Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Paul Gross And Passchendaele

Let me see, just when did I start writing stories about Paul Gross. Now I remember: it was in a newly designed TV studio CBC had constructed in Scarborough for the network's first ever DVD miniseries titled Chasing Rainbows. That was way back in the summer of 1988.
For some wacky reason the producer had decreed no TV critics would be allowed on set. So cast and crew were toiling in anonymity for almost a year and no word had trickled out to the public.  The Toronto Star where I worked had story after story about the latest American TV hits. But nothing about CBC's costliest ever TV venture.
As the release date loomed CBC  executives started panicking and veteran network publicists  began sneaking people like yours truly onto the set. That's where I first met the prenatally calm Gross. All around him there were tantrums and threats and he simply stayed cool and stole many of his scenes.
Who would have thought this kid would emerge as Canadian TV's biggest ever dramatic star? The other co-stars, equally unknown, have also enjoyed thriving careers: Michael Riley and Julie Stewart.
I interviewed Gross again when he was promoting the charming 1990 TV movie Getting Married In Buffalo Jump (co-starring Wendy Crewson) and met him in 1994 when he made the theatrical film Paint Cans, a marvelous satire of the infant Canadian film industry.
Which takes us up to Gross's break out performance as Mountie Benton Fraser in Due South (1994-99). It's one of the very few Canadian made series to gain a U.S. network berth. Gross told me at the time he was astonished by the CBS publicity juggernaut which poured millions into advertising and interviews and made this sleeper a huge success.
Gross could then have been expected to jump to the U.S. and he did for a very short time. He made a bomb of a Disney movie (*(*(*(*() and  the terrible TV movie 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea opposite Richard Crenna.
Thankfully, he returned home for such Canadian TV fare as  the miniseries Slings And Arrows and H20, two miniseries which were picked up by some American stations. While he was promoting Sling And Arrows he mentioned a script he was working on, a World War I drama but one that was go grand in scope it probably could not be achieved.
So now comes Passchendaele,  a decade later, at $20 million the highest budgeted Canadian movie of all time (which isn't really saying much). It enjoyed a theatrical release which is where I caught it at one of Toronto's last neighborhood cinemas, Mt. Pleasant. The movie certainly deserves to be seen on a big screen.  Reconstruction of the actual battle has been done with painstaking care. Unlike bravura American war movies this one shows the rats, the misery and the rotting carcasses all over the battle plain.
I re-watched parts on my tiny TV set and it looked so mundane.  Detailing was lost and the epic nature of the story just wasn't there. Most people will catch it on DVD or subsequent network showings. The DVD also contains a "making of" documentary that is a must-see.
Gross in true Orson Welles fashion write, directed and acted in it. Still dashing at 49, he plays a character named after his own grandfather. As long as the battle field scenes are up there the movie soars.
Shots of Calgary when it was a frontier town are far more prosaic despite the meticulous reconstruction. Gross as Mike Dunne enjoys a conventional romance with  war nurse  Sarah played by Caroline Dhavernas although little is made of the difference in  their ages.
It's strange but Passchendaele is almost alone among Canadian movies of the Great War. There have been some splendid documentary series like For King And Empire. The only competition comes from Robin Phillips' little seen 1979 drama The Wars with Brent Carver, Martha Henry and William Hutt.

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