BILLY BISHOP GOES TO WAR is a feature film inspired by the life of the legendary WWI flying ace from Owen Sound. Canadian acting legend Eric Peterson and award-winning writer/composer John Gray reprise their iconic two-man stage play that has captivated audiences for over three decades.
Nearing the end of his life, an aged Bishop (Peterson) recounts the triumphs and horrors of World War One, "the war to end all wars". Through raucous stories, haunting memories, and vibrant song, Bishop traces his journey from Royal Military College troublemaker to the top flying ace of the British Empire.
A story of the human cost of war on a scale the world had never seen before, this is an intimate and powerful portrait of a man who continues to capture the imagination.
The myth-making and myth-breaking story of pilot Billy Bishop -- Canada's most famous First World War hero - is more relevant now than ever. That is the notion sneaking into the minds of Eric Peterson and John Gray, the creative team behind the 33-year-old, never-say-die play and now the two films known as Billy Bishop Goes to War.
Peterson, a Canadian cultural icon himself for his comic "Jackass" character on Brent Butt's TV series Corner Gas, is sombre and serious when he talks of war and of the heroism of Canadians serving in Afghanistan. "It is of huge significance that we have been at war during this last manifestation of Billy Bishop Goes to War," Peterson tells Sun Media. "And we still are at war."
That has affected how he and Gray currently interpret their characters: Peterson performs as aerial ace Bishop and more than a dozen other characters and Gray is the pianist, straight man and sidekick. But it has also affected how audiences perceived the play and will now process the film, Peterson says. "They may not be conscious of it but it certainly will be there in their minds.""
The polished, provocative and enormously entertaining second version of the film is now going into its Canadian theatrical release after debuting on the festival circuit and marking its gala premiere at the Canadian War Museum. The film, more sophisticated than the 1982 version, was ingeniously directed by Barbara Willis-Sweete in an empty venue after the play was revived at the Soulpepper Theatre in 2010.
Gray says it is no secret how he and Peterson keep getting back into the cockpit. "Well, they keep asking us to do it, you know." But he also realizes that he and Peterson keep getting older. They are now in the same age range that Bishop was when he died in 1956, aged 62. So that informs how we look at him.
Citing the work of writer-philosopher Joseph Campbell, Gray says there are eternal stories that keep getting retold in fact and fiction. "You realize that Billy Bishop is an eternal story" he says of why telling his saga is so important, even if many Canadians still don't know of Bishop's historical significance. "You take an eternal hero story like that and you put him into familiar clothes and it can morph and it can change. But it is still eternal, you know. That is really neat."
The neatness of Billy Bishop is that historians still argue over whether he really did do everything he claimed to do -- especially on a solo mission over enemy territory in June of 1917 - or whether he embellished his exploits. The play, and the film, deal with those issues as Bishop tells his own story as fragments of memory.
In 1982, when the first film came out, Billy Bishop Goes to War caused what Peterson calls "a kerfuffle" in the Canadian Senate. Politicians found it rude to question Bishop's war record. Today, that is not happening because most people do not expect their war heroes to be so pre-packaged and perfect.
"Nor is war!" Gray says. War and war heroes are complex, he explains. "Everyone says war is terrible, but why do guys often say that it was the greatest time of their lives? We have to take that into consideration because that's what they say and they were there and we weren't. We have a real tendency to try to mould it to our own objectives and our own agendas."
For his part, Peterson says that debating history -- including the story of Billy Bishop -- is healthy. And it keeps both he and Gray active in touch. "It's a huge gift and we must be the two luckiest artists in the world!"