It's no surprise, then, that during his 30, post-CBC years as an independent television producer and scriptwriter, he has drawn on those experiences creatively. Both Banks and the Stelco strike figure among his lengthy list of drama and documentary credits. But the conflict the Toronto filmmaker keeps returning to is one he has no personal experience of - war. Beginning with Billy Bishop Goes to War in 1982, Nielsen has churned out one documentary after another chronicling Canada's military history. Following his more recent, critically acclaimed series on the world wars, Far From Home and No Price Too High, there is some credibility to his joke, "I practically own Remembrance Day." And his latest creation, Test of Will: Canada in Korea, continues the tradition, throwing light on a less familiar chapter of the country's wartime experiences.
What draws Nielsen, 74, to war is not so much a fascination with military conflict itself as with the fodder it provides for storytelling. "I've found so many untold stories" which, because they involve "sacrifices where sincerity is proven by action," he says, hold tremendous dramatic potential. It is his talent in portraying those incidents through the thoughts and feelings of ordinary Canadians that makes Nielsen's work so compelling. Using reports, reminiscences and letters written to and by soldiers at the front, he and his crew at Toronto's Norflicks Productions foster an intimacy between the viewer and the films' subjects that eludes many documentaries.
The portrait Nielsen draws in Test of Will of the 26,791 men, most of them Second World War veterans, who volunteered for the early-1950s Korean conflict is no exception. Moving stories - such as those about Canadian troops discovering a unit of American GIs killed in their sleep, and a Canadian battalion adopting a seven-year-old male Korean refugee - effectively humanize a war that many today believe was fought without this country's involvement. The film also develops a case for the critical contribution Canadians made in key battles. At Kap'yong, for instance, after witnessing the retreat of first the South Korean army, and then the Australian battalions, and vastly outnumbered by an advancing Chinese army, Canadian troops under the command of Col. Jim Stone dug in and held their ground. The Chinese were never able to penetrate further south. This stand earned the Second Battalion Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry a U.S. Presidential Distinguished Unit Citation, the first and only such honour awarded to a Canadian unit.
But Nielsen isn't simply a cheerleader for the home team. Although he doesn't question the premises of the Korean conflict, or ask if prime minister Louis St. Laurent was justified in following the lead of the U.S. in supporting president Syngman Rhee's corrupt South Korean regime (Nielsen believes he was), he does raise some disturbing questions about the way the war was fought, and the response of those back home. In a scene that recalls recent events in Afghanistan, viewers learn about squadron leader Andy Mackenzie, who spent two years in a POW camp after being shot down, as he later learns, by an American. Fearing the effect such news would have on the war effort, his Canadian superiors ordered Mackenzie to "forget the whole thing."
Keeping the public ignorant about what is really going on, says Nielsen, is typical in wartime. War "gives people an excuse to lie." Nielsen also argues in the film that the Canadian contribution has never been properly commemorated. The civilians back home showed little interest in the Korean conflict, paying scant attention to the returning soldiers and the 529 who died on and off the battlefield. Moreover, until 1991, the federal government denied the PPCLI veterans the right to wear the medals they had been awarded, and it has never officially recognized the Wall of Remembrance that veterans erected in 1997 in Brampton, Ont. Ottawa's explanation? According to the United Nations Security Council, which sanctioned it, the Korean conflict was not a war but a "police action" - a stance that the filmmaker dismisses as "fiction."
As for the public's apparent lack of interest in Canadian military achievements, he suggests another reason: "We're determined not to have greatness thrust upon us, particularly in an area that is morally ambiguous, like war." Uncomfortable with the notion that Canadians are, in fact, accomplished warriors, we stick instead to the national conceit that we are, in our most essential aspect, peacekeepers. "Nonsense," Nielsen insists. Not only was the country at war for 13 out of 39 years in the early part of the last century, but called to battle Canadians are virtually alone in volunteering in large numbers. Nielsen rattles off a host of statistics he came up with in his research: 70,000 Canadians signed up to fight in the American Civil War; next to the French, we boasted the largest per capita foreign presence in the Spanish Civil War; twice as many Canadians per capita served in Israel in 1948 than Americans; and we sent more volunteers than any other country to Vietnam. Canadians, particularly the young men among us, says Nielsen (who was one month short of reporting to the navy when the Second World War ended in August, 1945), "want war. There is a hunger to prove something."
And once Canadians take up arms, he continues, they often enjoy it. "The reason vets talk so little about war is because they're ashamed of how exciting they found it." Nielsen has in mind men like Ernie Glover of Niagara Falls, Ont., who, at 29, was a star fighter pilot in Korea. "Adrenaline flows very quickly and the heart is pumping a mile a minute," recalls Glover in Test of Will. "If you get a strike, you feel like walking on water. You want to talk, talk, talk. You're laughing, joking, really high."
Korea, argues Nielsen, marks a watershed in Canadian military history. Insofar as Canada deployed seasoned veterans who saw themselves as resisting yet another incarnation of evil - Communism - Korea can be seen as a sort of coda to the Second World War. But he says the Asian conflict also represents a departure from the past as Canada, without explicitly acknowledging as much, "segued out of the British empire and into the American" - thereby laying the ground for "a reinvention of war." Led by a superpower whose weaponry and aircraft are vastly superior to those of its foes, Nielsen says, "modern wars are obscene." In both the 1991 Persian Gulf War and the ongoing conflict in Afghanistan - the two wars since Korea in which Canadian troops have participated - the U.S. and its allies sweep down and decimate whole villages without substantial risk to their own troops. "Our vision is of a knight fighting another knight. We don't reserve much honour for knights who beat up people on the ground."
Such views may not be popular with the army and navy officers who advise Nielsen on his military films, but the producer doesn't worry about speaking his mind these days. "Old age," he says, quoting Bette Davis, "is not for sissies," adding, "you learn to overcome your fears." For a man who has courted conflict both personally and artistically - and who, with a book and more films in the works, is showing no signs of battle fatigue - that is good news indeed.
See also KOREAN WAR.
Maclean's June 10, 2002
Author SUE FERGUSON