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March 29, 2001 How a filmmaker became part of Canadian history




Brian McKenna

"The history still goes on," said documentary filmmaker Brian McKenna.

Photo by Andrew Dobrowolskyj


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 McKenna’s 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.

That’s 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.

“There’s a chill,” said McKenna, who made the programs with his brother, CBC journalist Terence McKenna. “Because of potential reaction, [TV stations] don’t commission controversial films.” He cited the CBC’s 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 1992.

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 Montreal’s 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 [McKenna’s] 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 grandfather’s 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.