though his asthmatic conditions deems him unfit to serve. In reality, men such as David were condemned by people who believed that the un-enlisted were shirking their duties to their country. Branded as cowards, many men cut themselves off from society and some ultimately committed suicide (pg 77). Others, like the fictional character David, were enlisted later on, their medical ailments overlooked in an attempt to keep the CEF ranks fulls. Indeed, many of the men rejected in 1914 would have been enlisted as "late-goers" to fight at battles like Passschendaele in 1917. One such man from Canada's military history was Will R. Bird who, rejected early on because of bad teeth, was able to enlist in April 1916 and fought at Passchendaele the following year. Bird remained bitter about his conscription ordeal throughout his life, claiming that ``it was a rank injustice” (pg 77).
A lone soldier on the battlefield following the Battle of Passchendaele. Gross' movie brilliantly captures the horror and reality of muddy trench warfare (source: Library and Archives Canada/PA-002156).

Passchendaele Today: The Power of Historical Drama

Historical films have the potential to bring history to life. Passchendaele in particular exposes the complexities of war pertaining to love, loss and the horrors of trench fighting. Although the movie received mixed reviews in 2008, it garnered six Genie awards the following year. One reviewer in particular commented that the movie contains "too much passion and not enough Passchendaele." Granted, much of the movie is set in Calgary and revolves around the life, love and trials of its protagonists rather than the battle it is named for. Yet, I enjoyed the movie and, more importantly, the experience gave me insight into the role that historical film can play in both educating and entertaining the public. Other historical films may not be of the same calibre as Gross' movie, and therefore I believe that the onus is on movie producers to be as true to historic fact as possible so as not to mislead the public, as Gross has done. Non-fiction cannot possibly hope to achieve the level of emotional connection with the viewer that historical film achieves. So should we as viewers be concerned about the minor details that producers sometimes sacrifice in order to tell the larger story? I don't believe so. The goal of a movie like Passchendaele is to emotionally engage the audience with the larger narrative while educating and inspiring them to perhaps further their own historical study. Gross surmises that we "can only get so close" to the wartime experience in contemporary society. As a result, he has created Passchendaele to take us on a journey through the First World War experience that, nearly 100 years later, contributes to our knowledge and understanding of a significant event in Canada's history.

Cook, Tim, and Schutlz, Christopher. "New Theatres of War: An Analysis of Paul 
                              Gross'  Passchendaele," Canadian Military History 19 (3), 2010: 51-55.
Clarke, Nic. "Passchendaele Highlights Unaccounted Casualties," Canadian Military
                               History 18 (4), 2009: 75-78.


  1. A very thorough and thoughtful review! While Paul Gross paid close attention to the details of the Battle of Passchendaele--and got them right, he has said that the movie is a love story with the war as a background, not a war story with a love story embedded in it. The primary interest of the movie's text is the characters and their relationships and how the war affected them. Given that perspective, the historical accuracy of the movie is incredible. One thing of crucial importance to historical fiction that is generally overlooked is how well it imparts the general feeling of life in the past. The understanding that comes with empathizing gives historical fiction a place in our literary and film genres.

  2. I think it is a good analysis of the movie because you provide the opinions of the director and others, not just providing your own. The comparision between the movie and the actual story is also something good and important. Sometimes the truth is just as interesting as the fictionalized, movie version.

  3. @Lulu Belle, I agree. I believe that the goal of historical fiction is to entertain first and educate second, as Gross has done in "Passchendaele," and I also love the way it helps a viewer like myself to "feel" the past. However, not all viewers have the same approach. In our HIST 460 class our professor discussed an experience he had in an archives where a patron wanted information on the "real" Jack Dawson, and as we know there wasn't one. Such an encounter is proof that the public may interpret historical fiction as historical fact, and I believe that those producing historical fiction must be mindful of this, but we as viewers need to be aware as well and realize that entertainment is typically a producer’s primary concern.

    @Kaitlynn, thanks! I found their interpretations helped me in my own evaluations of this movie as I had no other way of determining what was true and what wasn't. I was also pleased to read that academics in the field shared the same views as I do! (It's ok for a producer to sacrifice a few of the incidentals in order to bring a much broader and more important story to life).

  4. You mentioned that you saw them film put Canadian soldiers in a negative light at times while also portraying the Germans more sympathetically. For the film do you see this as partly an effort to change peoples perceptions about soldiers in the war or was it more to serve the plot of the film?