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Billy Bishop Goes to War (2010)

by on 2014/11/06

Billy Bishop Goes to War (2011)“I remain…”

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Until his death about a decade ago, I’d occasionally visit an elderly veteran. He’d speak at length about life during wartime, show off his old photos, and serve me the strongest tea I’ve ever tasted. He was fascinating and, as such, I never exactly understood that widely held notion of senior citizens boring young visitors.

Those experiences were brought vividly back at the TIFF Lightbox in July, when we caught a screening of Billy Bishop Goes to War. This piece reflects on the exploits of the legendary Canadian pilot, as seen through the prism of Bishop in his later years. It revisits the past, connects generations, and explores several issues of war, neither pro nor con, but respectful and unsentimental.

It’s essentially a one-man performance, with a second player acting as a combination of sounding board, accompanist, and theatrical chorus. The latter embodying various roles is writer/composer John MacLachlan Gray. Bishop himself is portrayed by Eric Peterson of Sunshine Sketches, in a tour de force performance which could serve as its very own demo reel. For those who only know him as Oscar Leroy, the curmudgeon of Corner Gas, you’re in for a great surprise at the range he shows here.

I should probably also mention he sings and narrates in epistolary fashion, two fixtures I am otherwise rarely a fan of. His charm and the strength of the material, however, had me weeping in the best way possible by the end.

Well shot and edited to underscore action, themes, and add interest, the production resembles no typical made-for-TV video. The set work includes both lighting and motion unusual in a single-stage recording. I felt overall it evoked a sense of “completing” more familiar vintage footage, not in the sense of restoring or colorizing, but in adding new subtext.

So while, as a film, it is less focused on exploiting its medium’s particulars, it compromises admirably in adapting a play often driven by dialogue. Perhaps most of all, it preserves a performance which deserves a wider audience.

Billy Bishop Goes to War is available on iTunes now, or in various formats described on its Kickstarter page.

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Rated PG

86 minutes

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