Canadian Documentary

Aired on the publicly owned Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, The Valour and the Horror is a Canadian-made documentary about three controversial aspects of Canada's participation in World War II. This three part series caused a controversy almost unprecedented in the history of Canadian television. Canadian veterans, outraged by what they considered an inaccurate and highly biased account of the war, sued Brian and Terrance McKenna, the series directors, for libel. An account of the controversy surrounding The Valour and the Horror with statements by the directors, the CBC Ombudsman and an examination of the series by various historians can be found in Bercuson and Wise's The Valour and the Horror Revisited.

The Valour and the Horror consists of three separate two hour segments aired on consecutive Sunday evenings in 1992. In the first, "Savage Christmas Hong Kong 1941," the McKennas explore the ill-preparedness of the Canadian troops stationed Hong Kong, the loss of the city to the Japanese, and the barbarous treatment of Canadian troops interned in slave labour camps for the duration of the war. Arguably the most moving of the three episodes, it was the least controversial. The eyewitness testimony of two surviving veterans, combined with archival photographs and reenactments of letters written by prisoners of war testifies to the strength of emotion which can be generated by television documentary.

The second episode, "Death by Moonlight: Bomber Command," proved to be the most controversial of the three episodes. It details the blanket bombing of German cities carried out by Canadian Lancaster bombers, including the firestorm caused by the bombings of Dresden and Munich. The McKennas claim that the blanket bombing, which caused enormous casualties among both German civilians and Canadian aircrews, did nothing to hasten the end of the war, and was merely an act of great brutality with little military significance. In particular British commander Sir Arthur "Bomber" Harris is cited for his bloodthirstiness.

"In Desperate Battle: Normandy 1944," the third episode, deals primarily with the massive loss Of Canadian troops at Verrieres Ridge during the assault on Normandy, citing the incompetence and inexperience of Canadian military leadership as the cause for the high casualty rate. This episode also accuses the Canadian forces of war crimes against German soldiers--war crimes which were never prosecuted after the war.

All three episodes consist of black and white archival footage of the war, combined with present day interviews with both allied and enemy veterans. Each episode has a voice over narration by Brian McKenna, and is accompanied by music taken from Gabriel Faure's Requiem of 1893. The sections taken from the Requiem are those sung primarily by young boys. The accompaniment was perhaps chosen because the McKennas emphasize, throughout each episode, the youth of the combatants, and the terrible but preventable waste of Canada's young men.

The youthfulness of the soldiers is also emphasized in some very controversial reenactments in which actors speak lines taken from the letters and diaries of Canadian and British military personnel. Although these reenactments are well marked as such, the veterans have claimed that they are misleading and extremely selective about what they include. Reenactments, which are more characteristic of "Reality TV," like America's Most Wanted and Rescue 911, are problematic in conventional documentary practice. As Bill Nichols argues in Representing Reality "documentaries run some risks of credibility in reenacting an event: the special indexical bond between image and historical event is ruptured." Certainly reenactments are more conventional in television than in cinematic documentary.

The battle which ensued over The Valour and the Horror is a battle over the interpretation of history and the responsibilities of publicly funded television. The McKennas have argued, in the tradition of investigative journalism, that they wished to set aside the official account of the war and examine events from the point or view of the participants. They have also argued that the real story has never been told, and that their own research has shown gross incompetence, mismanagement and cover ups on the part of the Canadian government. Historians and veterans have argued that The Valour and the Horror is a revisionist history which is both historically inaccurate and poorly researched.

The major complaint against The Valour and the Horror by historians are its lack of context, poor research, and bias which led to misinterpretation and inaccuracy. The McKennas, in defending themselves, have to a degree been their own worst enemies. By claiming that their series is fact, and contains no fiction, and also claiming that their research is "bullet proof" they have set themselves up for all kinds of attacks--attacks which have also affected the status of publicly funded television in Canada. Publicly funded institutions are particularly vulnerable to attacks by powerful lobbies whose animosity can and does jeopardize their financial stability. The Valour and the Horror can be seen as a particularly acrimonious chapter in the continuing battle between a publicly funded institution and the taxpayers who support it. In this it is not unlike the battle waged in the United States between veterans and the Smithsonian Institute over the representation of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

-Jeannette Sloniowski


The Valour and the Horror
Photo courtesy of Galafilm, Inc.

PRODUCERS Arnie Gelbart, André Lamy



DIRECTOR Brian McKenna

WRITERS Brian McKenna, Terence McKenna

January 1992 3 Parts


Bercuson, David J., and S.F. Wise. The Valour and the Horror Revisited. Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1994.

Nichols, Bill. Representing Reality. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991.

_______________. Blurred Boundaries. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994.


See also Canadian Programming in English