Backstage

A 'happy warrior' wins—his way

Anthony Wilson-Smith June 1 1998
Backstage

A 'happy warrior' wins—his way

Anthony Wilson-Smith June 1 1998

A 'happy warrior' wins—his way

Backstage

Anthony Wilson-Smith

Lieut. Barney Danson’s combat experience in the Second World War was brief, painful and unforgettable. Commissioned an acting captain, Danson was training troops stationed in British Columbia in early 1944 when he decided that an Allied attack on German-held Europe must be imminent. Danson talked his superiors into releasing him—at the cost of his captain’s rank—in order to go to war. He rejoined his original regiment, the Queen’s Own Rifles, in France a month after the June 6 D-Day invasion. Ten days later, the regiment was pushing inland from the beaches of Normandy when they were hit by a mortar attack. Seconds later, the 23-year-old Danson felt, he said, “as though someone took a sledgehammer to my head around my eye.” A piece of shrapnel had hit his helmet, ricocheted into his temple, severed the optic nerve, and lodged in the roof of his mouth.

Barney Danson raised the money and fought the CBC bureaucracy to get network exposure for Ah Price Too High

The wound cost Danson the vision in his left eye. But the man friends invariably describe as “the original happy warrior” does not complain, saying: “How could I? I survived.” And while war was unkind to Danson, peacetime has been much better. Since returning to Toronto in 1945, the now-77-yearold Danson has been a businessman, director on several company boards, a Liberal cabinet minister under Pierre Trudeau, consul general to Boston, and now chairs the Canadian War Museum’s board of directors.

Like most of his generation, Danson has never been able—or wanted—to forget the war. The result, in Danson’s case, is one of the single most important accomplishments of a busy life: his role in the production of the sixpart television series No Price Too High, which is arguably among the finest documentaries ever produced about the war.

The series is now partway through a five-week run on the CBC. The fact it is there is a reminder that behind Danson’s ready smile is a will of steel. He raised the bulk of the $2.1-million budget for the series, produced by Richard Nielsen of Norflicks Productions Ltd., through grants and private donations. Danson also hounded CBC chairman Perrin Beatty and other officials until finally, despite much grumbling in the ranks, they agreed to put it on the air.

No Price Too High was, Danson allows, partly a response to the controversial 1992 CBC series The Valour and the Horror, produced by brothers Brian and Terence McKenna. That production infuriated veterans and others through its portrayal of many of Canada’s military leaders as inept and ill-intentioned, and by its attack on the strategy of concentrated bombing of German cities—including civilian areas. “There was,” says Danson, “no context. It seemed to suggest that in the end, our side and the Nazis were no different.”

But that large point of contention aside, the two series have strik-

ingly similar touches. Both focus on low-ranking Canadian soldiers engaged in front-line combat, and feature heartbreaking correspondence between them and their families. Both make good use of archival footage of combat and civilian life. For younger viewers, it is startling to realize that less than 60 years ago, many Canadians considered their first allegiance lay with the motherland of England.

To its greatest credit, No Price Too High never smooths over or ignores less savory parts of history. Prime minister Mackenzie King’s gushing prewar praise of Adolf Hitler is recounted at length. So are graphic descriptions of injuries that reduced men to armless, legless, suicidal shells. Upcoming are accounts of the bitter debate between French-speaking Quebecers and other Canadians over

_ conscription, the instructions of a Roman

Catholic chaplain to his military flock to “sleep with a Protestant if necessary, but by all means do not marry one,” and numerous other unpleasantries.

On a far lesser scale, Danson and Nielsen learned about indignities in trying to get the series to air. They were first refused outright by CBC and CIV, while Global, after some consideration, also took a pass. Then, Moses Znaimer agreed to air the series on his Bravo! channel in 1996. The series aired, to small ratings but rave reviews, and Danson convinced most of PBS’s border stations to air it. Then, Danson and Nielsen again approached the CBC, and were again rebuffed. Last year, Danson met with Beatty, who at first said he was sympathetic, but felt it was not a chairman’s role to give specific orders to those beneath him. (Danson recalls that when he mentioned Beatty’s concerns to Conrad Black, whose Hollinger Inc. newspaper group was a major contributor to the series, Black snorted and responded acidly: “Oh sure, just the way I feel about my editors.”)

At the same time, other CBC officials posed other objections— ranging, sources say, from criticisms of the series’ quality to defence of The Valour and the Horror. In the end, Beatty firmed up his support, and, with the active backing of CBC executive director of programming Slawko Klymkiw, the series was ordered to air. As messy as the process was, the outcome will satisfy many people—beginning with viewers and including, in fact, Brian McKenna. He says: “The more views we get about the war, the greater the service to the country.” Meanwhile, McKenna says pointedly, he waits for the CBC to meet its promise to air a repeat of The Valour and the Horror, adding: “I don’t hold my breath.” Similarly, Danson says that the frustrating process of getting No Price Too High to air “has not caused me to renounce my past support for the CBC—but has not enhanced it.” With that shared frustration—and the empathy for the common soldier that both series reflect—the irony is that Danson and McKenna have much more in common than either man might acknowledge.