OVER THE TOP: There’s an impressive amount of programming devoted to the anniversary of Vimy Ridge, the landmark World War One battle, airing on Canadian networks this weekend. The sorry state of history education these days might mean that you’ll need a refresher course on the battle, and you couldn’t do better than Vimy Ridge: Heaven To Hell, which has a repeat airing on History Television this Sunday at 8pm.
Using quite a lot of digital effects – the preview copy I was sent was full of rough “wire frame” placeholders and missing segments that were yet to be finished – the documentary tries to reconstruct the battle from the viewpoint of three Canadian soldiers in the air, in the trenches, and underground in the miles of tunnels dug beneath the battlefield during the long stalemate on the Western Front. Vimy saw Canadian troops, fighting under their own command for the first time, take a German position which had been all but impregnable for British and French forces that had faced it earlier.
It was also one of two or three battles during the war that created a national identity previously lacking in the far flung dominion; some would argue that what Vimy created, Charlottetown has undone.
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A more in-depth take on Vimy and Canada – then and now – can be found in five hours of programming airing on the CBC this weekend. The Great War airs in two 2-hour installments on Sunday and Monday night, and while it relies on contemporary re-enactments of battles – so hard to do well, so indescribably cheesy when done poorly – it takes a truly novel approach to its dramatizations by enlisting descendents of soldiers who fought and often died at Vimy to play their own ancestors.
Brian McKenna’s story moves back and forth between the dramatized past and the present, as the young actors enlisted are taken around the battlefield memorials and cemeteries today. The tactic was obviously interesting enough to produce another one-hour reality show, The Great War Experience, which will air on Monday at 7 pm, preceding part two of the Great War, and which follows around the young men and women who volunteered to live in the primitive battlefield conditions of their ancestors for the combat shoot in rural Quebec.
We see the young women playing nurses become star-struck when Justin Trudeau, son of the late prime minister Pierre Trudeau, arrives on set to play Talbot Papineau, a young Montreal aristocrat who died at Passchendaele, and whose lost potential – he’s still spoken of as a possible future prime minister – is considered one of the many great losses of the country during the war. Casting Trudeau in such a poignant role can’t help but raise eyebrows in the light of his recent, though long-anticipated, declaration of his intention to run for political office; one wonders if the corporation will be able to write off whatever they paid Trudeau as a campaign contribution.