When the emaciated Charlie Grant (R. H. Thomson) staggers out of the Nazi concentration camp where he has spent most of the Second World War, he mutters to the first Allied troops he meets, “I am a Canadian.” That pronouncement forms the moving climax to Charlie Grant’s War, a masterful television drama about a real-life national hero—a littleknown gentile who saved 650 Jews from Hitler’s death camps. Charlie Grant is not only first-rate entertainment, it is also a quintessentially Canadian story which reveals aspects of the national character that are all too often buried in the cross-border flood of American culture. Indeed, with the CBC facing large budget cuts, Charlie Grant is a timely reminder of how well the network can fulfil its crucial role of developing the nation’s awareness of itself.
The film opens in 1930 as its young hero sets off on a European tour. Cheated of his money in Vienna, Grant falls
into the protective hands of some highly cultured and warm-hearted Jews, including Elizabeth (Joan Orenstein), her husband, Jacob (Jan Rubes), and Paul Trefius (Peter Boretski), a high-living diamond merchant. Grant, masterfully portrayed by Thomson, fumbles his way through the sophisticated milieu with the ingenuousness of a true colonial. Indeed, his very voice—so flat, so undeniably Canadian—sounds as out of place in Vienna as a cowbell in a symphony orchestra. But hidden in Grant is a secret, outrageous daring which flashes into view when Trefius, looking for an assistant, challenges him to tell the difference between a false diamond and a real one. Grant impulsively swallows one of the jewels with a glass of wine—knowing that if he is wrong he will die of internal bleeding—and then pronounces it a fake.
Still, Grant’s daring would count for little if it were not coupled with his growing moral outrage. First as an employee and later as the head of Trefius’s firm, he tries to ignore the rising tide of nazism around him. But finally his own
sense of fair play pitches him into the accelerating mainstream of history. When Nazi brownshirts drag his friend Jacob into the street he attacks them with a fury that is as impolitic as it is admirable: he is like a sudden gust of fresh air blowing through corrupt, fearridden Europe. From that point on there is no turning back: Grant risks his fortune and his life in attempts to save as many Jews as possible by spiriting them out of the country with false papers.
Thomson’s unflagging inventiveness in presenting Grant—he is snobbish, naive and heroic by turns—is well complimented by Boretski, who gives the diamond merchant a suave urbanity tinged with a hint of corruption. And Rubes and Orenstein bear themselves with such a gentle dignity that centuries of high Viennese culture seem to speak through their gestures. Through them, Hitler’s barbaric persecution of the Jews of Europe takes on a freshly disturbing vividness.
Hitler was not the only obstacle to the safety of the Jews. Canada accepted a mere 5,000 Jewish refugees among the hundreds of thousands fleeing Europe in the late 1930s. Charlie Grant effectively sums up Canadian racism in the person of Prime Minister Mackenzie King (Larry Reynolds) who refuses a request by Charlie’s mother (Marigold Charlesworth) to give Elizabeth and Jacob refuge in the country. King pontificates, “We must keep this part of the continent free from foreign strains.”
Still, most of Charlie Grant is a compliment to Canadians—proof that their national television network can mount dramas to compete with the best anywhere. On a shoestring budget of $1 million, director Martin Lavut and cinematographer Vic Sarin have richly recreated the drawing rooms and cafés of prewar Vienna. And Anna Sandor’s script builds a sense of the sheer remarkableness of one man’s life. Charlie Grant’s War is one of the high-water marks of Canadian television. It may give politicians second thoughts about shearing the budgets that make such films possible. -JOHN BEMROSE
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.