Michael Dunne returns home to Canada after being injured in combat during World War I. At home, he falls in love with his nurse. When her young brother enlists to go and fight, Michael follows him back into the battle to protect him – following him into the trenches of one of the war’s bloodiest battles.
Dunne (Paul Gross) is a pacifist who is injured in Germany and sent home to recuperate. Suffering from shell shock, Dunne is reassigned to assist in the recruitment efforts back home – a task which he hates. When his nurse’s young brother tries to enlist to prove his honor and redeem his family name, Dunne rejects him. When he later lies about his health and enlists behind his sister’s back, Dunne manipulates his way back to the front to protect him. Together in Belgium, the two men face the horrors of Passchendaele.
Passchendaele is generally considered a true taste of Hell, even by war’s grim standards. The heroic efforts of the Canadian forces in the battle are well documented and pretty faithfully recreated in the film, which gives a grimly realistic look at trench warfare during the First World War. Unfortunately, it takes well over half of the film’s run time to get there. The bulk of the tale is an overly contrived melodrama. By rights, Dunne should have been drummed out of the Army (if not executed), the love story between he and his nurse feels forced, her haunted past is a nice touch but doesn’t appear until later in the film and suddenly becomes a key element – overall, the story is awkwardly written and paced, squandering some solid performances. It’s not easy to take something as powerful and terrifying as the Battle of Passchendaele and make it dull, but this film succeeds.
This film is as much about Passchendaele as the Ben Affleck “Pearl Harbor” film was about Pearl Harbor. As a drama or love story, it may appeal to the same sort of audience, but without the familiarity of Pearl Harbor, the legitimacy of the film will be lost on many of those who aren’t looking for a true war film – and they will be sorely disappointed by this one.