Beneath Hill 60 [2010]

If you are one of those people who think that reality has no place in movies, and that history should be rewritten to make a tale more screen-worthy, Beneath Hill 60 is not for you. If you are one of those who want machine-gun toting superheroes as the lead roles in war movies, Beneath Hill 60 is not for you. If you are one of those who want graphic images of horrendous injuries, with gouts of blood spraying the walls, Beneath Hill 60 is not for you.

For all that it is a portrayal of one of the bloodiest military actions in all of history, Beneath Hill 60 does not dwell lovingly on mutilated corpses and strewn body parts, nor are there the long stretches of explicit hand to hand combat so beloved of Hollywood. What it does do is bring home to viewers the horrifying reality of trench warfare, with all it mud and suffering. It is a glimpse of what our fathers and grandfathers, our great-uncles and great-grandfathers suffered in that obscenity known as The Great War.

This is a tale based on the real-life experiences of Lieutenant – later Captain – Oliver Holmes Woodward, a mining engineer who was born in New South Wales in 1885. With years of mining experience in Australia and Papua, and two distinguished academic awards in mining and metallurgy, he was an obvious choice for a commission in the Australian Imperial Forces’ newly formed Mining Battalion, in which he enlisted in 1915. In the movie he is a late starter, receiving anonymous deliveries of white feathers, the tokens of the coward [a concession to those who prefer a good story to reality], but in fact he joined up almost as soon as hostilities opened in August 1914.

Heading for France he and his men were sent to Armentières, where he was awarded the Military Cross for successfully destroying a heavily fortified farm-house. Later in the war he was subsequently awarded two bars to his MC, a most usual and outstanding distinction. After Armentières his unit was sent to Belgium, to a position near the ancient cathedral city of Ypres, only a few metres from the heavily defended Messines Ridge and the fateful Hill 60.

Woodward [Brendan Cowell] arrives in France to join his unit where they are engaged in tunnelling under the German lines. Here he experiences his first taste of combat, both above and below ground. His little company of miners has been working deep underground, undermining enemy positions, but German miners also are just as active, and there is a tense game of cat and mouse as they establish listening posts at the ends of their dank, claustrophobic passages. From time to time one side or the other manages to break through into their opponents’ diggings and there is a brief but furious exchange of gunfire as men struggle desperately in candlelit gloom. Casualties mount.

Tensions are high, and Woodward runs afoul of Corporal Bill Fraser, a hard-bitten miner who resents officers in general and Woodward in particular. He has what we would now call an attitude problem, but was at that time and in that place known as insubordination, an offence for which heavy penalties could be imposed. Woodward also meets other characters in his unit; young Frank Tiffin [Harrison Gilbertson] who wants to be a carpenter when the war is over, father and son Walter and Jim Sneddon [Alex Thompson, Alan Dukes], Billy ‘Streaky’ Bacon [Mark Coles Smith] who can run faster than anyone else in the unit.

Shells fall continually, while rain turns the landscape into a sea of mud. The Colonel calls upon Woodward, as an engineer who knows a lot about explosives, to lead an assault party to demolish a strongly built farmhouse that is occupied by a stubborn group of Germans who hold a commanding position, enfilading the trenches with machine-gun. He is joined by Frazer and another man. Carrying a pack of high explosives they go ‘over the top’, over the rim of the trench and into no-man’s land, crawling from bomb hole to bomb hole in the thick, stinking mud, raked by gunfire. They are successful, blowing the farmhouse up and killing its occupants, but on the way back they find one of their comrades dying. They return to their trench, and a new respect has begun to grow between Woodward and Frazer.

There are more casualties. Sneddon Senior dies when German troops burst through from their own tunnel. ‘Streaky’ Bacon is cut down by machine-gun fire as he tries to distract the enemy while his mates make their escape.

But there are lighter moments; a game of football between British soldiers on one side and Anzacs on the other is played out vigourously in a shell-hole pocked sea of mud. Throughout the movie there are flashbacks to halcyon rural Queensland, revealing the events that lead up to Woodward’s enlistment and his blossoming romance with young Marjorie Waddell [Bella Heathcote]. The shift in scenery creates a  shattering counterpoint to his present existence in the nightmare that is the Western Front.

Orders come for Woodward, now a Captain, and Frazer, now a Sergeant, to take their little group of specialists to Messines where they learn about a massive underground system of passages that has been dug many metres below the German lines to a mine underneath what is known as Hill 60. British and Canadian engineers have been working on it for the best part of a year, the largest of a series of mines that have been dug below Messines Ridge in  one of the most complex engineering operations of the war. More than fifty tonnes of high explosives have been laid out under Hill 60, which is due to be detonated at a very specific time. Woodward and his men are there to put the finishing touches to the job and to solve an intractable problem: water seeping into the workings is threatening to flood everything.

They set about their work with a will, but they are not alone in their subterranean world. Only a few metres away the enemy, equally dedicated, equally courageous, is trying desperately to destroy them but the two sides never actually meet face to face; German Sergeant Karl Babek [Kenneth Spiteri] a very experienced miner himself, Sapper Ernst Wagner [Marcus Costello], an eighteen-year old miner from Bavaria who carries a postcard from his Mum, Oberst Fusslein [David Ritchie], Babek’s very regimental Commanding Officer. The tension is ratcheted up more and more until the climax of the tale, when Woodward pushes the plunger that detonates the charge under Hill 60, creating the largest man-made, non-nuclear explosion in history, an explosion of such awesome violence that the shock of it was reported as far away as London and Dublin.

And at last we understand the bitter-sweet meaning of the little wooden box that we saw in the opening scene, and which we glimpse from time to time during the course of the movie.

Motion pictures of Anzac troops in the early wars of the Twentieth Century are something of a specialization for the Australians, and they do them very, very well. ‘Breaker Morant’ [1980], the brilliant but much-neglected ‘Gallipoli’ [1981], and ‘The Light Horsemen’ [1987] are all excellent instances of this art, outstandingly acted and directed, and with scrupulous attention to the details of uniforms, equipment, and materials. Beneath Hill 60 could well become a classic of its genre.

The narrative construction and the characterization are totally different from the Hollywood models so it will not attract much, if any, attention from the lucrative United States market. Furthermore, American troops did not fight in this action – the US did not become involved in the Great War until the autumn of 1917 – which means that Americans will have little interest in this tale. For the rest of the English-speaking world, however, it is a landmark in war movies that cannot but arouse strong emotions in anyone who is evenly remotely touched by the Anzac tradition.

Beneath Hill 60 is a movie to watch again. And again.

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