Shocking news today regarding Paul Newman’s death, after a battle with cancer. The Washington Post has written both an obituary as well as a lovely longer piece, as has the Associated Press. Newman was our most unusual movie star: a handsome leading man whose chops were better than many of the top character actors; a business leader who devoted time and energy giving back to charity, but without self-congratulations; a husband and father who, unlike the brief unions so common in Tinseltown, stayed married to Joanne Woodward for five decades. In short, you didn’t have to know him personally to know of his decency. May he rest in peace.
Paul Gross, (best known to American audiences for TV shows Due South, Tales of the City, and Slings and Arrows) recently premiered his film, Passchendaele, which kicked off this year’s Toronto Film Festival. Set in World War I, and shot entirely in Alberta, it tells the Canadian side of the third Battle of Ypres, and will hopefully illuminate WWI for a new generation of filmgoers.
Ypres was a town in Flanders, Belgium, and site where three of WWI’s bloodiest battles were fought. The last, the Passachendale (named after a nearby village) involved troops from Canada, Great Britain, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa battling the German army. (Previous battles at Ypres had also involved French troops and French colonial [Algerian] troops; the second battle, sadly, was the first in which poison gas was used by German forces.)
Passachendale was emblematic of WWI warfare, in which almost half a million casualties fought over an area of questionable strategic importance. It was infamous for “the Mud”; soon after the battle began, the drainage system was destroyed by fighting; in the water and muck, troops became sick, their feet heavy with trench rot; some even drowned.
Hopefully it won’t be too long before this movie is seen south of the Canadian border – offering new insights on WWI to American viewers and history buffs. “In Flanders Fields,” one of the great WWI poems, was in fact written by Canadian doctor John McCrae, who succumbed to illness while working in a field hospital.
Like Vimy Ridge and WWII’s Dieppe Raid, Passachendale disproportionately affected Canadian households. During 1917, the US had recently declared war after the emergence of the Zimmerman Telegram, but it was still some months before their “doughboys” began battling on the same scale as the Canadian troops.
One of the young men fighting in the long months of “the Mud” was Gross’ grandfather, who, at the end of his life, was troubled by the young German he had bayoneted during a battle. His grandfather’s guilt-stricken stories compelled Gross to tell a story about the campaign, as he explains in a great interview with the CBC.