A story showcasing the inimitable Aussie Light horsemen battling in the Middle East during WWI. We also have a story involving Aussie soldier Grant Taylor falling for Betty Bryant, a French girl in ‘blackface’ pretending to be the son of an Arab sheik (Albert Winn) in order to hide from the Germans who killed her wine merchant father. Yep. Oh, and the Turks are set to attack at some point in all of this. Chips Rafferty plays one of Taylor’s comrades and best mates, with Pat Twohill as the other one. Apparently ex-pat Aussie actor Michael Pate is in here somewhere too in three (!) bit roles, two as Arabs, one as a Sikh cop.
The same year that “Citizen Kane” was released, this 1941 Australian war film (completed in 1940, however) from director/co-writer Charles Chauvel was also released. A WWI film, it was one of the films that gave a boost to the iconic Chips Rafferty’s career, and not only does it start off with ‘Advance Australia Fair’ (Our current national anthem, to you non-Aussies) but the music score quickly morphs into ‘Waltzing Matilda’ and back again. Basically, it’s as bloody Australian as you could get back in 1941. Seen all these decades later, some of the music score by Lindley Evans and some of the bit part acting belongs more in the silent era than the 1940s (The characterisations of Germans and Turks is pretty cartoony to say the least). However, we really didn’t have much of an industry back in the 40s (even though our “The Story of the Kelly Gang” is routinely regarded as the first-ever motion picture ever made), and this one holds up a helluva lot better than say “Jedda” (also directed by Aussie cinema pioneer Chauvel), which came out some 15 or so years later. It’s also not a whole lot inferior to other war films of the period made in the US and UK.
The film definitely gets across the knockabout, two-up playing, Aussie ‘Digger’ (or ANZAC) spirit thing, clichéd as I personally find that image all these years later. It’s definitely true of its time, and does a fairly good job as well at showing the difference between the rather jocular Aussies and more stiff upper-lip Brits. For me it was interesting to look at from a cultural perspective, looking at how we presented our own image of ourselves at that time in history (The 1910s or so) from a 1940s perspective. Whatever your feelings on the ‘Aussie Digger’ image, it sure has proven durable all these years. That’s why I’m reluctant to call something like this dated, because that term seems to suggest something so out-of-date that it is now useless. I don’t feel that way about this film, it still has quite a bit of cultural/historical value so long as you contextualise it, and don’t much mind the blatant propaganda of it all.
It’s also just really nice to see an Aussie film giving it a go at delivering the kind of war film the Yanks and Poms have always been so good at, and Chauvel doesn’t fail at it, despite obviously lesser funds. I was especially amused that Chauvel doesn’t shy away from presenting our soldiers as ratbags, and not always saintly. Not only is that likely accurate, but it’s just bloody funny watching our boys nick stuff from the Poms. There’s some really nice B&W shots of the horsemen all riding on the beach. I doubt the budget allowed for all 40,000 of them, mind you, though I didn’t count, either. Under the circumstances, the battle footage is pretty decent, though whether or not it’s stolen from something else I cannot say. Also, whilst some of the music score has clearly got a cheesy silent movie vibe (However the use of title cards/written narration was likely more indicative of a low-budget than anything else), the more anthemic (which is a word, thank you very much Microsoft Word. You’re wrong!) parts are certainly good. Meanwhile, despite essentially playing the ‘best mate’ role, Rafferty continually steals scenes with his slightly goofy, knockabout Aussie persona. It’s not hard to see why he became a star, he was a true character, and an iconic one that is put to perfect use in this kind of thing. In fact, among the principals, the only dud is leading lady Betty Bryant, who is pretty putrid. The use of blackface by her character wasn’t offensive to me, because her character was French trying to pass herself off as a Turk, but what did bother me was that she was wholly unconvincing at being male, which was also part of her ruse.
“Gallipoli” it ain’t (nor is it the equal of “The Lighthorsemen”, for that matter), but it’s not trying to be. It’s a good B-movie and a taste of things to come for the rising Chips Rafferty (in only his third feature film). Some crude editing and musical choices, but a pretty enjoyable yarn overall. Definitely one for historians of Aussie cinema and war movies too. I’m not the most patriotic person in the world to be honest, but this film definitely deserves to be much more well-known in my opinion. The screenplay is by Elsa Chauvel, from a story by the director and E.V. Timms.