Beneath Hill 60

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A movie for every day of the year – a good one

24 December

The Christmas Truce, 1914

On this day in 1914, an unofficial truce broke out, mostly between the British and German soldiers, at the Front in the First World War. It was the first year of the war and it had already become largely a static war fought from trenches. Troops had been dug in for months and had become familiar with their opposite numbers. As Christmas approached and the tug of hearth and home got stronger, men began to sing songs on both sides of no man’s land. Perhaps because the British and Germans would have been familiar with the tunes, if nothing else, of quite a few of the carols being sung, on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day some men, tentatively at first, ventured into no man’s land, where they exchanged gifts with soldiers from the other side. Famously, football games were arranged and for a while a holiday spirit took hold. Though informal truces, especially among fighting men quartered close to each other for prolonged periods, are not unusual in war, the truce seized hold of the public imagination after first the New York Times and later the British papers reported it, their usual canine compliance eventually overwhelmed by the power of the “story”. The event became a plank in the building of a myth – of the futile war in which honest, decent men, “lions led by donkeys”, were sent to their death for little real purpose. The following year orders came down from on high that such fraternisation was to be nipped in the bud.

Beneath Hill 60 (2010, dir: Jeremy Sims)

How many Australian films can you name that are about the First World War? Beneath Hill 60 is one of a rare breed, and is a film well worth searching out for reasons other than scarcity. It tells the interesting story of the Australian tunnelling division composed of miners sent to blow up German fortifications and break the stalemate that existed on the Western Front in 1916. It’s a classic “the men, their task, its execution” kind of war film that misses a trick by avoiding the use of handheld – thus exposing too many unconvincing tunnels, and the odd flaky bit of acting. That nark apart it’s an effective claustrophobic piece, full of that comradely blunt speaking that Aussies seem to have made their own, and is in many ways an amalgam of the WW1 movie (men going over the top to certain slaughter) and the WW2 movie (skirmishes with Jerry). This means it comes with a few of those war movie ticks that seem unavoidable – the minor character who makes some hopeful statement about the future along the lines of “I plan to be a carpenter when this is all over” and who is consequently doomed to die within the next few minutes. The slightly unnecessary backstory of the lead character (Brendan Cowell as Oliver Woodward) with a girl back home. But in the end it’s the detail of the tunnelling that convinces, the sheer grunt and mechanics of it, and a few gemlike performances from people I’d never heard of before, such as Steve Le Marquand, bluntly effective as a bolshie sergeant. And ultimately, it’s about a lot of people sacrificing their lives for the greater good, and how that changed the survivors in ways we can’t imagine.

Why Watch?

  • An Aussie First World War movie – unusual
  • A true story based on Oliver Woodward’s diaries
  • The filth of the Front well evoked
  • Cezary Skubiszewski’s score

Beneath Hill 60 – at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2013

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