Too much tertiary education... Former performer/wrestler, teacher, scientist; Published author & Father... Want to be a writer if I grow up...
Published April 20th 2021
How Aussies see war
On April 25 of every year, Australians commemorate ANZAC Day, the anniversary of the disastrous attack on the Gallipoli Peninsula in World War I. The day has come to be a celebration of all those who served Australia and New Zealand in all wars; some sociologists believe that the Gallipoli campaign and the misuse of ANZAC forces was what really forged the identity of Australia as a nation of its own, breaking those last real ties with the United Kingdom.
Despite this, or maybe because of this, there have been very few Australian films made about war. And those that have been made tend to be rather good films. Now, I am not a huge fan of war films. Both my grandfathers served in World War Two and I got from them an aversion to wars. Having said that, the best of the war films I have seen have all come from Australia. And here are five of them, five of the best Australian war movies.
The Rats Of Tobruk (1944)
Directed by Charles Chauvel Written by Charles Chauvel, Elsa Chauvel & Maxwell Dunn Starring Grant Taylor, Peter Finch & Chips Rafferty
This film is a little slow, and there are not a huge amount of action scenes, but I think it really shows the camaraderie of soldiers in war. Friends enrol together and fight together, specifically in the siege of Tobruk where Australian forces held back the Germans for a long time before being relieved by British troops. I don't think this was designed to be a war film, but a character study, and it succeeds in that rather well. And, spoilers for a film almost 80 years old, only one of the men survives, which is another bit of truth that very few US war films would have given the audience at the time before the war was even over.
The Odd Angry Shot (1979) Directed by Tom Jeffrey Written by Tom Jeffrey (based on the book by William Nagle)
Starring Graham Kennedy, Bryan Brown, John Hargreaves, John Jarratt &Graeme Blundell
This is my favourite film on this list, and not because it is a comedy. I just like the way it portrays the soldiers as regular people. This was made at the start of the re-assessment of Australia's role in Vietnam and the way the veterans of that conflict were treated (also seen in such songs as 'Khe Sanh' by Cold Chisel and 'I Was Only 19' by Redgum) upon their return. It actually inspired me to track down the book, and that is a rather good read as well. The incidents are candid, not everyone survives, and at about 1:15:00 Graham Kennedy gives a stunning speech about how the poor are sent to war while the rich hide from it which still resonates today. But the most poignant scene is the last one where (spoilers for a film more than 40 years old) two of the soldiers deny having been in Vietnam while in a pub back in Australia. Comedy but with bite.
Breaker Morant (1980) Directed by Bruce Beresford
Written by Jonathan Hardy, David Stevens, & Bruce Beresford (based on the books Breaker Morant by Kenneth Ross & The Breaker by Kit Denton)
Starring Edward Woodward, Jack Thompson, John Waters, Bryan Brown, Charles Tingwell & Terence Donovan
One of the more depressing films in Australia's canon (though not the last to appear on this list), this tells the true story of Harry "Breaker" Morant. After following orders and committing an act that was not a good one during the Boer War, Morant was killed by firing squad. It is occasionally cited as an example of how the British treated Australians but was meant to show that war can make monsters of anybody. Depressing film, but so well made.
Directed by Peter Weir
Written by David Williamson & Peter Weir
Starring Mel Gibson & Mark Lee
And let's keep going with the depressing films. Two young Australians meet through a running race, have a journey across Australia to enlist in the army, are sent overseas and… the last scene (again, spoilers for a film 40 years old) of the character played by Mark Lee being cut down by gunfire is one of the most harrowing in Australian cinema. I own the special edition on DVD and I think I've watched the accompanying documentary on World War One more than the film. And who can forget that iconic use of excerpts of Jean-Michel Jarre's Oxygene? But it is still a magnificent piece of film-making, so incredible and well-made. One of Australia's finest.
The Water Diviner (2014)
Directed by Russell Crowe
Written by Andrew Anastasios & Andrew Knight
Starring Russell Crowe & Olga Kurylenko
And we jump forward a couple of decades to a relatively recent film, one which looks at World War One through the eyes of someone whose sons were sent off to war. I found this film to be one that looks stunning and, even if a little slow at times, really lets the audience feel what it was like for those back in Australia to potentially lose an entire generation. Crowe directs but it is his starring role in this that is so good – there is a reason he is considered a fine actor. And, more than that, there is a note of hope at the end of it all.
Five films from Australia spanning more than 60 years of film-making, telling the story of war. Australians don't revel in the glory of war like many American and English productions but tend to tell it more like it was, with a sense of grounded realism and characters that feel human. War is not glorified; war is real. War creates heroes, but in the worse possible conditions.
ANZAC Day celebrations will be held at dawn on April 25 around Australia and New Zealand.