In the Picture

Beneath Hill 60

Directed by Jeremy Hartley Sims

Rated MA 15+

On this Anzac anniversary week it seemed most fitting to see the new Australian war movie for my first review assignment. Based on the war-time diaries of Oliver Woodward, Beneath Hill 60 tells the fascinating and gut wrenching story of the secret 1st Australian Tunnelling Company working 90 feet below the German trenches on the YpresSalient in 1916.

With only two weeks of basic military training a motley crew of Australian miners were recruited to complete a network of mines under enemy lines with the aim of triggering a series of massive explosions to kill thousands of German soldiers.

In his second directorial outing Jeremy Sims has gathered an excellent cast of Aussie actors led by Brendan Cowell as Capt Woodward. The film begins with Woodward wandering by candlelight lost in a maze of tunnels trying to find his new command of miners. The miners exist in an intensely claustrophobic world of enemy listening posts, explosions, shaft collapses and sudden underground attacks.

Above them the mad bloody realities of trench warfare are both exhausting and relentless. This is not a big budget production, and much of the film is acted in confined shafts, tunnels and dugouts; but the director was greatly assisted by Hugh Jackman, allowing his war settings from Wolverine to be used in the film.

At times it seems quite surreal as the miners emerge from their deep caverns straight into the maddening bombs and machine guns of rain-wracked trenches.

In many ways the film could have stood alone set in the mines and mud of the Western Front, but Woodward’s flashbacks to life and love in the mannered society of rural Queensland provide an absolute contrast to the deadly mission underground. His love for 16-year-old Marjorie Waddell (Beth Heathcote) is his sustaining hope. But while the homestead scenes are touching and provide an enormous counterpoint to the main story, they do break the incredible tension that grows towards the deadline of the big bang.

There are many fine performances among the soldier/miners: the father and son (Alan Dukes and Alex Thompson), the wailing tears and terror of the young Frank Tiffin (Harrison Gilbertson), the grim humour of Corporal Fraser (Steve Le Marquand) and the resilient survivor ‘Pull-through’ (Gyton Grantley), with veteran actors Chris Haywood and John Stanton as senior officers.

As with several other Australian war movies and documentaries, the film is not kind to arrogant English officers, and while Beneath Hill 60 does not hold back from any of the horrors of war there is also considerable sentiment, an engaging back humour, and even a scene of football in the mud.

This largely unknown story of the Australian war miners (tightly written by David Roach) reveals the exceptional ingenuity and bravery of Woodward and his men, but also lays bare the fear, shell shock and carnage in the waste of war.

Highly recommended.

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