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Movies Beneath Hill 60I don’t know if the Aussies are the “best billiard players, best horsemen and best miners in the world” as one of the characters in Beneath Hill 60 (2010) asserts to some British soldiers, but they certainly know how to make good war movies [see Gallipoli and The Lighthorsemen for example]– IF by good we mean, suspenseful, realistic, the inclusion of certain expected ‘types’ of men — brave, gruff, competent, unbreakable, and sweethearts to boot, good production qualities and satisfying endings.  If good would also mean that it includes a serious look, 97 years after the events portrayed, at other than the courage and the comradeship, then not so much.

The backbone of the movie was created from the letters and diaries of now-deceased Oliver Woodward, (played by very well by Brendan Cowell,) who as an Australian mining engineer was sent to the Western Front in 1916, somewhat later and somewhat disapproved of for that, as head of the 1st Australian Tunneling Company.  The movie begins by choking off our breath in the tight shafts and dug-outs of a  mine where a candle-lit, mud-covered face, bathed in sweat,  tries to find its way.  He finds a young soldier listening with a stethoscope device against a dirt wall.  They speak in whispers and we know that danger does not come only from the tunnels and galleries but from the proximity of the enemy, doing the same thing.   It is a scene we will be returned to again and again, relieved by flashbacks to a bucolic Queensland homestead where Woodward remembers the young daughter of the family he has promised to return to.

Marjorie Waddell [Bella Heathcote] brings a sweet touch and is the only one to plead with Woodward not to join up. It’s not so much an anti-war stance as a personal one, arguing that his work mining copper for munitions is just as important, and the likelihood of death less certain.  He goes of course, first to Armentières in north eastern France, just below the Belgian border and takes command of his company, running into the always-present rough-tough sergeant (Fraser, played by Steve Le Marquand) and another necessary part of most war movies, the innocent youngster, (Frank Tiffin, Harrison Gilbertson]  too young to be there, and too afraid to function – until, inevitably, he matures (or dies.) After a  terrifying walk through the above-ground trenches with bombs whistling, and stirring orchestral music playing, soldiers ducking and shouting “make way for the walking wounded and blind” we are fully immersed in the feeling and texture not only of the movie but of the war itself.  It began only 10 minutes earlier.

The company is transferred after some months to an even larger, and more important digging and laying explosives operation near Ypres, Belgium. The work had begun a year earlier.  Woodward and his men are to finish it, keep the munitions from being soaked in the constantly dripping sand and clay, keep the earth itself from collapsing and, eventually pull the trigger on the largest single explosion (prior to the atomic bombs) of human history.  The movie follows this story, in all its nightmarishness, until on June 17, 1917, 19 mines filled with 450,000 kilograms (990,000 lb) of explosives, were detonated, reportedly being heard in London and Dublin,  and killing about 10,000 German soldiers.

View of the great crater at Hill 60 (See soldier standing at center)

View of the great crater at Hill 60 (See soldier standing at center)

The young soldier loses his life in the explosion, making the filmic and for many, the soldierly point, that “you gotta do what you gotta do.”  Woodward returns to Queensland and, in a reprise of the opening shots, prepares for his marriage to Marjorie, in full Army dress, including his Military Cross with two bars, one of Australia’s highest honors.

For many Beneath Hill 60, and other movies like it, are the quintessence of a good war movie:  it was a “good war,” at least in the beginning.  Citizens in England, France and Germany thronged to sign up. Flag waving crowds cheered.  The ten thousand Germans killed by the explosions were part of an invading force that had already killed hundreds of thousands of French, British and Anzac troops — and had left equal number of their own in French and Belgian fields.  The qualities required of a soldier are shown to good effect: courage under fire, overcoming fear, high technical competence while in imminent danger — rivaling the recent Hurt Locker at times.  The tensions between men, and between ranks are shown, and resolved.  Two Germans are shown in similar work from time to time, adding to the tension of “who will win?” while adding a soupçon of humanity, a retrospective understanding that the enemy are men too, not monsters.  A ninny of a General gets his comeuppance, and the hero goes home to a beautiful woman and a happy life, with a show of regret and even mild PTSD over the loss of the young man.

For those of us who wonder about how war is portrayed in fiction and film, disturbed by the power of the wish and the myth to over-ride and obscure the real, a film like this unsettling.  It is good at drawing us in.  It gives us people — mostly men– we wish we could be like in similar circumstances. It isn’t just a guts-and-glory comic book; it also portrays fear, and death, and pain.  It even ends with a wistful tune and series of establishing shots showing the miseries of war, but it uses all the tools of the trade, from ideal men to portentous music, to woo our emotions to the necessity and the glory of war.  It does nothing about pushing back the encrustations of belief — that war is always with us, like earthquakes and typhoons, that the best we can do is be our best selves; some will live and some will die.  Next scene. Next act. Next play.

In fact, even by the time Woodward and his men went to France, serious questions were being raised about the war.  The Western Front had been at a corpse producing stalemate for almost two years, one of the reasons the explosives tactic was conceived. By the time the film was made almost every historian who had studied the matter questioned not only the planning and execution by the generals but the diplomatic maneuverings and failures to understand and communicate that let a separatist bullet in Sarajevo spin so badly out of control.  None of this is reflected in the movie. That it isn’t, and that it seldom is, shows the difficulty story tellers have of  praising heroism when it is in the service of ill-conceived or even deliberately conceived aggression. Inevitably, the mythos of manly courage — as bedrock a belief as there is in human belief systems– overwhelms and covers up the ability to see outside that frame.  The good courage of men leaks out and transforms the conflict itself into something good, or necessary, or not asked about.  The opportunity to learn is lost in the flush of celebration.

It’s not, of course, incumbent on all novels or movies to raise mighty questions about the wisdom or folly, the necessity or stupidity of war.  There are so many however, with no questions raised at all, no acknowledgement given, not just to the conduct of the war, and that of the men fighting it, but to the deeper, difficult issues:  why war?  Why this war, here and now?  How did this come about?  What lessons can be applied to prevent future, similar, catastrophic cave-ins called war?  What is my duty, not just to patriotic bugles but to my conscience and care for the lives of others? It would be nice to have more movies that do raise such issues, even if only in a character or two. Surely in Australia, as in the United States, there was some sympathy with the Kaiser. Could no one articulate a contrary view?  Surely there were pacifists, as in England, which by this time were raising holy hell over competency and motives for the slaughter.   [Gallipoli, 1981 by Peter Weir, as I recall, did do this very well.]

Some rip-roaring good stories could be told about these questions and how men struggle with them –the call of conscience before two not very good choices, the actions taken not just to be brave when the bombs begin to fall but to accurately see the looming future and go against friend and family to act against it.  I don’t know if Woodward ever thought about the 10,000 lives he was taking, before he pressed the plunger, or after. It would have been good to to know.  Not every man would think such thoughts.  Many might think it a glorious thing.  But some, there are some, who do, as for example, characters in Phil Klay’s short-story volume, Redeployment, who know they have killed children, and know they are being affected by that.  It’s OK that more movies let such realities, other than high explosives, enter into our viewing evenings. Could we not have one character who throws up not at the fear of incoming shells but at what he is being called to do to others?

Perhaps another Australian, Aaron Wilson, with his Canopy and planned two more, will feature not only the courage and overcoming in battle but that which so often necessary in the years that follow.

Canopy is Wilson’s first feature but he has already shot the sequel. It picks up Jim’s story in the 1970s, ”once he’s returned home and the connection, or lack thereof, to his family. It’s about the legacy, how the war never leaves him.”

There’s a third film in his mind, too, about the lingering effects of war, not just on veterans but on their descendants.