Saturday Matinee 2013 43: Storming Juno (2010, TV)

This is one of a bunch of half-written reviews that we’ve had lying around. Because we never stopped watching war and adventure movies; we’ve just gotten lax about the writing. (We’re also slogging through a couple of TV series on DVD, in one case because it ran for years and there’s a boatload of episodes; and in another case, quite frankly, so that you don’t have to endure the series).

But Storming Juno is an example of the kind of thing we like to find: a film with a novel take on war or weapons. In this case, it’s a battle that’s been done to death by everyone from John Wayne and Robert Mitchum to Matt Damon: D-Day. What can you say about D-Day that’s new? Well, you can tell what the Canadians did. The Americans have been covered in great depth, some of the stirring actions of the British have gotten films of their own (there really is room for one just about Pegasus Bridge, and one about Merville Battery, just like there’s still room for a movie about Pointe du Hoc in the American sector). But the Canadians have been pretty nearly skunked, and yet they participated in the air, at sea, and by paratroop and seaborne attack. Indeed, they had their own beach, which now hosts a very nice interpretation center staffed by young, bilingual Canadian “guides” who take pride in telling their nation’s D-Day story.

Because if somebody’s going to tell the story, it’s going to have to be Canadians. Hollywood can’t even shift itself to make Americans look like heroes any more.

A Canadian War Film? Eh?

Indeed it is, and it’s about one of the two defining Canadian battles of the war. Sure, Canadians fought everywhere the British Commonwealth fought, in British as well as Canadian units, but Dieppe (about which CBC also made a TV movie) and Juno Beach were two contributions to victory that were largely Canadian. This TV program is a different sort of docudrama that explores the actions of typical fighting men who went to war undee Canada’s red flag (pre-Maple Leaf).

Storming Juno’s DVD has two parts. The first is a drama that follows, in fairly direct chronological order, the experiences of three (real) Canadian soldiers during the D-Day invasion. Each has a different mission: Dan Hartigan is a corporal in the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion, and he needs to survive the drop, assemble with his unit, and take a German gun position at Varraville that threatens the seaborne invaders. Léo Gariepy is a professional soldier who joined from Montréal before the war, not for love of the profession of arms but because there was no other work; he commands a secret weapon, one of a troop of Duplex Drive Sherman tanks. Lt. Bill Grayson is a platoon leader in the Regina (reg-EYE-na) Rifles, and his platoon is in the first wave to hit Juno Beach.

When the drama ends, at the end of D-Day with a narration about the accomplishments of the Canadians in general that day, the DVD seamlessly seques into the second part, a series of interviews with surviving veterans. Unfortunately, none of them is among the three representative Canadians whose exploits we’ve been watching.

The trailer of the film stresses the drama half, but includes a clip from one of the interviews:

The performances, direction, and viewing experience

The actors are not famous, but they’re credible in their roles. The stories of the three protagonists are well intertwined, and the writers and director did a great job at building suspense in one, and then cutting to the next to show how he got out of the fix he was in when they last cut away. We get the impression that to do this is difficult; to do it when your storyline is constrained by representing actual historical events… well, that has to be a lot more difficult in turn.

For us, a high point was the veteran interviews.

The historical setting and accuracy in general

CanadianoperationsonddayThis film was made with great care for accuracy, particularly given its budget. The Canadian beach was located, as one character mentions, “right in the middle.” On Normandy’s north coast, which runs east and west at this point, the British had the left flank and the Americans the right. Juno Beach was centered on the resort town of Courcelles-sur-mer, and comprised two sectors, Nan and Mike (from the period Commonwealth phonetic alphabet, N and M). As elsewhere on D-Day, the sectors were subdivided: red on port-side, and green starboard, with wider Nan sector having a central “white” as well. With the exception of a British Commando unit, pretty much everybody hitting the beach here was Canadian. Some units landed with little ado, but others, including the Reginas, ran into as German buzzsaw and suffered terrible casualties.

The weather was marginal for the DD tanks — maybe worse than marginal, maybe bad enough to cancel — and the Canadians, like their American DD tank counterparts, had as much of a moral as a military decision to make. It worked out alright for Gariepy, but not for many others who went to the bottom with the swimming tanks.

There were two Canadian Parachute Battalions formed in World War II. One, the 2nd Canadian Parachute Battalion, joined with US forces to constitute the First Special Service Force. The one depicted here, the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion, had its own objectives on D-Day butt was operating as part of the Britis 6th Armored Division, something the movie doesn’t really make clear. If anything, the movie understates the risks the Canadian paras took. The unit’s actual casualties were shocking:

Of the 27 officers and 516 men from the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion who took part in the Battle of Normandy, 24 officers and 343 men gave their lives. The unit had to be re-organized and retrained in order to regain its strength and combat-readiness.

In case you were wondering what Canada did during the big one, there is that. And note that those are just the dead. One has to presume that, given that an unknown number of wounded were also going to the rear, a D-Day survivor in the Canadian Paras was a very rare bird indeed by the end of the campaign.

The weapons used in the movie

Both the German bad guys and the Canadian good guys mostly have the right weapons. The Canadians are perhaps more Sten-gun-heavy than they really would have been, and lighter on No. 4 SMLEs. Léo Gariepy’s tank isn’t right; it’s an end-of-war to Korean-war vintage M4A3E8, with a number of features that look wrong if you know your tanks, notably the gun, mantlet, and horizontal volute spring suspension, all of which are not correct for a D-Day duplex-drive tank.

The German guns are depicted, as is often the case in movies, as firing directly out from bunkers, orthogonal to the shoreline. Some of the actual bunkers remain in place at Courcelles-sur-mer and along with the battle’s prodigious photographic and documentary record, they confirm that at Juno, as elsewhere on D-Day, most of the German installations enfiladed the assaulters from the side. This is a much more deadly way of dealing with an attack (the Canadians lost hundreds and hundreds of men on this beach) but may have been thought too hard to sell to an audience in which infantry veterans are extremely rare.

The TV film’s meager budget shows up in two places, in the relatively few extras and small sets, which forces a lot of really narrow framing of scenes, and in the CGI. The was done to a budget, and it often shows. The availability of CGI option to film “impossible shots” seems to have led many directors down the primrose path of unrealistic CGI. The ships are particularly bogus-looking, as is the water they “sail” upon. (The CGI budget might be better used to colorize period B&W documentary footage, or one should skip the CGI and save the money). Bad CGI is worse than no CGI. (Mind you, it’s not Korean-blockbuster bad, it’s just not all that good).

A pet peeve of ours is cannons that do not recoil. The blast of a real-world cannon is prodigious. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a tank gun, an AT or AA gun; a lot of energy has been set loose in the world, and it causes a number of things to happen, including a recoiling of the gun, and a blast of dust and debris, and the crew visibly react to firing. One would think that a movie industry that can put so many wonders on screen can show the relatively simple physics of a cannon firing.

The tactics are a bit uneven. There is a lot of yelling and charging and a lot less crawling and sneaking than really goes down in combat; some of the extras seem clumsy with their weapons.

Bottom Line

This is a decent film and worth watching to see some of the goings-on in the “forgotten” sector of the D-Day invasion. It’s not going to replace Saving Private Ryan (let alone another Ryan’s masterwork, The Longest Day) as a D-Day film the whole family will appreciate, but it should appeal particulary to history buffs and to patriotic Canadians.