1916. The Great War has reached a deadlock, with millions of lives lost. Captain Oliver Woodward (Brendan Cowell), an engineer who had previously managed a mine in Papua New Guinea, is sent to the European front line to lead a team of Australian tunnellers to burrow under enemy lines, in an effort to change the course of the war. A true story.
Just over four years ago, I reviewed for this site a low-budget independent film called Last Train to Freo. I ended that review by saying that I would be interested in seeing what its director, Jeremy Sims, would do next. Beneath Hill 60 is his second feature and the contrast is marked. Last Train to Freo was based on a play, set almost entirely in a train carriage with a principal cast of five, shot in HD and set in present day Perth. Beneath Hill 60 is set in World War One and based on a true story, shot on film with a large cast. (He's also added “Hartley” to his byline.) It's a solid, well made war film, a story of heroism, but it falls a little short.
On the plus side, the scenes at the front, both in the trenches and underground, are vivid (though not too graphic). The film's costumes and production design are impressive, as are the settings, with the mud and wet of the trenches recreated close to Woodward's hometown, the generally dry, hot and dusty Townsville, Queensland. Brendan Cowell (who looks a lot like Russell Crowe) is a strong presence in the lead role. He's backed up by a solid cast, including Steve Le Marquand (who played the lead in Last Train to Freo) and a particularly effective turn from Harrison Gilbertson as Tiffin, a young soldier who is in many ways the conscience of the piece. Chris Haywood (not easily recognisable) is stuck with a rather too-familiar role as a stuffy Colonel.
My main reservations about this film centre on an awkwardly-constructed screenplay. Ever so often, we go into flashback, centering on Woodward's romance with Marjorie Waddell (Isabella Heathcote), ten years his junior. These scenes are well enough played (Jacqueline McKenzie – her name misspelled in the end credits – plays Marjorie's mother) and, set largely in the bright sunshine of the Queensland summer, give some visual contrast and relief from the darkness, mud and claustrophobia of the trench and tunnel scenes. But they do distract from the storyline and stop halfway through. An introduction to some German characters in the second half is structurally awkward: it's too late for us to be emotionally invested in them, despite the film's evenhanded attempts to humanise them. Also, the script isn't above moments of manipulation: certain characters you just know are there to be killed off for poignant effect and true enough so they are.
That said, this is a good, if not great, film telling a little-known story of the First World War. The explosion which blew up Hill 60 was the largest manmade explosion up to that time, though as a final caption says it was to little effect as the Germans retook Hill 60 shortly afterwards. Woodward, was awarded the Military Cross and two bars, the first of these being for the blowing up of the “Red House”, an episode recreated in this film. He married Marjorie in 1920 and they were together until his death in 1966 at the age of eighty. He also served as the President of the Australian Mining and Metals Association from 1952 to 1954.
Beneath Hill 60 was nominated for twelve Australian Film Institute Awards including Best Film. However, this was the year that Animal Kingdom swept all before it, and Beneath Hill 60 won just one award, Harrison Gilbertson for Best Young Actor. Apart from a showing at the 2010 Australian Film Festival in London, it makes its UK debut on this DVD.
Momentum's DVD is dual-layered and encoded for Region 2 only. It begins with trailers for Frozen and Brooklyn's Finest, but these can be skipped.
Beneath Hill 60 was shot in 3-perf Super 35 and shown in Scope in cinemas. The DVD transfer is in the correct ratio of 2.40:1 and is anamorphically enhanced. Given that much of it is set underground or in the trenches, this is not the most colourful of films, but the DVD transfer is up to the task, and shadow detail is good. The flashbacks to Queensland are appropriately colourful.
The soundtrack is in Dolby Digital 5.1. Given the subject matter, you'd expect an immersive soundtrack and you get one. The trench sequences feature plenty of directional sound, with bullets flying and explosions going off, with plenty for your subwoofer to be getting on with. The climactic blast will make your floor shake and may upset your neighbours. Subtitles for the hard-of-hearing are available. Fixed subtitles translate some German dialogue.
The extras begin with a commentary by Jeremy Sims and scriptwriter David Roach. This is a very informative chat, with plenty of information given about the production and how Sims came to be involved in it, and much about the real-life Oliver Woodward, upon whose diaries Roach based the screenplay.
Some of this material is duplicated in “Beneath Hill 60: A Producer's Journal” (39:14), which is the making-of featurette. This takes us through the production from start to finish, with the usual mixture of on-set footage, cast and crew interviews and clips from the finished film. This does include some plot spoilers.
The extras conclude with the theatrical trailer (2:16).