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Anzacs underground

Beneath Hill 60 (M). Director: Jeremy Simms. Starring: Brendan Cowell, Steve Le Marquand, Gyton Grantley, Bella Heathcote. Running time: 122 minutes

Beneath Hill 60 movie posterAustralian films frequently excel when they tell a distinctively Australian story within a well executed genre framework. Based on the non-fiction book by Will Davies, Beneath Hill 60 is a war film whose heroes are members of the 1st Australian Tunnelling Company; civilian miners who have enlisted and been tasked with tunnelling beneath the front lines to attack their German opponents with explosives from below. Its central character is the real-life figure of Captain Oliver Woodward (played here by Cowell). The film details his involvement in a secret operation that his superiors believe will virtually end the war; the infamous Battle of Hill 60.

As a generic war film, Beneath Hill 60 is well executed. Director Simms evokes the scale and danger of the battlefield, as well as the particular hardships associated with the miners' subterranean pursuits. He puts his audience within the physical space of his characters in a way that also allows us access to their psychological space. The film begins below ground and we spend arduous minutes following a stooped and grotty Woodward as he traverses the claustrophobic labyrinth deep beneath the front line. When he does finally emerge into daylight, the relief provided by this breath of fresh air is cut short by the combative chaos of the trenches.

Woodward's muddy-grey wartime experiences are contrasted with shiny flashbacks to an impossibly glossy rural Australia, and to his chaste courtship of a picturesque teenage girl (Heathcote). These sequences are embarrassingly mawkish; Heathcote in particular falls, in this instance at least, into the category of 'just a pretty face'. The scenes, designed to reveal what Woodward left behind and what he hopes to return to, come close to ruining the film. They also tell us less about Woodward's character than do his actions and demeanour on the battlefield.

Mainstream war films tread a fine line if they are to respect the experiences of soldiers without glorifying war itself. Beneath Hill 60 is not unkind to the Anzac myths. The soldiers display mateship and self-sacrifice. They are brazen and resourceful. Their skills are acute and extend beyond tunnelling: early in the film Woodward and two comrades prove their mettle in stealth, crossing no-man's land to explode a pesky enemy machine gunner in his hidey hole. But they also possess a touch of the larrikin, giving cheek to figures of authority when cheek is due.

But neither does the film glory in myths. During its climactic moments director Simms employs one or two nifty plot tricks to the effect that, even if you find yourself barracking our boys to victory, you are left with no doubt that doing one's duty comes with a cost. The viewer is not permitted the moral luxury of a 'faceless' enemy; the same cannot be said of the characters. But a sombre coda indicates that the spoils of war are not just patriotic pride, but often include physical scars, psychological damage and emotional paraplegia.

These are obvious but necessary maxims that Simms enunciates with sufficient grace — lest we forget.

Tim KroenertTim Kroenert is Assistant Editor of Eureka Street. His articles and reviews have been published by Melbourne's The Age, Inside Film, the Brisbane Courier-Mail and The Big Issue. He was Chair of the Interfaith Jury at the 2009 St George Brisbane International Film Festival. 

Topic tags: Beneath Hill 60, Jeremy Simms, Brendan Cowell, Steve Le Marquand, Gyton Grantley



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