Movies

Billy Bishop Goes to War

Billy Bishop Goes to War featured image

Reviewed by Marc Glassman
November 4, 2011

Directed by Barbara Willis Sweete
Written by John MacLachlan Gray and Eric Peterson (based on his original play)
Starring: Eric Peterson (Billy) and John MacLachlan Gray (piano player)

A film about Billy Bishop Goes to War?

It’s been well over thirty years since John MacLachlan Gray and Eric Peterson premiered the musical Billy Bishop. Brilliantly pitched between nostalgia and satire, the play deservedly won the Governor-General’s Award and played on Broadway and the West End in London.

Peterson was superb as Billy Bishop, the Canadian World War One flying ace who was the Allies’ “killing machine” against the Germans. The two-man show featured Peterson playing Bishop and a host of other characters and Gray as his piano playing and singing partner.

But that was in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. How would Billy Bishop fare now? The revival last year at Toronto’s Soulpepper Theatre provided the answer even before the film adaptation hit the screen during this year’s TIFF.

Peterson and Gray were as great as ever. Peterson is now much older—the age Bishop was when he died. The notion of an old fighting ace evoking his past is even more emotional and resonant than that of the younger, feistier man recalling his dramatic war stories to friends in their twenties and thirties (and presumably in the Roaring Twenties). There is more respect for the dead, befitting a man who has outlived many of his contemporaries by a good margin longer than they were allowed to trod the earth—or fly a plane.

Gray’s music is still wonderfully melodic and anthemic. Both he and Peterson are in fine voice as they sing tunes that bring back the years of the “Great War,” the one that was going to bring peace and justice to the 20th century. Of course, we know how that worked out but it doesn’t affect the essential tale of an unassuming Canadian lad who took to the air and made a hero of himself.

Barbara Willis Sweete, the director of this new cinematic version of Billy Bishop is one of this country’s unrecognized talents. An artist of style and substance, she has directed over twenty-five documentaries on the performing arts. She’s worked successfully with the Metropolitan Opera on their HD productions (Don Giovanni, Lucia de Lammermore), the National Ballet of Canada (The Firebird), Yo-Yo Ma, the Canadian Brass, acclaimed choreographer Mark Morris and visionary composer R. Murray Schafer. She’s the right choice to render Billy Bishop onto the screen.

The cutting in of World War One newsreel footage, which works so well with the measured performances of Gray and Peterson, testify to Sweete’s assured collaborative vision.

This is a film that deserves to have been made—and should be seen by Canadians and others, across this country and to niche audiences abroad.

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