Sunday, September 20, 2015

Forty Thousand Horsemen (1940)

Forty Thousand Horsemen is perhaps the most famous of all Australian movies. Released in 1940 it’s an epic war movie dealing with the exploits of the Australian Light Horse brigades in Palestine and Mesopotamia in the First World War. A major box-office hit at the time it’s still screened regularly on television in Australia.

The fact that it came out in 1940 might suggest that this is going to be a propaganda movie. And that’s exactly what it is. It was made quite unapologetically to whip up enthusiasm for yet another war taking place thousands of miles from Australia. It was also quite obviously intended to stir up anti-German feeling. 

The subject matter made that a bit tricky. After all the Light Horse fought the Ottoman Turks, not the Germans. And Australian troops who fought in the First World War came back home with a considerable respect for the Turks as gallant, skillful and honourable adversaries. There was no way Australian audiences in 1940 were going to buy the idea of the Turks as villains. The obvious solution was to emphasise, and perhaps exaggerate, the role of the Ottoman Empire’s German military advisers. That way the Germans could be depicted as the villains, and the Turks as more-or-less innocent dupes of the evil machinations of the German war machine. That’s the solution that the film does adopt and it has to be said that it goes a bit overboard with it. It’s difficult to think of too many movies that are quite so extreme in their anti-German sentiments.

The movie follows a handful of young Australian soldiers facing the unforgiving realities of war in the desert. The climax of the movie is the spectacularly successful charge of the Light Horse at the Battle of Beersheba in 1917, one of the last successful cavalry charges in history.

Of course there has to be a romantic sub-plot. In this case it deals with a French girl, Juliet Rouget (Betty Bryant), who works as a spy for the British. She disguises herself (remarkably unconvincingly) as an Arab boy. Naturally she falls in love with a dashing young Australian, Red Gallagher (Grant Taylor).

There’s also some comic relief, largely provided  by Chips Rafferty in a role that made him Australia’s most iconic actor.

Director Charles Chauvel knows however that it‘s the action sequences that really count and there are plenty of them. This is not one of those war movies that takes three-quarters of the movie to get to the action scenes. Despite the limited resources available to him Chauvel handle the battle scenes with tremendous energy, immediacy and vitality. He also manages quite effectively to convey the impression of large scale battles. The climactic charge at the Battle of Beersheba is generally regarded, quite justly, as one of the great cinematic cavalry charges.

Forty Thousand Horsemen is a bit rough around the edges at times but if anything this is an asset, contributing to the feel of the chaos and mayhem of war.

The acting is variable but on the whole not too bad. Grant Taylor is solid as the hero while Chips Rafferty and Pat Twohill provide solid support as his loyal pals. Betty Bryant is adequate as the female lead. Harvey Adams is suitably dastardly as the sinister German von Hausen.

The movie was shot entirely in Australia but it’s fairly successful in evoking the Middle Eastern setting.

While the Germans are uniformly depicted as monsters the movie’s portrayal of both Turks and Arabs is remarkably sympathetic and even respectful.

Umbrella’s DVD release is a little disappointing. The film is in reasonable condition but clearly it’s in need of a proper restoration. Given that this is an historical epic Forty Thousand Horsemen really needs a better presentation, ideally on Blu-Ray, to do justice to Chauvel’s fine action scenes. The DVD does however include a long and interesting documentary on the fuln-making career of Charles Chauvel.

It’s difficult for an Australian like myself to be evenhanded about this movie or its subject matter. Expecting an Australian to be unemotional about the exploits of the Light Horse would be like expecting an Englishman to be unemotional about the Battle of Britain, and the movie itself has become an integral part of Australian historical mythology. I still think it’s a fine stirring war movie and the propaganda elements are no more extreme than those to be found in just about every American or British war movie made during the Second World War. 

Forty Thousand Horsemen still stands up pretty well. Highly recommended.

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