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.
“For the past nine years, Reel Canada has been introducing young people and new Canadians to great Canadian films and the response has been overwhelmingly positive,” says Jack Blum, executive director of Reel Canada.
This year on Tuesday, April 29, the Can-con boosters are kicking their outreach up a notch with the establishment of National Canadian Film Day.
“We thought it would be great for one day a year to extend that invitation to all Canadians,” Blum says. “We just believe that if we can overcome the ‘awareness’ barrier created by the huge promotional budgets Hollywood commands for its product, that people will embrace our fantastic legacy of great cinema.”
To help celebrate the inaugural National Canadian Film Day, Cineplex has donated screens to show a variety of homegrown films, including the festival hit C.R.A.Z.Y. and Paul Gross’s Passchendaele. The Reel Canada website boasts that great Canadian films will be “available in more communities on a single day than ever before in our nation’s history.”
“There are screenings happening all over the country,” says Blum, “literally in every province and territory as well as online and on TV. Of course, if you’re in Toronto, the place to be is the Royal on College, where Bruce McDonald and Don McKellar will be presenting Highway 61 and Last Night.”
Blum waves the flag when discussing the importance of exposure to Canadian films. “Canadian movies reflect Canadian experience. Period. When people see themselves and their world depicted on screen it gives them a stronger sense of where they live and what community or communities they belong to.”’
Synopsis: Each year on Nov. 11 we remember and celebrate “the men and women who have served, and continue to serve our country during times of war, conflict and peace.” Remembrance Day is a time to pay respect to the sacrifices brave soldiers have made for our country. In observation The Reel Guys have compiled a list of movies to serve as a backdrop on this solemn day.
Richard: Mark, the first war-themed film to really make an impression on me was The Best Years Of Our Lives. When I was a kid I watched it on television every November and although it’s almost 70 years old the story of servicemen struggling to rebuild their lives after the Second World War is still 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 disabled vet Harold Russell.
Mark: Don’t know the movie, Richard. I grew up in a family of cowards and war movies were forbidden. And I don’t know who said it — probably not Snooki — that “all great war movies are anti-war movies.” That being said, I like the P.O.W. genre, with incarcerated soldiers plotting to get out. The Bridge On the River Kwai is one of the greatest, with a fine performance by Alec Guiness, but let’s also include The Great Escape with Steve McQueen, and a left-field choice, Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence starring David Bowie. Waaaay left-field, Richard, if you get my drift.
RC: War films come in all shapes and sizes. If P.O.W. movies are your thing check out The Hill, a little known British film that features one of Sean Connery’s best performances. Set during the Second World War in North Africa, it’s the story of a stockade run by Brits to punish deserters. Connery wedged it in between Goldfinger and Thunderball and it is a stark contrast to the work he was doing in the Bond films at the time. As for your second thought, which I suspect should be attributed to Steven Spielberg and not Snooki, two films pop to mind. Saving Private Ryan and the First World War drama All Quiet on the Western Front. Both are masterfully made films that show the brutal reality of war from the point of view of the soldiers.
MB: I’ve seen The Hill. It’s great. But the best anti-war movie might be Johnny Got His Gun, a minimalist squirmer told from the point of view of a blind, mute quadruple amputee. Fun times! And as far as soldiers on the ground, I would nominate Black Hawk Down, or Platoon, both of which put you right in the centre of a battle you may not be winning.
RC: We can’t talk about war films so close to Remembrance Day without paying tribute to Canadian soldiers on screen. Paul Gross’s Passchendaele is probably our best-known homegrown look at Canadians in battle but Hollywood has never shied away from depicting fighting Canadians. Canuck heroes are portrayed in the Devil’s Brigade, The Battle of Britain and Attack on the Iron Coast among many others.
MB: Yes, Canadians excel in battle. Canadians also excel at harbouring war resisters, but I’ve yet to see THAT movie.
Passchendaele, the second feature from director / actor Paul Gross, is a hybrid of romance and war movie based around the 1917 battle for Passchendaele which lasted for 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 through the face and killing him during a battle. Years later as his grandfather lay dying in a hospital bed he asked for forgiveness over and over. Only Gross knew that he was speaking to the young German he had killed in the First World War.
Passchendaele is a personal story told on an epic scale and was seen by audiences for the first time as the opening night film at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival.
The film is ambitious in its scope with battle scenes to rival anything we’ve seen on screen in recent years, while also grafting on a story of honor and romance. In the self-penned script Gross tackles big, timely issues regarding war, patriotism and valor that occasionally come off as a bit corny, but the movie’s heart is in the right place.