Sunday, 31 August 2014

Where Are the Canadian War Films?

Back in middle school, I was a bit crazy and as I've said before I often found myself living in the past. While the other boys in my classes were quoting the latest episodes of South Park, Family Guy, Robot Chicken, or whatever other shows they were watching at the time, I was always going back to the Marx Brothers and Monty Python. I've told this before, but it hardly stopped there. 

You see, in addition to enjoying a lot of old movies, I also became fascinated with history. It became one of my favourite subjects and while I was fascinated by everything, I would often find myself going through phases where I would fixate on specific points in time. Just seeing Zulu got me fascinated with the Anglo-Zulu war, and later on I became fascinated with the Battle of the Alamo after seeing John Wayne's take on it. I used to read my history textbook for fun (something that always baffled my classmates) and I remember once participating in a futuristic text-based RPG where I ended up with over a million different characters and all but maybe two or three were descendants of people who fought in famous battles (and I certainly made sure they didn't forget that fact).

However, one particular event that grabbed my attention was the First World War. I'm not sure precisely what it was that got me fascinated by it. Part of it may have had to do with that conflict being featured from time to time on Monty Python's Flying Circus but I think it also had to do with the fact that World War I failed to receive as much attention as World War II. I became particularly fascinated with the aviation of the time, and I even began to develop a special respect for the Canadian pilot Billy Bishop. I even went as far as to constantly put Billy Bishop into my stop motion LEGO movies (regardless of how much sense it made for him to be there) and write an essay about his accomplishments in middle school.

So naturally, I enjoy a good war film now and then, and there are plenty, but eventually one thing started to dawn on me, which while technically regarding films dealing with any 20th century war, especially applies to World Wars I and II. There are plenty of films dealing with both wars, from a variety of perspectives. There are World War II films shown from the point of view of Germany like The Desert FoxDas Boot, Stalingrad, or the even more controversial Downfall. France has had its turn now and then (the American-produced Paths of Glory), as has Russia (Ballad of a SoldierDoctor Zhivago, Enemy at the Gates), and Japan (Torah! Torah! Torah!, Grave of the FirefliesLetters From Iwo Jima); 

What about Canada? So far, disregarding television programs and documentaries, I have found a grand total of one Canadian war movie: Passchendaele. This particular film has received mixed reviews (the common consensus, at least on IMDB, goes that it has some amazing battle scenes but could have done without the love story), but at least it does a better job of setting a romance against the backdrop of a famous tragedy than Michael Bay's Pearl Harbor. I personally enjoyed it, and would not mind seeing it again. This is a movie that is not only Canadian-produced with a largely Canadian cast, but also depicts Canada's role in a major historical event. 

Unfortunately, films such as this seem to be a rarity. While there are plenty of war films dealing with other countries, the two that seem to be especially dominant in this market are America and Britain. Most of the best-known war films are shown from one of those two perspectives, or in some cases use a bit of both (i.e. The Great Escape and The Bridge Over the River Kwai). However, out of those two, America is the one that appears to have the greater output.

When you hear "war movie", it is likely that a large portion of the titles that immediately spring to mind will be American: The Caine Mutiny, The Enemy BelowThe Dirty Dozen, PattonThe Big Red OneSaving Private Ryan, The Thin Red Line, Flags of Our FathersInglorious Basterds, and the upcoming Fury and that's only for the Second World War. For instance, how many films are there that show the Vietnam war from any perspective besides the Americans? I have not found any yet. 

The thing is, American war films seem to enjoy making it look like America is the greatest and they did everything. Take the opening of Saving Private Ryan, for example. Going on this scene alone, one could easily get the impression that the Normandy Landings were a purely American effort on one beach, when in fact it was joint effort by several different countries (including us Canadians, which you probably didn't realise because nobody ever bothers to show other countries' involvements) across several different locations. 

According to Wikipedia, America has also produced a rather wide range of World War I films, and while not all of them are from the American perspective, I feel the need to bring up one that is. Sergeant York is a fairly well-known World War movie centred around a heroic American soldier. 

Well, I hate to break it to you, but America doesn't exactly have a long list of contributions to World War I. In fact, America was barely involved with that war. We Canadians were out there right from the start, and got involved with several key battles (Vimy Ridge, Passchendaele, Somme, and Regina Trench, just to name a few). We still get recognition in Belgium for all our contributions to the war. We also had some of the greatest pilots, including Billy Bishop who has a long list of heroics; not to mention that the famed Red Baron was reportedly shot down by a Canadian, Roy Brown.

Now, once in a while I have seen war films that have acknowledged Canada's presence, but not usually in the most satisfying way. A few of them do make a point of mentioning Canadians, so that's fair enough. On an even rarer occasion we get a war film which actually features a Canadian in a notable role, but played by a non-Canadian. This was one of the few flaws of the otherwise pretty good The Bridge on the River Kwai.

You have American actors playing the Americans, British actors playing the British, and Japanese actors playing the Japanese. Was it really that hard for the production team to find one Canadian actor to play Lt. Joyce? Were they really so scarce that you had to resort to casting an Argentinian in the role? Given how many Canadian actors end up playing Americans in Hollywood movies, I'm pretty sure they aren't that had to come by.

I mean, you don't even see so much as Hollywood trying to depict Canadian history. It seems that when it comes to both World Wars, they are willing to make movies that show every perspective except the Canadian one. Why is it that Passchendaele appears to be the only true Canadian war movie? Why can't we get more films about the role Canada has to play in both World Wars, or for that matter any major conflict of which we were a part, including Afghanistan? I don't have an answer, but I do believe we deserve better recognition than we are getting.


  1. Oh don't get me started! I agree with you 100%! The Americans didn't really get into WW! until they had a good idea who was winning. I have read that. WW1 put Canada on the map and made us a nation. The Great Escape was engineered by a Canadian and many were part of that escape. Holland still reveres us and gives us great respect when we visit (my dad was part of that liberation). We learned from Dieppe so when D-Day was coming our generals were trying to convince the Americans to use some of our tanks and other machinery otherwise they will be stopped at the beach. The American higher -ups refused to listen and the poor American soldiers had a tough time of it and if it wasn't for us Canadians on Juno beach they would have had another Dieppe. We made it farther than any other unit that day because we learned the hard way. In Savings Ryan's Privates (sorry), there is a sentence that Ted Danson's character says that rubbed me the wrong way. I have not seen this film since it came out so excuse me if I am not 100% accurate but it went something like " We can't get farther(???) the Canadians are holding us back!" Excuse me!!!!????? We were in Caen-A city the size of Hamilton, On. We were not just fighting small towns but cities like that. We cut off the Germans from getting further towards the beach which helped the Americans. Also We Canadians fought our way right to Rome and when we got to the point to enter Rome, the Canadian soldiers were ordered to hang back and let the Americans pass so they could say they took Rome. The Americans in charge of all this media do not want us little Canucks to show how involved we are as they must be the ones who conquer all. The average American and Canadian have no idea how much the Canadian soldier did in both wars. I do wish more Canadians in the entertainment industry would make a film centering on Canada in WW1 and WW2. I saw this movie done by Paul Gross and I thought it was excellent. It detailed the issues that Germans in this country had to deal with and what Canada faced.

    1. Was the Great Escape engineered by a Canadian? Blimey that makes me feel bad about my positive review of that film.

      Actually, for a while one of my dream projects was to do a movie about Canada's role in World War I. The only thing that's stopped me is the overwhelming amount of research that would be required. I had been toying with the idea of a short story, though.

    2. Yes a number of them were Canadians. Wally Floody was the tunnel king (Charles Bronson's character was a composite of several men). The Great Escape were mainly English and Canadians. One is from the city I live in now and he was one of the 50. I still enjoy the film as with most, it is inaccurate in many ways but it still tells a story that is true (although the 50 were not murdered at once but 1 or 2 at a time)

  2. Excellent post! I had the chance to finally watch Saving Private Ryan for the first time a few weeks ago and was thinking the exact same thing. It's such a shame there's not a lot of Canadian recognition, but it seems a lot of smaller nations don't either. However, it does get tiring to hear about all the Wars from Britain and (especially) America's point of view.

    1. Well, given how dominant America is I'd say it actually sometimes becomes a relief just to see the odd British war film, but they're about the second most commonly shown. That's of course only with regards to World War I and II.

      For instance, I'm not sure I have ever heard of a Vietnam war film that shows the perspective of the South Vietnamese or the Viet Cong. You don't see very many non-American films to incorporate the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan.

      There's a few exceptions here and there where there'll be some representation of other countries, but usually Canada is not among them, and often it will be something like a French man and an Englishman in a cast that's otherwise entirely American.