Beneath Hill 60
Directed by Jeremy Sims
Starring Brendan Cowell, Gyton Grantley, Anthony Hayes, Steve Le Marquand, Jacqueline McKenzie Warwick Young and Aden Young
Just when you thought genre filmmaking was dead in Australia, an art lost amongst the endless variations and evolutions of the ‘aussie battler’-themed drama flick, a beautiful little war film pops up just in time for ANZAC day. Yes, Beneath Hill 60 is about mateship and egalitarianism among an under-appreciated underdog regiment but this doesn’t change the fact that it is a true and unique story about some REAL Aussie battlers.
Based on the recounts and diaries of Captain Oliver Woodward (Brendan Cowell), the story follows his early life before the war, and his eventual heroic experiences on the western front in Belgium. Beginning deep below the trenches in a claustrophobic tunnel with a single candle, Woodward is humorously introduced as being lost while trying to find his unit. Jarring flashbacks of life before the war provide a quick breath of air and a sunny glimpse of the man’s interesting background. Branded a coward because he feels his mining endeavours in Queensland are more important to the war effort, we see him courting the young family friend Marjorie (a haunting Bella Heathcote) in his spare time. He calmly accepts deliveries of chicken feathers from his enlisted friends, an attitude that quickly becomes contrasted with scenes of his effortless heroism during the war. When he eventually joins the Australian Imperial Force, it is because he hears a specific call for miners and engineers to help with the tunnelling efforts under the trenches of the western front.
The wartime events depicted in the Beneath Hill 60 were part of the larger Battle of Messines and Australia’s involvement is one of those stories that has been shadowed by the likes of Gallipoli, the Light Horse in the Battle of Beersheba, or Kokoda. Likewise the film version will probably be compared to films of these and found wanting, particularly by Peter Weir’s classic Gallipoli. But the beauty of this film can be found beyond the amateurish directing of Jeremy Sims or the cringe-worthy CGI moments found usually in the more powerful scenes. The story is simply too amazing and knowing that it is based on actual events makes it transcend every wrong production turn the film takes. The largely untrained group of miners all seem to be volunteers and include a father with his son and a young Aboriginal boy, a great acknowledgement of the diverse group of soldiers the Anzacs were. Their job was to help dig, maintain and defend a system of 21 mines below the impenetrable Hill 60 and trigger the explosives before the large attack of the Messines ridge.
Events of the back-and-forth battle between Australian and German tunnelers fill the screen with minutes of lingering tension while the careful use of sound amplifies the experience of tunnellers digging and slowly listening for each other in the dark. With the narrative bending back and forth between Woodford’s life before and during the war, it shows exactly what it meant for these men to give up their comfortable lives in Australia to do a horrible and heroic job on the other side of the world. Supporting roles by Gyton Grantley and Warwick Young are especially good, Grantley as the joker who is nearly buried alive and Young as the stoical, tough drover character who is slowly reduced to tears. Cowell does the laidback Australian officer routine well, and his relationship with the young Marjorie is believable.
The only thing missing in Beneath Hill 60 is that element of artistic involvement that many Australian films seem to lack. Australian directors seem prone to taking the safe way of telling a story, rather than take any ambitious steps to really show the physical and mental state of the Anzacs’ or ask any serious questions about the world in the way other directors have. Gallipoli was a great exception, portraying the horrific futility of each man’s idea of destiny or purpose. Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line clung to a beautiful existentialism more than narrative, Spielberg’s wartime efforts have insisted on speaking for the soldiers’ individual motivations much as Kathryn Bigelow’s Best Picture winner The Hurt Locker recently did. Perhaps if Beneath Hill 60 was visually stunning it would pull the film from its mediocrity but as it stands; creative embellishments in the dialogue and scripting are what it needs to really sit right with domestic and international audiences.
But annoyingly safe as this film is, it would be fair to say that it is also humble in a way that does credit to its true characters and their amazing story. It was interesting to read that 4 Victoria Crosses were awarded during the battle of Messines. Two to the Australian 3rd Division, one in the New Zealand Division and one in the British 25th Division. Woodward himself was awarded a Military cross with two bars for his heroism and yet most of us in this country have never head about what these boys did. Be informed this Anzac day and support the local film industry. Who knows when we’ll get another good local genre film anyway?
You will love this if: An Anzac yarn around Anzac day sounds like paying respect.
You will hate this if: Australian film annoys you too much to pay attention.
Beneath Hill 60 is released April 15th in all good cinemas