________________ CM . . . . Volume VII Number 12 . . . . February 16, 2001

cover John McCrae's War: In Flanders Fields.

Robert Duncan (Director). Jonathan Desbarats & Barbara Shearer (Producers, Doc TV), Selwyn Jacob (Producer, NFB).
Montreal, PQ: National Film Board of Canada, 1998.
46 min, 10 sec., VHS, $39.95.
Order Number: C9198 097.

Subject Headings:
Poets, Canadian (English)-Biography.

Grades 7 and up / Ages 12 and up.

Review by Val Nielsen.

**** /4

Robert Duncan's hope for John McCrae's War: In Flanders Fields, as expressed in the jacket notes for the 46 minute documentary is that "...this tribute to his [McCrae's] life will make people remember his sacrifice and think about what the poem meant to the people who fought in that awful war." Although McCrae's poem is the most quoted, most remembered and probably the most loved poem from World War l (and although the poppy has become an international symbol for remembrance) few Canadians know much about the poem's author.

      As the video begins, "In Flanders Fields" is spoken over a backdrop of terrible scenes of young men fighting and dying in the trenches. Among the Canadians who tended to the horrific wounds of the soldiers brought back to hospitals from the front line was Clare Gass, a nurse who kept a journal of her life ministering to the wounded in Number Three McGill General Hospital at Boulogne, where McCrae also worked. An entry from her journal on October 13, 1915, includes the earliest recorded copy of McCrae's poem. In fewer than one hundred words, McCrae had written a poem which spoke not just for himself, but for all the young men who had been lost in a war too terrible to be imagined. McCrae wrote "In Flanders Fields" after seeing Alexis Helmer, friend and fellow officer, killed by a German shell during the terrible second Battle of Ypres. Although the poem was not published in Punch until December 8, 1915, it circulated for months before that date among the soldiers in the trenches.

      To paint a horrifying picture of John McCrae's war experience, Duncan uses First World War film footage of soldiers caught in the gas attack at the second Battle of Ypres and of dreadfully wounded men being brought in from the front. The wanton waste of young lives is vividly depicted in shots of the cemetery in Flanders Fields where rows of monuments stand marking the resting place of thousands of unnamed soldiers.

      John McCrae's War: In Flanders Fields chronicles the life of John McCrae from his childhood, with its Presbyterian and military upbringing in Guelph, ON, to the battlefields of Belgium. Photographs of him during his life are interspersed with modern day pictures of the places in Canada and in Europe where he grew up and worked. Short comments from biographers John Prescott and Dianne Graves, plus little known insights from historian Desmond Morton, are enlightening, but do not disrupt either the flow of the story or its emotional intensity. A particularly moving film record of his funeral in Wimereaux, France, where he died in 1918 of pneumonia brought on by overwork, completes John McCrae's life story. Except for a brief flurry of interest in McCrae in 1997, when his war medals were purchased at an auction by a Canadian business man, Arthur Lee (who subsequently donated them to the John McCrae House in Guelph), the poet's name has faded into relative obscurity. In a day and age when heroes for young people are few and far between, Canadians are fortunate to have a writer and director of Robert Duncan's caliber. John McCrae's War: In Flanders Fields is a beautiful and moving testament both to the man, himself, and to the lost generation of young men of which his poem spoke.

      Elementary school librarians who have on their shelves Linda Granfield's wonderful picture book for younger readers, In Flanders Fields: The Story of the Poem by John McCrae, may consider purchasing this outstanding film; however, Duncan's documentary is more appropriate for junior and senior high students than for younger students, in both its length (46 minutes) and its content. (There is a brief discussion of venereal disease among the Canadian soldiers.)

Highly Recommended.

Valerie Nielsen is a retired teacher-librarian who lives in Winnipeg, MB.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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Published by
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ISSN 1201-9364