Beneath Hill 60

Starring Brendan Cowell, Harrison Gilbertson, Steve Le Marquand and Chris Haywood. Directed by Jeremy Hartley  Sims.
Rated M (mature themes, violence and coarse language). 122 mins.

Of all the films made about World War 1, I cannot recall much emphasis, if any, on the part tunnelling played in that grand folly. That omission is redressed by this significant Australian production, the second feature directed by actor Jeremy Sims after 2006’s Last Train to Freo.

Beneath Hill 60, based on fact, tells the story of the First Australian Tunnelers, a specialised battalion consisting of experienced miners (true “diggers”, you might say), and it tells it very well through the eyes and exploits of Lieutenant Oliver Woodward, a mining engineer from Tenterfield, played with great conviction and likeability by Brendan Cowell.

Woody, as he is known, comes relatively late to the conflict. With minimal military training, he arrives in France two years after the start of the war to take command of a tunnelling platoon that is already at work. (This occasions an on-screen caption that is surely a first: “May 1916, 30 ft below the Western Front”.) At first, the men are cold towards their new CO and there is a prickly relationship with the British ranks who share the trenches. But Woody wins them over with his leadership and courage and welds them into an efficient unit that is able to lay explosives and demolish a German gun emplacement that has been repelling the allies’ advance.

After this success, Woody’s unit is transferred to Belgium, where the Germans hold a strategic position on the notorious Hill 60 on the Messines Ridge. The hill is a maze of tunnels, dug by both sides, and the allies have planted a huge cache of explosives in there — enough to cause the biggest explosion the world has ever seen.

The Australian tunnelers are charged with sustaining the tunnel system, which is threatened by water seepage and the effects of heavy artillery strikes, until Allied Command feels the time is ripe to give the order to detonate to cause maximum enemy casualties.  But the tunnels are unstable and, what’s more, the Germans are also tunnelling close by. Both sides have listening posts to try to detect mining activity by the other side, and the chances are high of the Germans breaking through and discovering what the allies are up to.

The film generates a reasonable amount of suspense in telling this story without going over the top and over-dramatising. David Roach’s script (based on Woodward’s unpublished war diaries) is very straightforward and unfussy and, like Sims’ direction, is always at the service of the story, not trying to show off. How pleasantly unfashionable!

And, with the assistance of the excellent cast, the film draws the characters extremely well, so you come to care for these young men and their awful plight in this appalling war. We get to know them and feel their pain. The different types — the brave and the frightened, a father and son who joined up together, the one who sacrifices his life to save his mates — are deftly sketched without labouring the point and without any hint of glorifying war.

Flashbacks to Oliver’s life in Australia and his budding romance with the beautiful teenager Marjorie (Bella Heathcote) provide a welcome contrast to the blood and sweat and grime of the war zone, and are particularly well done in terms of how life must have been lived in those genteel, far-off days.

Also old-fashioned —  again, pleasantly so — is the end credits in which the cast members are identified with photos. They do such a good job that they deserve the maximum recognition that this practice affords.  Particularly notable are Harrison Gilbertson as Tiffin, the wide-eyed teenager whom Woody takes under his wing; Gyton Grantley as Morris, who comes out of his shell after nearly being blown up; Steve Le Marquand as Fraser, the tough professional; Alan Dukes and Alex Thomson as the father and son; and Chris Haywood and John Stanton as lofty senior officers.

Paramount  Out April 15 2010

Mr Jim Murphy is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.


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