In August 1914, a handful of shots fired from a Browning 1910 triggered the collapse of the balance of power between two mighty alliances. The Great War had begun, and the world would not be the same — not least, for the many millions personally involved, millions of whom would die before the age of absolute monarchy was over. In the West, Germany executed a modified version of its Schlieffen Plan, designed to sweep around behind French forces. For several reasons — the taxicab army, ponderous horse-borne logistic trains, German tinkering with the purity of the original plan — it failed, producing a stalemate from the Belgian coast to the Swiss border.
This stalemate quickly hardened into stationary warfare, characterized by elaborate field fortifications (trenches and dugouts), occasional strongpoints — the relentless pounding of artillery made permanent fortifications a non-starter — and a general primacy of the defence. For the next four years, the lines shifted seldom, little, and at great cost. In his history of warfare, FM Lord Bernard L Montgomery titled his chapter on medieval warfare “The Twilight of Common Sense,” but he could have applied that just as readily to the Great War, which he himself experienced.
Modern culture remains fascinated with the war and the men who fought it, and it is a perennial subject for movies. Nowhere is this truer than Australia, where the calvary of the Anzac Corps is as central to the Australian national gestalt as the Alamo is to the Texan. Australians, even more than other colonials, were viewed with a bit of condescension by the officers of the mother country, with class-conscious Brits alarmed by their Aussie counterparts’ supposed prison origins as much as their egalitarianism, which the English saw as undue familiarity with “Downstairs.” These themes inform Australian films, especially the classic Gallipoli, which dealt with an ill-advised and worse-executed brainstorm of Winston Churchill’s that stumbled to a poor conclusion only, as with everything in the war, at the cost of a bestial slaughter.
Beneath Hill 60 takes us to the Western Front abbatoir, but only after first showing us Oliver Woodward’s life at home (the script was based on the real Woodward’s unpublished diaries, which remain in the hands of his descendants). “Home,” for him, is a bit loosely defined; while most of the men joined up straightaway in 1914, as a mining engineer he is thought to be doing more for the war effort by exploring and mining in Papua. But in a visit to friends, whose son is already at war and one of whose daughters is his love interest (played by Bella Heathcote), he learns that the forces have put out a call for miners and tunnelers. Ultimately, he has to go.
While today we think of a mine as something that comes from a factory and needs to be put in a hole and a safety pin pulled, traditionally mining was a key component of military engineering. (So yes, this is a movie for you 18Cs to enjoy). The objective was to undermine your enemy’s works and blow them up. This is covered in Vauban’s treatises, it took place in fortification sieges in the great wars of Europe, and it was common in sieges and positional warfare in the US civil war (you may remember the mine blowing in the movie Glory). Another Union mine that was improperly exploited led to the sanguinary failure of the Battle of the Crater.
In France, Oliver finds himself responsible for just such a mine, beneath a mighty German strongpoint (the Hill 60 of the title). His men are beset by filth, disease, exhaustion, and the omnipresent face of death in the guise of German shells and bullets. When they go underground, they face cave-ins, shifty blue clay and quicksand, and pervasive, claustrophobic conditions. (Indeed, the real mine must have been even worse, because for the movie the mine sets had to have enough light for filming. The real mine had no such requirement). And even underground, they have a constant cat-and-mouse battle with the Germans, who are mining themselves. Each side listens for the other with stethoscopes and high-tech — for the period — equipment. We learn enough of Oliver’s counterpart, a tough Bavarian coal miner turned engineer sergeant, Karl Babek, to sympathize with him, too. At times, the Germans and Commonwealth forces countermine, break in to each others’ mines and short and terrible battles rage 90 feet beneath the Belgian mud. The miners use deception, decoys, and all the skills human wit can produce to beat each other.
As the mine is prepared, the sheer size of it seems staggering: over 100,000 pounds of HE. And the Brits are waiting to blow it at the right time — when a German force is packed into the trenches above. But only as that hour nears, and two supercilious British officers appear to brief the Australians, do we learn a new twist: this massive mine is one of 18 along the front, and they must go properly on schedule, before the Germans suspect anything.
But the Germans do suspect something, and they’re within hours of breaking into the Aussie tunnel. Can the tunnelers intercept them first?
The key characters in the movie are based on real individuals. We had some doubts about the one aboriginal character — was he an example of Ozzywood tokenism? But it turned out, there was an aboriginal soldier in period photographs of the 1st Australian Tunneling Company and they thought he should be represented. (It was only after the film was complete that a historian thinks he tracked down the soldier’s name, so this movie character, unlike the key white characters, isn’t an exact depiction of a specific person, but he does depict the reality of the 1st Australian Tunneling Company).
There are no weapons quibbles in this film. Anachronisms do not appear (the most common in a WWI film are later Mausers for WWI G98s, or Vickers or Maxim guns dressed to ape MG08s). This film is not about the guns per se, but when the guns are on screen, they are correct. That should be a relief for those of us who drive our womenfolk wild with constant angry outbursts: “That’s not a 1911, it’s a Star Model B… wait, the Soviet troops have MP40s? This film &#@%*&!!!” (You know who you are. Maybe we should form a 12-step group… Naah. We can quit any time). The one thing that rings false is a squib depicting a ricochet near Oliver. Bullet effects are hard to model (especially near the face of a principal actor or even a stuntman). We doubt the director could have gotten Brendan Cowell, or his insurers, to go along with a live-round near miss.
Considering the relatively low budget of this Australian film, the realism is incredible, and it’s achieved without tromp l’oeil CGI. The weapons (on both sides) are right, the uniforms and equipment are right, the demolitions charges and equipment are period-correct. The effects of the front are not spared, although there’s little of the gratuitous grue a US director would use to overstate his case. The awkward, chaste love scenes between the reserved Oliver and his proper sweetheart are, once again, period-correct and played perfectly. This plot element enriches the story, and doesn’t overpower it or feel grafted on, as it would in the hands of a Hollywood hack (we’re thinking of Michael Bay’s ghastly Pearl Harbor as the bad example here. The movie had us rooting for the Empire of Japan).
The cast are outstanding and tell us there’s a new generation of Australian talent on the way. Brendan Cowell is Everyman as the conscientious, decent, thoughtful and dutiful Oliver and newcomer Harrison Gilbertson shines in the complex part of Frank Tiffin, whose character arc goes from terrified to stoically heroic — despite Tiffin, and Gilbertson, being only sixteen years old. Two other standouts are Warwick Young as Percy Marsden and Gyton Granley as Norm “Pullthrough” Morris. (The originally Morris was so lanky he was nicknamed after the element of a rifle-cleaning kit). Young looks the most soldierly, and it turns out, rightly so: he was an officer in the Australian Army, and he organized and led a “boot camp” for the actors before filming. This technique, invented by Dale Dye some 30 years ago, has vastly increased the quality of actors’ motion and action in war movies.
Cast and crew interviews on the US DVD also tell us why the film came out so well. Cowell comes across as just as conscientious and thoughtful as his character, Gilbertson is, like his character, wise beyond his years, and all the actors interviewed displayed a touching humility about playing historical, versus their usual fictional, characters. All radiate with an intense Australian pride and patriotism that is clearly wanting in contemporary American and British actors, directors, and producers, which may explain why this Australian movie is so much better than Hollywood’s recent efforts. A short collection of B-roll shows us the clever indoor tunnel sets and some of the challenges of filming.
This film got short shrift in the United States because the Hollywood geniuses, the same brain trust that thought Pearl Harbor was history and John Carter was a blockbuster, told the Australian producers that no one in America was interested in World War One. Prove them wrong and go get the DVD. You’ll be glad you did. (Ours came from Amazon; we leave finding it as an exercise for the reader).