The Canadians Didn't Seem to Know It Couldn't Be Taken
If it is true, as several people lament in the making-of, that Canadians no longer know their own history, so much the less do Americans know it. Americans will persist in telling Europeans that, if not for them, British or French or wherever citizens would all be speaking German. However, people who know a bit of the history of the two world wars know that the Americans got to both wars late. After all, in World War II, we had to invade France, because the Germans had completely overrun it. In the First World War, well, it's worth noting that the scene that opens the movie takes place a day or two after the US officially declared war, and we are explicitly told that the Canadians had been fighting for three years at that point. (Less a few months, but who's counting?) What's more, the Canadians were well known to be extremely fierce fighters--by the Allies as well as the Germans.
In particular, we are looking here at Sergeant Michael Dunne (Paul Gross), wounded at Vimy Ridge. He is sent back to Canada, where he is diagnosed with what was then called neurasthenia. Instead of going back to the front, he is sent to a recruiting office in his hometown of Calgary. He falls in love with his nurse, Sarah Mann (Caroline Dhavernas), but she has no interest in getting emotionally involved with a soldier. Luckily for Dunne, he is there when Sarah's brother, David (Joe Dinicol), comes in. Unluckily for David, he has asthma, which disqualifies him for service--especially late enough in the war that gas was being used. Besides, Dunne knows that it will just about kill Sarah if David is killed, and he's interested in protecting Sarah. However, David is himself in love with Cassie Walker (Meredith Bailey), whose father (David Ley) is a doctor who doesn't want his only child involved with someone so far below their social class.
War is never fun, of course, but it seems to me that World War I was about the worst. In Passchendaele, a combination of months of rain and intense artillery even prevented the use of trenches--the bombing destroyed the drainage, and it was impossible to dig trenches in the sodden ground. Before-and-after pictures are frankly shocking--there is literally nothing left. Roads and buildings alike are completely obliterated. The battle lasted a couple of weeks and gained the Allies less than two miles of ground. Much of the war was like that, fought back and forth over the same ground. No one could properly bury the dead. No one in the film is gassed, but when David says that Dunne isn't blind, he doesn't mean that he didn't lose his eyes to bullets or shell fragments. That was one of the effects of gas. It also left insides scarred. The film reminds us that one in ten Canadians who went to war never returned home, but things weren't all sunshine and roses even for the ones who did.
This is not entirely about the battle, as you may have noticed. Arguably, it is very little about the battle. Mostly, it is Paul Gross attempting to connect with his grandfather, a veteran who did not speak much about the war to anyone. Indeed, his character is named after his grandfather, Michael Joseph Dunne. The real Dunne was on a fishing trip with his young grandson once, and he told Paul Gross that, during the war, he had bayoneted a young German boy in the forehead, and that boy had had "eyes like water." This scene appears at the beginning of the movie, and just as the real Dunne was haunted by it, so too it is the real reason for the fictional Dunne's "neurasthenia." Several times, we see those who preach on the "glory of war" receive some clear awareness of what war is really like. Of course, in one case, the guy just gets shot, but that's not uncommon. It is, after all, a war. Though I am giving to understand that the mud killed plenty as Passchendaele, not just the bullets.
For all the movie is as much about a man as about a battle, Paul Gross still put a lot of effort into historical accuracy. Strangely, even the claim that the Germans referred to the Canadian Expeditionary Force as stormtroopers is accurate, even if the name is generally believed historically to refer to German troops exclusively. The Germans really did use it to refer to those specific Canadian troops, for reasons that make sense with a bit of historical perspective that I'm not going to go into here. The physical appearance of the battlefield is carefully created. What was once the prairies of Alberta was plowed and soaked and so forth, creating a scene that matches that shown in period photos. Even if the average person doesn't know much about World War I history--and I confess, I do not and had to look up the "stormtrooper" thing--Paul Gross clearly went out of his way to get it as right as possible. He probably knows that you can't give the story a glorious ending, because it wasn't a glorious war.