by Frank Kuin
It has been nine years since his documentary series The Valour and
the Horror provoked a high-profile controversy among Canadian journalists,
historians, war veterans and politicians, but listening to filmmaker Brian
McKennas impassioned defense of the three documentaries about the
role of the Canadian Armed Forces in the Second World War, you would think
the struggle was still raging.
Thats because according to McKenna, it is. Speaking at the seventh
annual History in the Making conference at Concordia last week, which
had history and media as its theme, McKenna said the effects
of his controversial documentary series in which some of the darker
sides of Canadian operations were highlighted are still apparent
in Canadian broadcasting.
Theres a chill, said McKenna, who made the programs
with his brother, CBC journalist Terence McKenna. Because of potential
reaction, [TV stations] dont commission controversial films.
He cited the CBCs recent response to a proposed documentary about
Canadian soldiers in the Korean War, paraphrasing it as: I think
we have made enough films about war.
The struggle for history
Looking back on the commotion following the airing of The Valour and
the Horror, McKenna said that we knew there would be controversy
as we began digging into the Second World War but we had no idea
what we were getting into.
Recounting the McCarthyesque Senate hearings, reviews by the CRTC and
a CBC ombudsman, and a $500-million libel suit by veterans groups,
McKenna observed that we became part of the struggle for history.
The series, which claimed to uncover aspects of the Canadian role in the
Second World War that had been suppressed by historians, set off a storm
of criticism when it was broadcast to record audiences by the CBC in January
Of the three parts, Savage Christmas (about the 1941 battle for
Hong Kong), Death by Moonlight (about Canadian involvement in bombing
raids over Nazi Germany), and In Desperate Battle (about the invasion
of Normandy in 1944), the latter two provoked particular outrage.
In Death by Moonlight, Canadian air force personnel based in Britain
were portrayed as being sent repeatedly into German air space with slim
chances of survival, to drop bombs that devastated civilian targets and
decimated the German population.
In Desperate Battle depicted the Canadian assault on Nazi-held
Verrières Ridge in northern France as ill-considered and a senseless
slaughter of members of Montreals Black Watch regiment.
While the valour of Canadian officers was never questioned, military high
command notably Chief Marshal Arthur Bomber Harris,
the British Commander-in-Chief of Bomber Command, and Canadian General
Guy Simonds in Normandy was criticized for being reckless and irresponsible.
Showing part of In Desperate Battle during his keynote lecture,
McKenna did not budge on that point, arguing that the cost was made
even bloodier by bad training and inept commanders.
Storm of criticism
The series infuriated many veterans and historians. Both groups claimed
to have greater authority than the filmmakers to speak about the war.
Veterans accused the McKennas of undermining the traditional view of the
Canadian war effort as unblemished. They pressured CBC management into
denouncing the series and lobbied successfully for investigations by the
Senate and broadcasting watchdogs. Their libel suit was eventually thrown
out by the Supreme Court.
Canadian historians agreed to appear before the investigations to discredit
the films. Only a few, including Concordia professor Graeme Decarie, openly
defended The Valour and the Horror and the right for it to be seen.
In his introduction of McKenna last week, Decarie called the series extraordinarily
powerful and added that anyone who has seen the films could
not for a moment doubt where [McKennas] heart lies.
As if to counter attacks from veterans and professional historians that
McKenna had no business giving his controversial accounts of the Second
World War, he steeped his lecture in references to relatives who had served
in the Canadian Armed Forces. For instance, his grandfathers younger
brother, Adrian McKenna, a graduate of Loyola College, was killed in the
First World War. A cousin died in Bomber Command.
McKenna noted that critics of The Valour and the Horror are
still trying to suppress the films. Just last month, he learned
that veterans organizations were lobbying the National Film Board,
co-sponsor of programs, to quietly drop them from its library. The
history still goes on, he said.