Peter Weir’s Gallipoli was part of the wave of films that asserted Australia’s cultural independence from Britain by helping to create the image of the heroic, anti-authoritarian and noble Australian soldier. It damned the way Australian soldiers were commanded by their inept and callous British superiors and it showed the world just how big a part Australians played in World War I and how great their sacrifice was. Beneath Hill 60 is the latest film to do all these things and it is based on the true story of a platoon of Australian miners who helped to fight World War I by tunnelling under the Western Front to place explosives underneath the German forces.
The commander of the Australian Tunnelling Company is Captain Oliver Woodward, whose actual diaries formed the basis of writer/co-producer David Roach’s script. Played by Brendan Cowell (Noise), the audience first encounter Woodward lost in the maze of tunnels under the enemy lines. The low light and muted sounds of explosions far up on the surface make the tunnel settings incredibly claustrophobic for the audience (the cinematography and sound design are magnificent), recalling the cramped submarine sets of Das Boot. When Woodward does get back to the surface and walks out in the trenches the film shows us the bewildering chaos and violence of trench warfare making the tunnels seem pleasant in comparison. No wonder Woodward feels ‘snug’ while underground.
The scenes in the tunnels and trenches are fabulous and director Jeremy Hartley Sims (Last Train to Freo) does a fine job creating tension and excitement as well as depicting the dynamics between the various soldiers. The characters do all somewhat represent the sort of stock characters you so often find in war films: the good bloke commander, the stuffy and clueless officers who insist on protocol over common sense, the naive young soldier and the tough guy who turns out to be all right. However, Sims and the cast work well together to overcome the stereotypes and create a genuine sense of camaraderie among a diverse group of men. Beneath Hill 60 also admirably depicts the German perspective in a way that highlights how much both sides had in common rather than simply depicting the Germans as the enemy.
What does let Beneath Hill 60 down are its flashback scenes depicting Woodward in Australia before he joined the Tunnelling Company. These scenes could have provided an important contrast to the war scenes but instead feel like a hurried afterthought with trite dialogue and noticeably weaker acting. The film’s intrusive score doesn’t help either and is at its most melodramatic during these flashbacks. Otherwise Beneath Hill 60 is a strong film telling an important story and while it won’t have the same impact as Gallipoli, it is still a film of significance.