Canadian military lore holds that sometime, somewhere in Canada, an army reserve unit was conducting urban warfare exercises when a local woman noticed men with machine guns on the street outside her home. Alarmed, she called the police, who informed her, “That’s just our military, doing training exercises.”
“Really?” replied the woman, “We have a military?”
It’s easy to see why the story, which may be apocryphal, resonates with our troops. The modern Canadian soldier has nowhere near the cultural clout of his (or her) American counterpart, who is almost deified. Most Canadians “support our troops” and will wear a poppy on Remembrance Day, but beyond that, Canada’s relationship with its military is… well… a bit awkward.
Canadian soldiers are notably underappreciated in Canadian film. Scrolling through a list of prominent domestic pictures released over the last two decades, comedies and dramas exploring offbeat familial relations and “unconventional” romances abound, and the immigrant experience (usually in Montreal) is frequently warmed over. Then there are movies like Incendies and War Witch which have little or nothing to do with Canada at all.
Many of these are worthy films. Les Invasions barbere, C.R.A.Z.Y., Away from Her, and Incendies for instance, were all excellent. But the Canadian cinema community mostly makes exotic arthouse fare aimed at a narrow festival circuit audience.
Then there’s Paul Gross.
The Alberta native first came to national prominence as an actor, star of the mid-nineties CTV CanCon crime series Due South, playing a full-dress Mountie tramping about Chicago. Be-serged and be-Stetsoned, he solved crimes with his trusty wolfdog sidekick, Diefenbaker. The show strove for cheeky irreverence, but was still so earnestly hokey that Mordecai Richler gleefully satirized it in his 1997 novel Barney’s Version.
Gross’ first foray into filmmaking was the estimable 2002 curling comedy Men with Brooms. Sure it’s easy to mock one of the world’s most ridiculous pastimes, but Gross deserves credit for being the guy who actually went and did it in a movie (he co-wrote, directed and starred, and even talked Leslie Nielson into co-starring).
Paul Gross goes to war
In 2008 Gross released the First World War epic Passchendaele, in which he served as writer, producer, director and leading man. Shot in Alberta and Belgium for around $20 million, Passchendaele was by far the largest budgeted movie in Canadian cinema history.
The story centred on the horrific Battle of Passchendaele, where over 4,000 Canadians died and 12,000 were wounded in successfully taking a tiny Belgian village. In addition to lionizing the extraordinary pluck and courage of the troops, Gross crammed in two homefront romances, an unsubtle subtheme on masculinity, an even less subtle critique of nationalism and xenophobia, and spilled copious amounts of dialogue into the muck to establish the pointlessness of the Great War. Passchendaele was well received at home, but ripped by American critics. The action plodded, bogged down by the multiple storylines, and the characters were prone to cheesy declarations and banal soliloquies. The climax was, to put it kindly, overdone. It was also a commercial failure, recouping only about $4.5 million at the box office. Perhaps because at least a third of its hefty price tag was covered by various levels of government, no one seemed to mind.
Still, Passchendaele got a lot of things right. It was beautifully shot and Gross’ battle scenes were as dizzyingly visceral and realistic as any Hollywood blockbuster. But most significantly, Gross was telling a big, important Canadian war story featuring the novelty of Our Guys, speaking in our accents, achieving heroic military feats up on the silver screen.
Of course it wasn’t the first Canadian war story on film. The CBC has churned out many serviceable made-for-TV documentaries and dramas like Dieppe and Peacekeepers. Shake Hands with the Devil was a decent feature film about Canada’s role in the Rwanda genocide. Bye Bye Blues was an outstanding Second World War movie, set on the homefront. But as a good old-fashioned, action-packed, blood-and-guts war movie, none of them held a candle to Passchendaele, despite its warts.
A tour of Kandahar promoting Passchendaele at the height of Canada’s war in Afghanistan provided the spark for Gross’ next big project. An army-brat himself and a history enthusiast, Gross collected stories from Canadian troops there and soon began working on a new script.
A refreshingly apolitical war movie
The result was Hyena Road, which, for my money – 12 bucks and a bag of popcorn – is a very good movie and an unflinching account of Canada’s latest war, the longest in our history. The story snaps along and the battlefield action scenes are riveting. Gross’ characters are engaging and believable. He maintains an obsessive attention to military detail. The film gorgeously depicts the beauty, heat, and loneliness of the Kandahar desert scape (it was shot at CFB Shilo, Manitoba, in Jordan, and Afghanistan). By all accounts it loyally recreates the dusty utilitarianism of Kandahar Airfield (KAF, coalition headquarters in Kandahar Province) and the tense, frenetic chaos of Kandahar City.
Hyena Road follows an idealistic young Canadian sniper, Ryan Sanders (played by Rosiff Sutherland, son of Donald, brother of Keifer) who finds himself entangled in the intrigues of a wily, jaded intelligence officer, Pete Mitchell (Gross). As the Canadian Forces struggle to build a highway through a region infested with Taliban and other violent factions, Mitchell tries to topple the corrupt local Afghan strongman with the help of a revered old Soviet-era mujahedeen fighter. By this device, Gross explores Canada’s complicated role in Afghanistan and the confused mess of peacekeeping, combat, tribal blood-feuds, political rivalries, invisible enemies and dubious friends therein.
The movie’s not perfect. Gross’ script occasionally lapses into the leaden soliloquy that so mired Passchendaele. The love story in Hyena Road is comparatively unobtrusive, but still feels contrived. And he does a disservice to women in uniform by reducing the only substantial female character to a sobbing, gooey mess on the job in the climactic scene, which plays out with a decidedly maudlin ring.
But these quibbles are beside the point. Gross has produced an eminently watchable film that accurately tells another big, important Canadian war story. Even better, he does so with nary a whiff of moralizing or political agenda.
As he recently explained to Readers’ Digest, “I don’t have a position on whether we should be engaged in these types of conflicts, but once we were there, our military represented us with enormous dignity. I was interested in the semi-blind nature with which wars like this are conducted. I tried to convey the idea that nobody really knows what’s going on.”
A veteran’s view of Hyena Road
Among the Canadians who saw the movie during its relatively brief theatre run this fall was a Master Corporal signaller in the Princess Patricia’s Light Infantry who served three tours in Afghanistan (two in Kandahar). He didn’t have much to do with snipers but he did work with intelligence officers, and his duties sometimes took him “outside the wire” to liaise with local elders. He’s also something of a war movie buff.
“I knew going into it that it would be a hard movie to watch because it does bring back a lot of memories, some good, some bad,” says Corporal John (a pseudonym), “Just seeing the uniform, seeing KAF, it does affect you. It does bring stuff back, but I definitely enjoyed the movie.”
John praises the accurate portrayal of communications and patrol procedures, and the look and feel of Gross’ recreation of KAF, right down to off-duty soldiers playing road hockey in the camp. He found the characters plausible and particularly liked the often humorous banter between them. As he puts it, “When you’re stuck with the same three assholes for six weeks… you’ll have some weird conversations about existence.”
He also appreciated Gross’ depiction of the dangerously ambiguous relations between the Canadians and Kandaharis. “There are really varying degrees of ‘the bad guy,’” he says. “They (the local leaders) could play both sides of the fence. You have someone you’re working with that you’d rather not be working with because he’s dirty. But you have to work with him.”
John could relate to “The Cleaner” character who served as Mitchell’s Afghan informant, agent, and confidant, and put a textured human face on the plight of the Afghan people. “I met a guy like that,” he says, “He was a captain in the border police. He was there because he wanted a better country. I had no worries that he would be on the other side or passing information. But, unfortunately, the only reason I knew I could trust him was that his entire family had been wiped out. If you wipe someone’s family out you’re not going to turn him for $100.”
John’s only real criticism of Hyena Road is the climax, which he found “not really plausible.” But, that aside, he called the movie “vital” to Canadians’ understanding – and remembering – of the war and the 159 Canadian soldiers who died there.
“You can see an American military movie every year, but a lot of people don’t understand what the Canadian Forces do or did,” he says, “I could sit here and try to describe it for a week and not really be able to convey it. But this movie did convey a lot and it helps. The very opening scenes, which was camera footage from KAF, and he talked about ‘Shit Lake’… how do you explain that to someone?”
After a serious ad blitz, Hyena Road brought in a respectable $483,000 in its opening week, making it the biggest Canadian release of the year. But American Sniper raked in $5.6 million in its first week here. The tremendous cost of these productions and the tepid appetite among Canadian viewers for Canadian stories will probably make it difficult for Gross – or any filmmaker – to raise money for future Canadian war movies. So countless great Canadian stories will go untold while we line up for Hollywood’s endless procession of American war films, and our soldiers and veterans will go on telling the proverbial story of the Canadian who asked, “We have a military?”
Colman Byfield is an Alberta writer and columnist with the Sun newspapers.