BENEATH HILL 60
Director: Jeremy Hartley Sims
Screenwriter: David Roach
Steve Le Marquand
Runtime: 122 mins.
Australian release date: 15 April 2010
Claustrophobia is a condition that many of us suffer from and we try to avoid placing ourselves in situations that exacerbate it. There is a moment in history which really brings that experience to the fore, namely the trenches on the Western Front, near Armentieres, France, in WW1. If they weren’t harrowing enough, then imagine the effect of being trapped in tunnels below the trenches, in conditions that made above ground almost tolerable.
This is the setting for Beneath Hill 60 directed by Jeremy Hartley Sims. It is 1916 and a group of Australian miners, who were given very little battle training, are tunnelling their way under the German lines in an attempt to set charges that will obliterate the enemy troops above them.
Oliver Woodward (Brendan Cowell), is a mining engineer in command of a small platoon of tunnellers who are given the extremely dangerous and almost impossible task of setting the mines under the most diabolical conditions. Fear is just one of the many terrors they have to encounter. The battlefield is under constant attack and the tunnels are in imminent danger of collapse. There is also the added threat from the Germans who have discovered the diggers’ underground activity and are trying desperately to sink a shaft towards their tunnels.
Mateship and equality make up the Australian psyche and nowhere better than in stories of war. Cowell is convincing as the nuggety miner who just gets down to business. He has a healthy disregard for rank and treats everyone the same. He establishes a protective relationship with a young tunneller from Griffith, called Frank Tiffen (Harrison Gilbertson), who, like many young men, signed up when he was only 16. Another example of mateship is Jim Sneddon (Alan Dukes) who found out about his son Walter (Alex Thompson) signing up to go to war and joined up the following day.
The use of flashbacks to a serene, yet harsh Australian outback gives the audience a sense of relief from being in the trenches. Men who enlisted were sent off to fight a war that was seen as an adventure. The memories of home and their loved ones, in this case Woodward’s young girlfriend Marjorie Waddell (Bella Heathcote), instilled hope for the future. It is worth mentioning that Marjorie’s mother Emma, played by Jacqueline McKenzie, is a welcome return for the actress who has spent the last few years in the USA.
Woodward’s diaries were found after his death. The characters are based on real people and they are honourably represented in this version of events. The production design in Beneath Hill 60 is excellent and makes for uncomfortable viewing as the miserable conditions on screen are so realistic. At times you can almost feel the bullets whizzing overhead and feel your feet submerged in mud as the camera takes you on a journey through hell.