“The Lighthorsemen” was a film made as part of the Australian New Wave. It was directed by Simon Wincer (“Operation Dumbo Drop”). It was written by Ian Jones who was fascinated by the Australian Light Horse. He made a trip to the site of their greatest triumph and did extensive research for the movie. I like that. It was certainly a story that begged to be told. The movie was filmed on location in Australia which means the continent has locales that can stand in for the Middle East.
The movie begins with a crawl that informs us that on October 31, 1917 two regiments of the Australian Light Horse charged Turkish defenses at Beersheba in Palestine. “This is the story of some of the men and horses that made it into history that day.” The action begins with the chasing of wild horses in beautiful scenery and with stirring music. From there it is off to Palestine where a glimpse of tanks reminds us that horse cavalry is now a thing of the past. We are introduced to four mates. Frank (Gary Sweet), Scotty (Jon Blake), Chiller (Tim McKenzie), and Tas (John Walton) are their names, but that is about all we learn about them. Since this is a small unit movie, a newbie named Dave arrives who is not welcomed by the quartet. Since five is a crowd, one of the core has to go and does after getting a Dear Jack letter. Dave has a bad case of the Griff from “Big Red One” so he gets transferred to the medical corps. He wins the lottery to have the requisite romance with a nurse played by Sigrid Thornton (the Australian Julia Roberts). Romance and redemption – cha-ching! The familiar face of Anthony Edwards appears as an intelligence officer who tricks the Turks into thinking the attack on Beersheba is a diversion. Actually he tricks the hissable German liaison into shiza-shizaing the attack.
General Allenby’s (the devious jerk played by Jack Hawkins in “Lawrence of Arabia”) plan is to fix the Turks with an infantry dominated attack from the south while the cavalry works its way to the east and assaults Beersheba from there. The dilemma becomes the lack of water due to poisoned wells on the way to the ingress point. It is decided that an immediate charge is called for even though the light horsemen normally fight dismounted. Is the charge worth the wait? It’s bloody exciting, mate. No CGI here and amazingly no horses were even injured in the filming. Guess who foregoes his medical duties to participate in the charge?
How historically accurate is the movie? It gets the basics right. The 4th Light Horse Brigade was part of the 1st Australian Imperial Force that was sent to the Middle East in 1915. It participated in the Gallipoli Campaign before it was returned to Egypt in time to be part of the Sinai and Palestine Campaign which pitted the British against the Ottoman Empire (with the help of Germany). The action started with a failed Turkish attempt on the Suez Canal which provoked the Brits to invade the Sinai. They were at first successful, but then lost two battles near Gaza. A stalemate ensued until Gen. Allenby initiated the offensive that resulted in the Battle of Beersheba in October, 1917. The movie does a fine job outlining the plan and even uses a map (unlike most war movies). However, as with many movies of its ilk, the big picture is hazy. Anthony Andrews character Maj. Meinertzhagen is based on the infamous intelligence officer / ornithologist. The movie depicts the legendary “Haversack Ruse” in which Meinertzhagen supposedly left a haversack with false British plans to fall into enemy hands. This story has been refuted, but it is acceptable that the movie included it. The romance of Anne and Dave is based on a real couple that marries after the war. The climactic attack is well-staged although it is doubtful the clueless German who refuses to destroy the city’s water wells is a real person.
“The Lighthorsemen” was part of the Australian New Wave movement. Australian cinema had almost ceased to exist until the government reinvigorated it with funding for film production and the Australian Film, Television, and Radio School. A large amount of films were the result, starting in the early seventies until the late eighties. Many of these films were popular in the U.S. The war movies included “Breaker Morant” and “Gallipoli”. This genre had the common themes of Australian brotherhood, loss of innocence in warfare, and Australia’s emergence as a world player.
I had fond memories of this movie back from my early VHS days. It was a difficult movie to find until recently or I would have rewatched it long ago. Sadly, the anticipation was not rewarded. The movie is curiously flat. It does not flow well, possibly due to poor editing. The acting is tepid and there is little character development which is puzzling for a movie that concentrates on only five soldiers. The love story appears shoe-horned in, probably to get Ms. Thornton in. It does have its strengths. The scenery is nice and the cinematography is good, especially in the charge which includes some slo-mo and POV. The intercutting between the Australians and Turks is a nice touch although only the German leader is developed. The Australian accents are cool as is the slang.
I went into the review wondering whether “The Lighthorsemen” was on a level with “Breaker Morant” and “Gallipoli”. It most certainly is not. It will not make my 100 Best. My advice is to fast forward to the charge. It is one of the better combat scenes in war movie history.
GRADE = C