Tuesday, 26 July 2011

Film review: Beneath Hill 60

The first of a couple of war films I've watched recently, Beneath Hill 60 is an Australian war film about ANZAC engineers in Flanders in 1917. It is inspired by the true events at Messines Ridge, when Allied engineers tunnelled under German lines, and detonated what at that time was the biggest man-made bomb of all time. The plan was to literally blast a hole through the German lines for an infantry assault to follow up. The explosion was felt as far away as Dublin!

The film focuses on a small team of Australian mining engineers, brought in to burrow through clay soil that the Germans believe is too water-logged for mines. The star of the film is the most excellent Brendan Cowell, who plays the quiet spoken Captain Oliver Woodward, a mining engineer from Queensland who enlists when a close friend is killed at Gallipoli.

Beneath Hill 60 also captures the seeming randomness of sudden death on the front line, particularly when under the ubiquitous enemy artillery fire. The experience of the engineers themselves is very claustrophic, and apart from the danger of inevitable cave-ins, there is also the prospect of encountering 'Fritz', as the Germans are constantly trying to thwart them by sinking counter tunnels.

Also excellent, and with far too small a role, is Aden Young, as the half-crazed Canadian sapper who has spent three months underground building the bomb to end all bombs.

You don't seem to get that many films coming along which deal with front line combat action in WW1. It is all a bit depressing really, and you need plenty of mud and rain to help bring the mood down. In the last five minutes the film also looks at how, even though the Australian veterans get to return to the paradise of Queensland after the war, it many ways, its effects stay with them.

One irrelevancy are the scenes with the German engineers trying to find the Allied mines. There are the arguments about whether the sacrifice is worth it, what's in it for Germany, why can't we all be friends, etc, etc. I guess it serves to show the Germans could be nice people too, but really, this film is not about the Germans. It is about the struggle against the conditions more than anything else.

The engineers are exposed to illness, indirect enemy fire, and the occasional break-through from the German tunnels, but the biggest danger is really the same danger they dealt with on civvie street, namely digging deep underground with limited resources and on a tight schedule. There are also the usual British officers and Tommies and how they look down on the Australians, but eventually give them their respect. We've seen this before, and it begins to lose its novelty, but I guess Australian directors can't resist a poke at the Poms! ;)

From a gaming perspective, Beneath Hill 60 made me think about Call of Cthulhu, and in particular the one shot scenario No Man's Land, which deals with US troops cut off behind German lines in the chaos of Belleau Wood in 1918. If anything, Beneath Hill 60 provides an even more interesting context for a CoC scenario - you've got troops underground, in small numbers, in confined spaces, in the DARK. There's plenty of water, explosives, the prospect of an encounter with Germans, and who knows what else is lurking down there? I'm already feeling the inspiration here.

I'm going to give Beneath Hill 60 68%. In my view it is not as good as the excellent low budget British horror movie, Deathwatch, and I'm not saying that just because Deathwatch has supernatural themes and BH60 does not. I was slightly more on edge and jittery at the end of Deathwatch than I was when the credits ran on BH60.

Beneath Hill 60 is a sad film in many ways - yes, there's the hard-nosed Aussie grit in the face of adversity and trying conditions (including a high command that lacks faith in their abilities to get the job done) - but the loss of so many of the youngest and brightest of a generation is particularly poignant, and it is brought home again here.

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