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Thoughts on Passchendaele
Passchendaele is about love, war and sacrifice. It is the largest Canadian war movie ever made with a powerfully spiritual theme portrayed in the ending scenes of the battle.

(Disclaimer: if you haven’t seen the movie this article may tell you more than you want to know)

In a momentary lull in the vicious battle of Passchendaele, shell shocked, battle-weary, hero Michael Dunne desperately scans the water filled trenches for the brother of the woman he loves. “ David! David!” Frantically, fearfully he hoarsely bawls out the name again and again. Finally, in disbelieving horror he catches sight of him. David is still alive, but Michael is staggered by what the enemy has done to him.

Photo, courtesy Wikipedia.

As a 20 million dollar war epic Passchendaele is the largest homegrown Canadian war movie ever made. It is based on the historic battle in WWI fought in Belgium. On November 6, 1917 Canadian troops succeeded in capturing a strategic ridge. It was a coming of age victory for Canada since other forces had already bloodied themselves in this campaign without success. Canada suffered heavy casualties in the conflict, but her troops won a total of nine Victoria Crosses for their valor. 

The movie is ostensibly an offering about war. However actor/director, Paul Gross, incorporates a full-blown romance plot that largely overpowers the war motif. Fact is, the movie is nowhere close to a documentary and when its over many, like me, will wonder how much they have learned about the historic battle of Passchendaele. To be sure you will see the gut-wrenching, fear-filled, bloody carnage of front-line battle fought in water-filled craters. But, because Gross chose to focus on the trees instead of the forest there is precious little overview of this great Canadian victory.

But, there’s a third text in the movie riding below the surface of the war and romance themes—the movie has a profoundly spiritual side to it. This aspect is portrayed graphically in the final scenes of the great battle just after the enemy has captured David.

When Michael finally spots David on the bloody battlefield—he sees that the Germans have captured him, crucified him, and have him hoisted high on a wooden cross. Thinking only of his love for Sarah, sister of the boy on the cross, with no thought for his own life Michael throws down his weapons and ammunition, and begins his run. He runs, weaving, he launches himself across the muddy, shell-cratered ground straight into the enemy lines, directly at the man hoisted on the cross. Enemy fire targets him, misses repeatedly, then he jerks once, twice as bullets find their mark. Still he hastens on, until finally he is felled. But, the bloody, mortally wounded soldier continues. Resolve unbroken, his love intact, he drags himself forward. An easy target now, he is sure to die in a hail of hot steel; but a German officer seeing the wonder of this determined rush halts the fire, and Michael is allowed to approach. Dying now, but still on his feet, with the little strength he has left he lifts the cross on his shoulders and painfully, heroically, half drags, half carries his friend back to safety, back to life. 

This powerful religious imagery of Michael carrying his cross is hard to miss. But, some reviews ignore it, while others seem to resent its inclusion in the movie. Perhaps many have missed the significance of the religious tableau because they missed the key interpretative clue given earlier. At one point, seemingly out of the blue, Michael shares a comment that the real meaning of Christ’s death on the cross was that he was laying down a model for us to follow. Michael’s suicidal charge toward enemy lines in hope of saving his friend was simply a fleshing out of this theology. Christ laid down his life out of love for people. Michael because of his love for Sarah laid down his life to save her brother.

Michael, despite his sincerity is only half right. For 2000 years historic Christianity has taught that Jesus died to erase the stain of guilt and shame for those who will receive it. Yes, his death can be seen as a model inspiring love and sacrifice, but it is much more than that.

Passchendaele is a profoundly spiritual movie. The question begs to be asked, “"Why does secular Hollywood insist on dragging theology into so many of its movies”?

Perhaps it’s simply a manifestation of the scripture that says, “God has set eternity in their hearts”. Or could it be that postmodern man simply cannot abide life without meaning?

Royal Hamel is the director of Light the Darkness Ministries.

Originally published in the Guelph Mercury, November 24, 2008.




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