Do you know who won the hockey game on Saturday, Dec. 2, 1916? Appellate Judge James A. Stewart doesn't, either.
"Charlie, is this what war's like?"
"On Dec. 6, 1917 at 9:05 a.m. in Halifax Harbour, there occurred the biggest pre-atomic explosion in history," the legend on the screen says at the start of Shattered City: The Halifax Explosion.
Mont-Blanc, a French vessel carrying TNT and benzol, caught fire after being hit by Imo, a Norwegian ship, according to the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic site. Mont-Blanc drifted into the harbor, where it exploded.
"The death toll rose to just over 1,900. About 250 bodies were never identified; many victims were never found…Hospitals treated well over 4,000 cases, and private doctors hundreds more," the museum notes.
Shattered City is fiction, but the four-hour Canadian TV miniseries sets out to re-create the tragedy and the events surrounding it in the same way a book like Simon Winchester's Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded: Aug. 27, 1883 re-created the events around Java at the time of that famous volcanic blast. It doesn't just want to show you the tragedy and its immediate aftermath; it wants to place you in the mindset of an early 20th century Halifax resident dealing with disaster.
Facts of the Case
Shattered City: The Halifax Explosion plays out in three distinct acts, each about an hour long.
The first act introduces the audience to Capt. Charlie Collins (Vincent Walsh, ReGenesis), who's celebrating Christmas early while on leave. He's due to go back to the front on Dec. 6, but the audience just knows he won't get there. Charlie's dealing with "shell shock," as a brief, noisy power surge caused by his sister's camera makes evident. He's also troubled by the suicide of a disfigured friend—with the penknife Charlie gave him to scratch a wound through bandages. He's tired of seeing bodies "lying in that stinking patch of mud."
The second act shows the events leading up to the disaster and their aftermath. Mont-Blanc, the French ship loaded with TNT, is waiting to rendezvous with a convoy in Halifax harbor. As it approaches, another ship pushes into its channel. Francis Mackey (Ted Dykstra, Wonderfalls), the harbor pilot, advises actions that could save the day, but doesn't get to put them into action because Capt. Le Medec and his men flee. Charlie is pressed into family service, sent to locate his siblings and father, and military service, since he's the ranking officer in the vicinity.
The third act is a courtroom drama, as the city tries to find someone to blame. Harbormaster Wyatt is pardoned by the government and Le Medec is sent back to France, so it looks like Mackey will be the fall guy. Charlie handles Mackey's defense.
I found Shattered City fascinating. I'd meant to break my watching into two parts, but ended up glued to my set to watch the whole 174 minutes in one sitting. If I'd been watching on TV, though, I might have given up on it, since the first act is the weakest. All the setup has a payoff—Charlie's war experiences make his heroism later compelling—but the supporting characters and subplots come off rather cardboard and forgettable. The pacing here made me wonder if some of it wasn't to fill time and amortize the cost of the special effects.
The dramatic conceit which carries the drama is the analogy between fighting a disaster and fighting a war. When Charlie first sees the blast-ravaged Halifax harbor area, he's taken back to the front—in flashback—to make the similarities clear.
Vincent Walsh keeps his performance—with shaking hands and tears—small. Charlie's struggles are evident, but not overwhelming. At the same time, he barks out orders with authority, rounding out a portrayal of a strong man coping with internal pain.
The most memorable performance, though, might be that of Ted Dykstra as Mackey, who's clearly dealing with his own form of shell shock, even as he faces a misguided trial trying to fix blame for the tragedy. His man of conscience is impressive because he's not shown as a man of extraordinary will; he's obviously hobbled by guilt over the tragedy.
As the DVD cover promises, there's a spectacular explosion around the halfway mark. The explosion scenes are brief, and the movie relies a lot on smaller blasts—a bookshelf or a record player being destroyed—to convey the larger picture of destruction. The movie has a nice period look to it; I felt like I was actually looking at a small city in 1916. The recent transfer didn't present any problems with picture or sound.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
There were a few elements that made me go "Huh?" Mostly, these are concerning Charlie's sister Beatrix (Tamara Hope, Shall We Dance). A fiery young Bolshevik, she unwittingly takes up an affair with a German spy and, in the midst of chaos at the hospital right after the disaster, wants to discuss an abortion with the only surgeon on duty.
Shattered City also has its predictable bits. When Mounties come across the fleeing French crew, the captain says they are Quebecois. To catch them in a lie, one of the Mounties asks them who won the hockey game. It's also a bit too pat that the only surgeon available is Barbara Paxton (Shauna MacDonald, Saint Ralph), who Charlie has been romancing.
At times, the disaster might hit viewers too hard. Seeing a severed head carried next to its bloodied body made me squirm a bit because it looked realistic.
There are no extras, even though a booklet or a short feature could have presented historical information on the Halifax explosion.
It's darned hard to re-create an event in film as thoroughly as you can in print. Think about how much was left out of Seabiscuit.
Shattered City doesn't always meet the high expectations its production team set, but it has a lot going for it, even if it does fall into the conventions of moviemaking at times. It starts out slow, building into something powerful. I was particularly impressed and surprised by the last act, since it explores the anger and need to affix blame after a disaster, something that's more complex and less showy than a blast that wrecked much of a city.
If Shattered City: The Halifax Explosion piques your interest, you won't be disappointed.
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