William Shakespeare wrote, “Praising what is lost makes the remembrance dear,” a fitting sentiment for the most solemn day on the calendar. Every November 11 we pay respect to “the men and women who have served, and continue to serve our country during times of war, conflict and peace.” In observation here’s a list of movies to serve as a backdrop on this sombre day.
The Best Years Of Our Lives is 70 years old but the story of servicemen struggling to rebuild their lives after the Second World War is timely and relevant. Perhaps it feels so authentic because the crew were all Second World War veterans and the main character, who faces discrimination after losing both hands in combat, was played by real-life Nova Scotia-born disabled vet Harold Russell. The actor, who lost both his hands while training paratroopers, won two Oscars for his work, a Best Supporting award and another for being an inspiration to all returning veterans, making him the only performer to win twice for the same role.
The Hill, a little known British film that features one of Sean Connery’s best performances, shows war from a different point of view. Set during the WWII in North Africa, it’s the story of a stockade run by Brits to punish deserters. Writer Ray Rigby based the screenplay on his two terms in military prison. Connery wedged it in between Goldfinger and Thunderball and it is a stark contrast to the glamorous work he was doing in the Bond films.
We can’t talk about war films on Remembrance Day without paying tribute to Canadian soldiers. A pair of films from Paul Gross, Passchendaele and Hyena Road, are the best-known homegrown explorations of Canadians in battle but they are very different films.
Passchendaele is a hybrid of romance and war movie based around the 1917 battle for Passchendaele that lasted four months and claimed 600,000 causalities on both sides. The story sprung from a conversation Gross had with his grandfather who told him about bayonetting a young German, killing him during a battle. Years later as his granddad lay dying in a hospital bed he asked for forgiveness over and over. Only Gross knew he was speaking to the young German he had killed in the First World War.
Gross based the screenplay for Hyena Road on another personal experience, conversations he had with Canadian troops in Afghanistan. It’s a complicated part of the world, but this isn’t a complicated movie. It’s a film that clearly and concisely states its thesis that this conflict isn’t a matter of winners or losers, but of uncertainty that will eventually lead to an end state. In that way it’s more Zero Dark Thirty than American Sniper.
“Passchendaele was partly the way it was because it was the bridge between the romantic period and the modern era,” says Gross. “I think Hyena Road is post-modern in that the nature of warfare contains almost no romanticism anymore. It’s very complicated.”
Hollywood has never shied away from depicting fighting Canadians. Christopher Plummer plays Canadian fighter pilot Colin Harvey in Battle of Britain, Lloyd Bridges was Canadian Commando Major Jamie Wilson in Attack on the Iron Coast and the Devil’s Brigade saw a special forces unit created from Canadian Army troops and a motley group of U.S. Army misfits.
Paul Gross didn’t plan on directing two war movies back-to-back, that’s just the way it turned out. “I don’t know what I was thinking,” he says with a laugh.
Seven years ago his film Passchendaele, a hybrid of romance and war based around the gruelling 1917 battle of the same name, was highest-budgeted Canadian-produced film ever.
That film was based on the experiences of his maternal grandfather, Michael Joseph Dunne, who served in the First World War. Hyena Road was born out of Gross’s own experiences after visiting Canadian troops in Afghanistan.
“I was mesmerized by the complexity of it and it was nothing like I had been told by the press,” he says, “let alone our government. I thought I should go back with a camera team because they were talking about pulling out of combat operations. I didn’t have a story in mind or the intention of making anything, I just thought it would be a good idea to film it.”
Returning with a modest crew, he shot footage and had long conversations with the soldiers.
“I would pick various guys and jot down their stories. Out of that the story emerged. Nothing in it is actually mine. The assembly of it is mine. That includes the characters. All the characters are based on people I met or composites of people I met.”
He says the story of a young Canadian sniper (Rossif Sutherland) struggling with the ambiguity of the missions his superiors (Gross and Christine Horne) are sanctioning was “written by the soldiers in a sense.”
“I finished the script and gave it to my producing partner Niv Fichman and he was just furious. He said, ‘Why did you have to do another war film?’ Then he read the script and said, ‘Damn you, it’s good. Now we have to make it.’”
Gross, who stars and directs, blended the film he shot in Afghanistan with locations in Jordan to create a seamless look at a very complex subject.
“I look at Hyena Road and think, ‘This sort of the polar opposite of Passchendaele in terms of a war film.’ Passchendaele was partly the way it was because it was the bridge between the romantic period and the modern era. I think Hyena Road is post-modern in that the nature of warfare contains almost no romanticism anymore. It’s very complicated. As one of the characters says in it, ‘There’s no winning, there’s just an end state.’”
“Hyena Road,” the new war film starring, written and directed by Paul Gross, opens with a heart stopping sniper sequence. Rossif Sutherland is Ryan Sanders of the Canadian Armed Forces and a crack shot. He eliminates a Taliban target only to find himself and his team up against a much larger group of insurgents. Seeking safety, they take refuge offered by a mysterious villager, who may or not be on their side.
It’s a wildly effective introduction to the world of “Hyena Road.” It sets up the complicated nature of the warfare and shifting alliances in that part of the world. It’s exciting and kicks off the search for a mysterious mujahideen, known as The Ghost (Niamatullah Arghandabi). High-ranking officer Pete Mitchell (Gross) is convinced The Ghost, a legendary former warlord, is the key to establishing peace—or something close to it—between the diverse factions who seek to destabilize the government.
On a less geopolitical level Sanders is romantically involved with his commanding officer, Jennifer Bowman (Christine Horne), and the couple must decide whether or not their relationship will get in the way of being effective soldiers.
Gross, who based the screenplay on conversations he had with Canadian troops in Afghanistan, hasn’t made a war film in the traditional sense. He clearly has great affection for the Canadians who serve but isn’t afraid to highlight the ambiguity of the missions Mitchell is sanctioning. It’s a complicated part of the world, but this isn’t a complicated movie. It’s a film that clearly and concisely states its thesis that this conflict isn’t a matter of winners or losers, but of uncertainty that will eventually lead to an end state. In that way it’s more “Zero Dark Thirty” than “American Sniper.”
“Hyena Road” doesn’t maintain the urgency of its opening moments and the romantic subplot feels unnecessary (although it eventually delivers an emotional wallop) but for all the war movie cliché it embraces, it avoids others—like xenophobia and noble warrior banalities—to paint a picture of the difficulty in fighting a war in very confusing times.