Passchendaele (film)


Theatrical release poster
Directed by Paul Gross
Produced by Paul Gross
Niv Fichman
Frank Siracusa
Francis Damberger
Written by Paul Gross
Starring Paul Gross
Caroline Dhavernas
Gil Bellows
Joe Dinicol
Jim Mezon
Music by Jan A. P. Kaczmarek
Cinematography Gregory Middleton
Edited by David Wharnsby
Damberger Film & Cattle
Rhombus Media
Whizbang Films
Distributed by Alliance Films
Release dates
  • September 4, 2008 (2008-09-04) (Toronto International Film Festival)
  • October 17, 2008 (2008-10-17) (Canada)
Running time
114 minutes
Country Canada
Language English
Budget $20 million
Box office $4,452,423[1]

Passchendaele is a 2008 Canadian war film, written, co-produced, directed by, and starring Paul Gross. The film, which was shot in Calgary, Alberta, Fort Macleod, Alberta, and in Belgium, focuses on the experiences of a Canadian soldier, Michael Dunne, at the Battle of Passchendaele, also known as the Third Battle of Ypres. The film had its premiere at the 2008 Toronto International Film Festival on September 4, 2008, when it also had the honour of opening the festival,[2] and it was released widely in Canada on October 17, 2008.


The main character is Sergeant Michael Dunne (later reverting to his mother's maiden name McCrae for re-enlistment), introduced in the spring of 1917 after Vimy Ridge, a decorated veteran of the 10th Battalion, CEF.

During heavy combat in a ruined town, Dunne is wounded and sent home from Europe as a neurasthenia patient. While recovering from his injuries, he meets nurse Sarah Mann (Caroline Dhavernas) in Calgary, Alberta, where he had originally enlisted.

Sarah Mann is drummed out of the local nursing service, and ostracised in town, because her father was of German descent and had left Canada to rejoin the Imperial German Army in 1915. He was killed at Vimy Ridge on the opposing side to Sergeant Dunne. She has become addicted to morphine as a means of dealing with the recurring loss in her life.

David Mann (Joe Dinicol) is Sarah's younger brother. Despite being ineligible for military service due to asthma, he is desperate to win the respect of his girlfriend's father at a time when military service is demanded of all young men. He is vehemently anti-German and tries to expunge the fact that his father was German, and had died fighting for Germany, from the family history. His girlfriend's father pulls strings to get him enlisted, arguably in the hope that he will not return and marry his daughter. Sarah originally thinks Michael has enlisted David, in his role as local recruitment officer, but later finds this is untrue. The enlistment is further facilitated by a British recruiting officer whose malice and goading of David Mann and Michael Dunne makes him the film's principal antagonist. Michael however feels a responsibility and re-enlists as Private McCrae in order to protect David at the front.

As a result, both David and Michael end up in the battlefields of Belgium. Sarah also enlists and follows the 10th ending up as a nurse in triage at an Advanced Dressing Station near the front. The three arrive in Flanders in time for the Battle of Passchendaele. Dunne and Sarah soon meet up again when Dunne brings a wounded man to the aid station. Although Dunne's cover as McCrae is soon blown, he manages to escape punishment and is promoted to platoon leader by Lieutenant Colonel Ormond, who knew him from earlier fighting, when his past actions "should have got a V.C." and because of the need for experienced soldiers as high casualties were expected.

When the Canadians launch their attack, the 8th Battalion (Winnipeg Rifles), known as the Little Black Devils, faces a German counterattack and become pinned down. Dunne's company is sent to support them. After the support company arrives, the 8th Battalion retreats from the battlefield, wrongly believing that they are finally relieved, leaving the job of holding the ground to Dunne's small force. As the reality of the war begins to set in, David Mann begins to realize the war was not what he believed it would be. Dunne's forces spend the night in their trenches, and as a result of the shelling, David begins to have an asthmatic/panic attack and Dunne calms him down, relieving the problem.

The next morning the Germans counter-attack, and make it as far as the line, and both forces attack each other in close quarters combat. As the Germans retreat, David breaks down and chases them back to surrender. He jumps into their trenches and is met by a gun to the face where he begs in German. He is about to be shot when an artillery shell lands and the explosion throws him onto what is effectively a cross, created by walkway timbers from the trench. He is visually crucified by the explosion. This relates to Dunne's earlier story of the legendary report of the crucified soldier. When Dunne sees this he takes his helmet off, throws his gun down and runs to David, in a reckless attempt to keep his promise to keep him alive, getting shot in the process. He crawls to the cross on his knees, looking up at it. The Germans stop firing and allow him to retrieve David, whom he carries back to his own lines. The fighting swiftly resumes with a shell landing. David lives, but Dunne is carried to the hospital where he dies after his last words with Sarah. This happens just as the news comes in that the Canadians have captured Passchendaele Ridge.

The ending scene shows the wheelchair-bound David Mann (now only with one leg); Sarah Mann; David's girlfriend Cassie; and Dunne's best friend Royster (Gil Bellows) paying tribute at Dunne's grave on his home farm. The marker has been altered to remove the "5" of 1915 and changed to 1917. The camera then pans out and the background alters to a field of hundreds of Canadian war graves with a riderless horse on the horizon.



Production on the film reportedly began on August 20, 2007, with principal photography in Calgary, Alberta. The film was shot over a period of forty-five days and involved over 200 actors, some of them Canadian Forces soldiers with combat experience in Afghanistan. Battle scenes were filmed on the Tsuu T'ina Indian reserve just outside Calgary, and principal photography finished in October 2007. The film was edited by David Wharnsby, and its score composed by Jan A.P. Kaczmarek.


This film was inspired by Gross's relationship with his maternal grandfather, Michael Joseph Dunne, who served in the 56th, 5th, 14th and 23rd Reserve Battalions, CEF,[3] in the First World War. Like many veterans, he was reticent about sharing his experiences with his family. In a rare conversation on a fishing trip; Dunne told the story of bayonetting a young German soldier, who had eyes like water, through the head and killing him during a battle. A long time later, as Dunne lay in a hospital bed in the last days of his life, his family was mystified by Dunne's behaviour of asking for forgiveness, over and over. Only Gross knew that he was speaking to the young German he had killed.[4]

"He went completely out of his mind at the end. He started telling me about a hideous event that happened during a skirmish in a little ruined town in World War I. He'd killed someone in a miserable, horrible way and that had obviously haunted him throughout the rest of his life. As my grandfather died, in his mind he was back in that town, trying to find a German boy whom he'd bayonetted in the forehead. He'd lived with that memory all his life – and he was of a time when people kept things to themselves. When he finally told the story, it really affected me and I've not been able to get it out of my head."[5]

During the early portion of the film, the scene is recreated in a broken church, when Sergeant Michael Dunne bayonets a young German soldier through the forehead.


In November 2005, the Government of Alberta announced a $5.5-million grant to Gross and the film project as part of Alberta's centennial; the overall budget has been announced at between $16 million and $20 million, making it the highest-budgeted Canadian-produced film ever. The film was publicly announced at a news conference at the Museum of the Regiments on November 13, 2005.

"The province's centennial is a time to recognize our past and tell our stories, including those about Alberta's military heritage. We must work to keep our veterans' sacrifices in the forefront of our minds. The story of Passchendaele pays tribute to a key event in our country's history, and will educate Albertans and all Canadians for years to come." – Premier Ralph Klein

Historical background

Canadians "100 yards from Boche lines" during the push on Hill 70.

The 10th Battalion was originally formed from Albertans, Saskatchewanians and Manitobans, though as the war progressed it became identified solely as an Alberta battalion. The "Fighting Tenth" served with the 1st Canadian Division and participated in all major Canadian battles of the war, and set the record for highest number of individual bravery awards for a single battle. At Hill 70, sixty men were awarded the Military Medal for the fighting there, in addition to a Victoria Cross, three Distinguished Service Orders, seven Military Crosses, and nine Distinguished Conduct Medals.

"Named for a village located on a low rise in the Ypres Salient, the very word Passchendaele has become synonymous with suffering and waste. Strong German defences in this area, developed over the course of more than two years, gave the British extremely hard going. "The Tenth Battalion were called out of reserve to assist an attack on Hill 52, part of the same low rise Passchendaele itself was situated on. The Battalion was not scheduled to attack, but the CO wisely prepared his soldiers as if they would be making the main assault – a decision that paid dividends when the unit was called out of reserve. On 10 November 1917, the Tenth Battalion took the feature with light casualties."[6]


The battle scene at the end of the movie depicts a relief of the 8th Battalion, CEF (known by their nickname "The Little Black Devils") by the 10th Battalion, an action that actually happened, as described by the history of the 10th Battalion:

At this point, a terrible misunderstanding occurred. Major Bingham knew that he was merely reinforcing the 8th, but The Little Black Devils believed that they were being relieved. Bingham argued the point to no avail, and watched with dismay as the mud-caked survivors of the 8th pulled out and slogged to the rear, leaving A Company to hold an entire battalion's frontage. Undaunted, the major deployed his men in a dangerously thin line, linking up with the 7th Battalion to the right. But Bingham surely realized that it would be impossible to hold this position in the face of a counter-attack.[7]

Lieutenant Colonel Ormond, the Commanding Officer of the 10th (also a character in the film) gave a handwritten account of the relief in which he said:

I then agreed to take over the front line from the 7th and 8th Battalions...On returning to Battalion headquarters I found orders that a relief would not be carried out, but as it had already been done, and the OC 8th Battalion had left to acquaint the GOC of the situation, no other action was taken.[8]


Passchendaele received poor-to-mixed reviews from critics. As of November 15, 2009, the review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes reported that 36% of critics gave the film a positive review, with an average score of 5 out of 10, based on 14 reviews.[9]

Box office

The film was a commercial failure as it went on to gross only $4,452,423, well under its $20 million budget.[1]


On March 2, 2009, Paul Gross was honoured for his film Passchendaele, winning that year's National Arts Centre Award for achievement over the past performance year.[10]

At the 29th Genie Awards, the film won the Achievement in Art Direction/Production Design, Achievement in Costume Design, Achievement in Overall Sound, Achievement in Sound Editing, and Best Picture.[11] It also received the Golden Reel Award for Canada's top-grossing film of 2008.[12]


  1. 1 2
  2. Brendan Kelly, Variety: "Toronto unveils Canadian selection" (July 15, 2008) Retrieved 2012-07-11
  3. Library and Archives Canada RG 150, Accession 1992-93/166, Box 2752 – 28
  4. "'Passchendaele' a tribute to Paul Gross's grandfather". Retrieved 2008-10-15.
  5. Paul Gross, Now Magazine (UK), 11 June 1998
  6. The Calgary Highlanders
  7. Dancocks, Daniel Gallant Canadians: The Story of the 10th Battalion, CEF 1914-1919 p. 150
  8. Lt Col D Ormond's Battle Narrative, dated November 28, 1917, National Archives of Canada File RG9 III C3, Vol 4052, folder 21, file 2.
  9. Rotten Tomatoes: Passchendaele (2008) Retrieved 2012-07-11
  10. "War epic Passchendaele among GG winners". Toronto Star, March 2, 2009.
  11. 29th Genie Awards
  12. "Pre-Genie Awards Announced", Northern Stars.
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