The memory of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps in World War I is all too often focused around a single battle, one ignominious defeat. I refer to the Battle of Gallipoli, a botched attempt to capture Istanbul.
But men from those countries were involved in other fronts, such as Iraq and Palestine. In 2010, Jeremy Sims made a movie about Australians serving in Belgium, at the Battle of Ypres: Beneath Hill 60.
One word describes this film superbly: claustrophobic. Many scenes are set underground, deep within the sprawling trenches that pockmarked the countryside of Belgium and France during the First World War. It is a dark movie, both in content and visuals. What little light there is serves to show you mere glimpses of the people and things that drive the war; you see them only as the trenches have cast them. The effect is dehumanizing. The Australians in Beneath Hill 60 might as well have been ants.
When there is action, it is explosive. That can be quite literal, as much of the film is about placing charges to demolish German trenches or other emplacements, and the results are as fiery as you would expect. One major action scene is set above ground. The tension is almost unreal as a small group of Australian combat engineers have to destroy a German emplacement while remaining unseen. It sucked the air right out of my lungs.
The story follows Oliver Woodward (Brendan Cowell), a copper miner from Queensland who enlists after pressure from his family and peers. He is sweet on a local girl, but they know that the war will rip them apart, as wars often do.
This is a story told flashbacks that pervade the film. It is a clever decision: you get a growing sense of Oliver’s desperation and yearning for home and for sweetheart.
Oliver is heroic, insomuch as the butchery of the Western Front could produce heroes, but reluctantly so, as he would much rather be home. These are the two emotional currents that the film balances well: love and misery, purpose and meaninglessness. In some ways, they describe the entire conflict.
Beneath Hill 60 is legitimately one of the best war movies I’ve seen in the past year. It is further proof that the war film isn’t dead. It is also a reason why I feel Australia has a good war movie business. If this is what they’re making down under, I want more!