Thursday, November 11, 2010

Remembrance: Canadian Military Disasters on Film and TV

Every Remembrance Day, between 1990 and 2007, I used to ask men of a certain age (usually in their 70s to 80s) if they had served in World War II. I wasn't buttonholing old men on the street, they were either those selling poppies or, since I worked in retail during the first ten years of that time period, some of my regular customers. Most of them told me that they had. I always said “thank you for what you did for all of us who've come since.” Some smiled and said they were glad to have done it. Others acknowledged my response and said nothing else. One year, however, a dear customer of mine, who I will call Mr. Clark, came into the store. I asked him that question and when he said he had, I thanked him. He looked at me and said, “I'm not proud, David, of what I did in the war.” Before I could stop myself, I asked him why and he answered, “I was a bombardier in the war. On more than one occasion I knew that our targets were strictly civilian. I knew we were deliberately bombing innocent women and children. And on more than one occasion, I managed to convince my pilot to divert over rail yards or factory areas, and not continue targeting the innocent. If our CO had ever got wind of it, I would have been court martialled.” Court martialling in World War II meant prison and disgrace.

I said, “Mr. Clark, I understand what you are saying, and this is easy for me to say, but I still thank you because, unfortunately, we had to become what we beheld sometimes to defeat something so hideously evil.” He smiled at me, and I hope it gave him some comfort. I don't know. That conversation got me thinking about the way Canadian film and TV producers deal with our war efforts versus the American approach. In 1992, there was quite a brouhaha over a documentary series by Brian and Terence McKenna, called The Valour and the Horror. The first part, “Savage Christmas,” dealt with our disastrous Hong Kong battle where the Canadian and British armies were overwhelmed, captured and tortured by the Japanese. The second, “Death By Moonlight,” looked at what Mr. Clark told me about. The third, “In Desperate Battle,” examined problems in training and leadership in the lead up to the Normandy invasion. This series caused quite a controversy. Many veterans, led by Barney Danson, a veteran and  Justice Minister in Trudeau's government – and later a friend of mine, and others, attacked the show and claimed it was inaccurate, especially the second and third parts. I must admit Barney and I never discussed this topic, but because of my conversation with Mr. Clark, I knew that the McKenna doc, especially “Death By Moonlight,” was not inaccurate. Yet, unlike the “dismay” expressed by the McKennas regarding this action, I was not the least bit disturbed by what we did. Now I'm not being cavalier about the loss of innocent life (it was horrifying), but I've read plenty about World War II to know that if we had not taken these probably criminal actions, many of us wouldn't be here and the war could have turned out far differently. People say war is hell for a reason.

What I do have a huge problem with are the decisions by Canadian TV and film producers to make fictional films only about our military disasters: the Dieppe catastrophe has been made into a CBC miniseries (1993's Dieppe), but our Juno Beach landing at Normandy never has; Passchendaele – technically a victory, but a Pyrrhic one – has been made (Paul Gross' 2008 Passchendaele), but it's unlikely anybody will ever get around to doing a feature on Vimy Ridge (a battle with high losses on our side too, including my Great Uncle Herbert Hailstone, but it was also a defining moment in establishing Canada as a country to contend with since it was an important victory in World War 1); Shake Hands With the Devil, about Romeo Dallaire's experiences during the Rwandan genocide, has been made into both a documentary (2004) and fictional feature (2007), yet our successful efforts elsewhere haven't. 

There's other examples, including dozens of documentaries. It seems to be something in our psyche, and the misplaced perception by too many Canadians that we are first and foremost blue beret-wearing peacekeepers and should be nothing more. Our tall poppy syndrome seems to make it impossible for us to make a film that celebrates our fighting men and women who have kept our freedom intact for so many years. No, I'm not suggesting glorifying war, but I am saying that by always and only portraying the negative side of our international conflicts, we create the perception that we are incompetent. Our fighting men and women are not incompetent; they are very brave and talented. 

Saving Private Ryan
There also seems to be a deep-seated fear that we don't want to come across like Americans with the John Wayne and apple-pie mentality. We would never make Saving Private Ryan (1998), nor Band of Brothers (2001), because they are believed to by rah-rah American movies/miniseries. What a load of horseshit. Both of these works, and the subsequent The Pacific (2010) which I've written about twice – here and here – do show the bravery and talent of the American fighting men, but also show many of the darker shadings in the Americans too. We in Canada seem to be afraid to ever depict the bravery part, but we have no problem wallowing exclusively in the darker shadings.

At this time of year, as the last of the old guys from World War II, right up to the younger men and women from the current Afghan war, wheel or walk past you on November 11, always remember it was these men and women's bravery and sacrifices that allows us to have the free country we enjoy to this day. Now if only some of our filmmakers would actually learn to celebrate that bravery, I'd have less to complain about.

David Churchill is a film critic and the author of The Empire of Death. Go to for more information. 

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