1916. Two massive armies facing each other along the Western Front have fought themselves to a standstill. The count down to the Battle of Messines Ridge has begun. The allies’ audacious plan to break the deadlock depends on a small company of Australian miners led by Captain Oliver Woodward.

These ordinary men from mining towns across Australia were given just two weeks military training before being thrust into the war. Poorly equipped, with scant regard for military etiquette, the miners’ task is to defend a leaking, labyrinthine tunnel system snaking beneath the Messines Ridge. The tunnels hide a deadly secret; a series of massive mines. If the plan succeeds it will produce the biggest explosion the world has ever known and could change the course of the war.

But no-one seems to know when the order will be given to blow the mines. With constant inundation of mud and water and endless vibrations from heavy artillery, the tunnels are in imminent danger of collapse. Disaster looms as the Germans discover the Australians’ underground activity. A deadly cat-and-mouse game is played out thirty metres below the fields of Flanders and, as zero hour approaches, the whole allied strategy could be in jeopardy...

In the trenches of a bloody WWI battle.

Some of the greatest Australian movies of all time have tackled war, most notably Gallipoli and Breaker Morant, but apart from 2006’s Kokoda the subject has been ignored in recent years, unlike American filmmakers who’ve been obsessed with ongoing conflicts in the Middle East.

So it’s refreshing to report that Beneath Hill 60 is a superbly crafted, tension-filled drama based on a little-known episode of the First World War. In just his second film after Last Train to Freo, director Jeremy Sims orchestrates a series of impressively realistic battle scenes and draws marvellous performances from his ensemble cast. Often using close-ups, Sims and director of photography Toby Oliver succeed in putting the audience literally into the trenches, tunnels and mud with the protagonists.

The screenplay by David Roach focuses on a bunch of Queensland miners who join the Army’s new, top-secret Australian Tunneling Company. After minimal training they’re sent to the Western Front in Europe in 1916.

The newly arrived Woodward is initially greeted with suspicion by more experienced soldiers such as the bolshie Sergeant Fraser (Steve Le Marquand) and with derision from the Brits. But his courage isn’t questioned after he leads a raid across No Man’s Land to destroy an enemy machine gun.

"a superbly crafted, tension-filled drama based on a little-known episode of the First World War"

His unit then faces its most daunting mission as they’re sent across the border to Belgium to defend a labyrinthine system of tunnels packed with explosives beneath the German stronghold on Hill 60.

To avoid the claustrophobia of dwelling too long below ground, the plot frequently flashes back to Queensland, detailing Oliver’s decision to enlist after being taunted unfairly as a coward, and his budding romance with Marjorie, the daughter of family friends Emma and William Waddell (Jacqueline McKenzie, Gerald Lepkowski).

It must be noted there are several minor flaws: the narrative gets bogged down in the last third before the explosive finale; at 33, Brendan Cowell looks a good deal older than his character, Lieutenant (later Captain) Oliver Woodward, who’s about 26; as his 16 going on 17-year-old girlfriend Marjorie, 20-year-old Bella Heathcote is too mature to pass for a teenager; and that gifted actor Chris Haywood is asked to strut around huffing and puffing like the proverbial Colonel Blimp.

While most of the early battle scenes are photographed in close-ups, the director and DP widen the lenses in the latter sequences, giving the film an epic scale. The mood is tense, but in that great Aussie way, relieved at times by bursts of gallows’ humour. The screenplay takes an even-handed approach to the conflict, portraying the enemy, principally young Ernst Wagner and Sergeant Karl Babek (Marcus Costello and Kenneth Spiteri) as ordinary men who are just as homesick and missing their families as the Aussies. As the Australian and German tunnelers come perilously close to each other beneath Hill 60 and the clock ticks towards the planned explosion, the tension rises to nail-biting levels, and the climax is a stunner.

Apart from the age discrepancies, Cowell and Heathcote handle their roles extremely well. Harrison Gilbertson is superb as the fresh-faced Frank Tiffin, who enlisted when he was 16 and transforms from being a scared, whimpering kid into a truly heroic man. Gyton Grantley is fine as the myopic, laconic tunneler Norm 'Pull Through" Morris, as are Alan Dukes and Alex Thompson as a father-and-son duo.

Watch 'Beneath Hill 60'

SBS Australia, 8.30pm Friday 27 April 
SBS On Demand after broadcast

SBS On Demand: War stories
Brace yourself for stories of great sacrifice, courage and the moral complexities of war. Now streaming at SBS On Demand.
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We say goodbye to some great movies this month. Catch them at SBS On Demand while you still can.


2 hours 2 min
In Cinemas 15 April 2010,
Thu, 08/19/2010 - 11