The Third Battle of Ypres was fought in the most nightmarish conditions of any campaign on the Western Front, going from initial unexploited victory to muddy, bloody stalemate, yet despite the impossible conditions, the Canadian troops who fought there, like the Australians, distinguished themselves on a remarkably regular basis, inadvertently providing endless material for a truly great film. Unfortunately Passchendaele, Canada's most expensive film to date (but still mostly unreleased outside its borders), is not that film. Even more unfortunately, it has the feel of a vanity project, with Due South's Mountie Paul Gross writing, co-producing, directing, providing the end title song and giving himself a leading role with all the things actors love to do as a heroic/cynical/tragic/shellshocked Canadian soldier who falls in love with a nurse back home (Caroline Dhavernas, an appealing actress who delivers the film's most convincing performance) before being thrown back into the fray to keep an eye on her screwed up brother. Looking like Patrick Wayne and often sounding like the Duke - "Bring on the Hell!" - he's rendered as too much of a stock WW2 movie character despite being based on a real person, which keeps you from taking him or the movie seriously.
Nor do the opening heroics convince - like much of the film, too many of the attitudes ring false, from its far too modern hero to the designer cynicism. For all the sporadic faux-Saving Private Ryan combat sequences, these are always stock movie characters in stock movie situations saying stock movie dialogue like "You're looking for romance, kid, you're not going to find it in a trench." The latter might be one reason why it spends most of its running time away from the hellholes and mud of Flanders and in the gloriously photographed scenic grandeur of smalltown Alberta instead. Some occasional details are right, like the soldiers sleeping on the hospital floor because after months of trench life ordinary beds are agony for them, others are wrong (it places nurses much closer to the frontline than they were allowed to provide a romantic reunion), but while it recreates period details it often completely misses the feeling of being set in another time. Only the brashly enthusiastic British recruiting officer seems a spot on characterisation, and he's there primarily to further the melodrama, which this film has in spades. It's at its best when evoking Frank Hurley's iconic photographs of the battlefield (though Hurley's portraits were mainly of Australian soldiers), but even these are ultimately undermined by an ending that takes allegory into utter absurdity as our wounded hero carries a crucified soldier through Flanders mud as all the guns fall silent, a scene that's hard to watch without hearing John Wayne's voice in your head saying "Aw, truly this man wuz tha son of God."
Thankfully this is a lot better than Canada's last shot in the blockbuster stakes, the woeful and risible Battle of the Brave/Nouvelle France, and it's not the total misfire of Joyeaux Noel or the utter disaster of The Trench, but it is ultimately just a common-or-garden war movie: okay if you're in a undemanding mood, but constantly failing every chance to be more. For all the clichés it does work in fits and starts, but it's very much an old-fashioned war movie of the kind that would have been made in the 50s rather than the great film it at times seems to think it is. It's very easy to see it being made with the cast of D-Day: The 6th of June - Dana Andrews in the Gross role, Dana Wynter in the Dhavernas one, Edmond O'Brien as the jaded Canadian commander, Richard Todd as the British recruiting officer... But even in 1956 they'd have baled at that scene with the cross.
Unlike the Canadian and Asian DVDs, this UK release is also presented in the wrong ratio - near 1.85:1 rather than the original 2.35:1 - giving you just one more reason to wait until it turns up on TV.