________________ CM . . . . Volume XV Number 18. . . .May 1, 2009


Entre Les Lignes = Front Lines.

Claude Guilmain (Writer & Director). Anne-Marie Rocher (Producer). Jacques Turgeon (Executive Producer).
Montreal, PQ: National Film Board of Canada, 2008.
78 min., 23 sec., DVD, $99.95.
Order Number: 153CB 9908 348.

Subject Headings:
World War, 1914-1918-Biography.

Grades 6 and up / Ages 11 and up.

Review by Val Ken Lem.



Front Lines is a polished production that provides a brief overview of the Canadian experience of the First World War. The filmmakers create a narrative using real letters written by six soldiers ranging in rank from private through sergeant major, captain and lieutenant colonel, and one nursing sister, plus entries from Sergeant Major Claudius Corneloup's war diary to record the course of the war in seven chapters. The letters and diary are read by professional actors, including Paul Gross, Jean Yoon and Colm Feore. The French language version utilizes the voices of actors such as Paul Savoie and Catherine Trudeau. For visuals, the filmmakers draw upon archival film footage shot in Montreal and in Europe that fits nicely with the narrative, along with still photographs and photographs of the various soldiers and nurse quoted, plus camera shots of the actual letters and envelopes sent to loved ones in Canada.

     The first chapter, "Signing Up," describes recruitment, public support for the war and soldiers, and the shipment out of the troops. "England," the second chapter, comments on the extensive training the soldiers received, often lasting nine months. A chapter describing France before reaching the front is brief in comparison to the segment on "The Trenches." The still photographs include a surprisingly domestic scene of soldiers seated at a table with a tablecloth inside a dugout. One can only assume that this was not near the front lines but farther back in the network of trenches. The letters and footage describe the work of snipers and artillery, and the six day rotations that troops faced in the trenches followed by six days in a village-based camp not far away. The soldiers write about "how we look forward to a letter."

      A chapter named "Your Prayers Will Protect Me" illustrates the commonplace solace the soldiers sought in religion and the fact that many of their loved ones talked about their prayers for safety of the Canadian troops. The religious sentiment contrasts with scenes of death and the artillery operations of the Canadian forces. "Beyond Words" describes the front lines where charred ashes, barbed wire and body parts were commonplace. Katherine MacDonald, a nursing sister, describes the burial of privates two to a grave while officers received private graves. One family receives an official letter notifying them that their son has died at Sommes. MacDonald was also killed in the war in May 1918. This section ends with the announcement of the Armistice that brought the war to an end. The seventh and final chapter consists of "Film Credits."

      The film is very well edited and flows nicely. Like many documentaries, there really is not that much to the "script" as the visuals themselves convey a great deal of information. Original music is by Claude Naubert. The filmmakers have added five vignettes that will add to the educational value of this film and which roughly correspond to major chapters in the film: Nurses at the Front, The Officer's Role, The Life of the Soldier, Faith and Hope, and The Trenches. Each vignette is eight to almost ten minutes in length and uses narration and footage found in the film supplemented with screenshots of text that must be read that provide additional facts about the subject matter. For example, the viewer learns that nurse MacDonald was one of 39 nursing sisters killed out of the 2,504 who volunteered. The vignettes are brief but often include statistics such as the number of men that an officer of a certain rank supervised, and the number of officers (2,898) and soldiers (60,661) who were killed during the war.

      Overall, the film will be a welcome, affordable addition to school and public library resources on the First World War. It brings a "front line" perspective to life in a meaningful way that complements trends in recent historical publishing on the topic.

      I did not view the French language version of the DVD, but, based on the English version, I trust the translation and voicing of the letters is top quality.


Val Ken Lem is the liaison librarian for History, English, and Caribbean Studies at Ryerson University in Toronto, ON, and a member of the Collection Services Team.

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

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