Beneath Hill 60

April 25th, 2010 Film, Film Reviews, Xpress

We’ll never run out of stories to tell about wars. Not just because humanity has a bad habit of constantly waging fresh wars on each other, but because the deeds, heroism, suffering and even humour they characterise would fill more pages and more feet of celluloid than we can ever print.

Whether it’s the emotional aftermath on the men who raised the American flag in Joe Rosenthal’s immortal photo (Flags of Our Fathers), the resistance mounted by the Jews of the Warsaw ghetto (Uprising), the final days of the Third Reich (Downfall) or even the comic pandemonium as panic about an anticipated Japanese attack sweeps California (1941), we simply never run out of stories borne of war.

Part of the reason is because new aspects of such culturally rich occurrences like wars keep coming to light. Most of the contents of mining engineer Oliver Woodward are fairly dry descriptions of bracing up tunnels and the calculations for pumping out water. The emotional weight of Woodward’s task only shines through every now and then.

He and his men weren’t building mining tunnels in his native Queensland. After joining up in 1915, he was sent to the European front in Belgium and told to tunnel underneath the no man’s land in front of the German lines and plant explosives underneath them. Directing from a script by David Roach, TV actor and one-time film director (Last Train to Freo) Jeremy Sims has bought the story of Woodward and his colleagues to the screen in blistering detail.

With rain pouring, shells going off around them and muddy faces going between officer dugouts, sleeping holes and tunnels 30 metres down, Sims has squeezed every cent out of his $9.6m budget and crafted a war movie that easily stands up against far bigger budgeted contemporaries from the genre.

In the 1960s and 70s, war films were like grown up versions of The Goonies. Movies like Where Eagles Dare and The Guns of Navarone were about boys playing with toys in high stakes games to vanquish evil, moustache-twirling bad guys. In our more politically correct times they’ve been about suffering and horror, with little of the adventurism of the earlier era.

Sims’ film tends more towards the latter — you feel every premature death and horrible injury, you watch men trying to sleep in muddy pits and you share the anguish of loved ones back home waiting for the fateful telegram to arrive. But Beneath Hill 60 has strong elements of the action-packed military thrills of earlier war films as well — it will keep you on the edge of your seat as well as pinch your heartstrings. Just one example is when Woodward leads a trio of soldiers across the barren no man’s land to plant a bomb beside a ruined church where the Germans have a gatling gun battery.

Despite the slickness relative inexperience occasionally peeks through. While he does a great job of carrying almost every scene on his shoulders, Cowell sometimes feels less than completely comfortable as the miner/soldier. Other cast members such as Steve Le Marquand do better, but that’s because they’re mostly fodder to Woodward as the lynchpin of the plot.

As a director, Sims shows no such uncertainty. Despite only one small movie (set completely in train carriage) to his name he makes it look like he’s been doing this in Hollywood for years. He’s just as strong zeroing in on muddy, panic-stricken faces as he is with sweeping shots of a pock-marked battlefield with fire and dirt flying.

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