Details: (PG), 116 mins, In Cinemas 31 March 2011, Australia, English
Synopsis: Four gallant men of the Australian Light Horse Regiment are thrust into the last great cavalry charge when the British campaign in Palestine becomes stalemated in 1917. In a desperate attempt to aid the Allies' cause 800 young Australian horsemen set off against gunfire and insurmountable odds in a last ditch attempt to save the attacking British soldiers from imminent annihilation by the Turco-German Army.
Creaky Australian WWI saga doesn’t improve with age.
Among the ranks of Australia’s most memorable and distinctive war movies, The Lighthorsemen can’t be classified in the company of Peter Weir’s Gallipoli, Bruce Beresford’s Breaker Morant, Charles Chauvel’s 40,000 Horsemen or Damien Parer’s Oscar-winning documentary Kokoda Frontline.
For valid reasons, I think. Simon Wincer’s film is a prosaic, spasmodically involving account of the heroism of 800 Australian mounted soldiers who triumphed over thousands of Turks and Germans at Beersheba in southern Palestine in 1917.
Missing are the compelling characters, raw drama, powerful emotional charge, sharp dialogue and inspired filmmaking which earned Gallipoli and Breaker Morant their status as enduring classics.
So why has Umbrella Entertainment remastered Wincer’s 1987 movie and booked a one-week national cinema release at Hoyts outlets from April 4 ahead of the DVD launch on April 13?
Well I guess it’s a laudable effort to market the title to schools to try to reach audiences who weren’t around 24 years ago and to give older folks who may dimly remember the movie another chance to sample it, and it’s a timely reminder of a famous episode in Australian military history.
But despite the pristine print, the crystal clear sound and Dean Semler’s sumptuous cinematography, the film hasn’t improved with age and the thrilling climactic battle sequence is its saving grace.
The screenplay was written by Ian Jones, a TV writer who became obsessed with the Light Horse story, interviewed numerous veterans of the campaign who were aged in their 70s and 80s, visited Beersheba and published two books on the subject.
His research may have been meticulous but the dialogue is full of clunky exposition, some characters are clichés, there’s a tame Mills and Boon romance and the episodic storytelling lacks tension.
The main protagonist is Dave (Peter Phelps), a Melbourne boy who joins the regiment with the best intentions but finds he can’t squeeze the trigger when he has the enemy in his sights.
Among his compatriots are Gary Sweet as a gung-ho corporal, John Walton as the hard-bitten Tas who’s unimpressed by what he sees as Dave’s cowardice, Tim Mackenzie as a colourless Chiller and Jon Blake as an Irishman nicknamed Scotty (whose accent wanders all over the place, but at least his ‘boyo’ sounds authentic).
The top brass including Tony Bonner as Lieutenant Colonel Bourchier and Bill Kerr as General Sir Harry Chauvel are a dull lot, mostly given to barking orders, pointing to maps and laboriously enunciating tactics. Anthony Andrews is drafted in to posture as a smart alec British military intelligence officer. With unintended hilarity, Gerard Kennedy impersonates a Turkish officer with an indeterminate accent and what looks like boot polish on his face.
Sigrid Thornton plays Anne, a nurse who ministers to Dave after he injures his hand when an enemy aircraft strafes the regiment. Their love affair lacks even a skerrick of passion and feels tacked on, although the prologue states they were based on real people who did get married after the war.
One of the main characters dies early on but Wincer and Jones curiously elect not to show him expiring. Until the last 15 minutes or so the narrative plods along, a canter rather than a gallop, enlivened by the occasional skirmish and a few moments of levity such as the buck-naked soldiers riding into the sea during a spot of R&R. A slide at the end states no horses were hurt or injured during filming; it doesn’t say whether the cast got saddle-sore in that scene.
The final cavalry charge almost makes the film worth watching, a superbly orchestrated sequence as the camera follows the battle from overhead, alongside the combatants and from the enemy’s trenches and cannon.
But Mario Millo’s score is annoyingly intrusive, violins trilling when Dave and Anne go for a walk on a moonlit beach and often thunderously loud when what we’re seeing on screen is quite mundane.
Among the cast, Phelps is the stand-out, nicely articulating a naïve novice who eventually earns his spurs. Tragically, Jon Blake was seriously injured in a car accident the day after shooting wrapped while driving back from the location in Hawker, South Australia. He suffered permanent brain damage and never acted again.
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