Saturday, May 23, 2015

Forty Thousand Horsemen

Forty Thousand Horsemen is very much an unapologetic propaganda film complete with embarrassing racism, cloying nationalism and an awful, condescending romance. It's appropriately scored almost entirely to the strains of the national anthem and Waltzing Matilda so if you don't appreciate either of those awful songs this film may present as something of a struggle.

There's an early scene to establish why Australians are fighting in the Ottoman Empire and the given reasons are class mobility and free speech. How those aims are achieved by participating in a European power struggle is never made clear. The Ottomans themselves are treated as worthy opponents who rightfully respect the fearsome yet laid back Australians. Meanwhile the Germans are mustache twirling villains - unsurprisingly given the film was released in 1940. Local civilians get the shortest end of the stick: they're presented as patsies just waiting to be fleeced by larrikin (a nicer word for arsehole) Australian soldiers.

The sets and battle scenes have clearly had a lot of money lavished on them but while director Charles Chauvel comes up with some stirring images - cavalry leaping over trenches is possibly the most exciting World War 1 combat has ever been - he fails to tell a sophisticated story with them. Instead they're reduced to a simple montage, the upshot of which is that the Australians won.

In the very broadest sense Chauvel is faithful to the historical record - unsurprisingly since his uncle played a crucial role in the battles portrayed. He does though, in the tradition of all good Australian propaganda, elide the role of British forces and he's not at all afraid to sacrifice truth on the alter of pulp storytelling. The highpoint of the film is easily a James Bond-like finale in which our ocker hero battles a dastardly German officer to prevent him from blowing up explosives that would kill everyone in Beersheba. Forty Thousand Horsemen is by no means a good film but at least it's not the torturous history lesson embodied by the likes of Smithy.

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