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Written by Matthew Pejkovic

Australia’s most significant military moment came at the loss of countless lives and enriched itself into the national psyche, when the WW1 battle of Gallipoli saw the ANZAC’s (Australian and New Zealand Army Corps) mowed down by a deluge of machine gunfire.

It is an event that still holds an important significance to the modern Aussie, with April 25th marking Anzac Day, where the nation stops and pays tribute to the heroism and sacrifice made during that bloody and disastrous conflict, and every other war that followed.  

Yet in an ironic twist, the mantra of “Lest we forget” has sadly not applied to the moments after Gallipoli, where a small battalion of Australian troops played a significant part in one of the most influential moments in the history of warfare.

A new film, Beneath Hill 60, looks to educate Australian and international audiences to just what happened on the 7th of June, 1917, in the Battle of Messines Ridge.

“I knew absolutely nothing about it” says Beneath Hill 60 director Jeremy Sims. “Like most Australian’s I was brought up on Gallipoli, and I knew that we fought at various places on the western front, and got slaughtered. But that’s kind of the extent of my knowledge...It turns out that the Battle of Messines Ridge was one of the most extraordinary battles in military history, let alone the first World War. “


While the exploits of the Gallipoli conflict were depicted in Peter Weir’s stirring 1981 war drama Gallipoli, Australia’s involvement in the Battle of Messines Ridge (which produced the biggest man made explosion on record) had yet to be used as a focal point in a movie. Until now.

It was executive producer Ross Thomas who instigated the making of the film. A former Inspector of Mines for the Queensland Government, his profession brought him to the story of the 1st Australian Mining battalion and their Captain, Queensland engineer Oliver Woodward (played in the movie by Brendan Cowell).

Many years later, Ross was given Woodward’s own personal diaries by Woodward’s family, with whom he became friends. With it came the idea for a movie to be based on Woodward’s part in an important military event.

Ross brought his passion for Woodward’s exploits to Sims, who was shocked to find that Woodward’s story had not yet been turned into a movie.

“The idea of synchronizing 21 mines in a row, setting off the biggest explosion in the history of warfare, (and) once I really looked into it I was completely flabbergasted that no one had ever decided to make a film about this before....all of those British war movies that they made in the ‘50s, ‘60s, and ‘70s, that they wouldn’t have done this (film) is beyond comprehension.”

In adapting Woodward’s story to the big screen, both Sims and Ross found it important to allow creative license in order to have a film which is entertaining as well as educational.

 “We decided very early on that this would be based on a true story...somewhere between based and inspired, I think” laughed Sims.

“What we decided is we wouldn’t change at all was the hard facts of the dates and the times...for instance, the fact that the Canadians built the main Berlin Sap, and that they put all of the explosives in the chamber, and then when Woodward got there, he was just handed this kind of poison chalice, was told to look after all of those things are true...what we played with were the people in the company, the personalities.”

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Beneath Hill 60 is a film which is as much about the men who served with Woodward – directly or indirectly – as much as it is about Woodward himself.

Amalgamations of real life soldiers were created to represent these men, all of whom are portrayed by some of Australia’s most respected veteran and upcoming talent.

“They are inspired by and drawn from real people, who mostly feature in a book called ‘Somme mud’, by Edward Lynch, and was edited by Will Davis, who is the author of the accompanying book for Beneath Hill 60,” explained Underworld and Balibo star Gyton Grantley, who plays Norman “Pull Through” Morris.

“My character was not real as such, but is drawn from or inspired by real soldiers. But the most important thing is that this story is true. In the end I am playing a real person, and I’m in line with that as traditionally and respectfully as I can. But I’m performing a character on a piece of paper, a character that is in a script. So that is where I will wholly base it on.”

To make their portrayals all the more authentic, the cast delved into that time period through extensive research, more often than not finding a few surprises along the way.

“My great, great grandfather was in the Battle of Somme. I didn’t know anything about it, except for just before, when my auntie sent me his war diaries” explained Anthony Hayes, who plays Officer William McBride.

“The language of the time is not particularly gruesome. They are very well measured, old school, English type diaries. But there are things about his mate Bill getting his head blown off next to him...there one minute and the next he’s gone. And that kind of personalises it a bit, which is good to realise you have those ties... that really drives it home.”    

Bella Heathcote, who plays Woodward’s wife Marjorie, found a way to tap into her character through a different means of expression: Marjorie’s artwork.

 “Marjorie did create these amazing was later in her life, which was after the period in the film...but I found the art that she made had an amazing insight into her as well. All of these amazing indigenous figures. So I found that quite helpful, as far as how creative she was, and how she wasn’t afraid to do what made her feel good, or gave her a sort of release.”

In the central role of Woodward, Brendan Cowell seemingly had the pick of the litter with Woodward’s own diaries. Yet while they revealed a man of upmost intelligence and bravery, emotional insight was minimal at best.

The nature of the diaries weren’t ‘I was born here, and I did this and this’. They’re very scientific, and were told by the mind of an engineer. They’re about the measurements of the Berlin Sap, the measurements of the tunnels. The climate of Belgium, the climate of Germany. They types of clay, the filtration, the drainage system, the electric pumps. That’s the information that is 95% of the diaries”, explained Cowell.

“(But then) there’s 5% where you get a guy going: ‘I didn’t agree with that. So I said this, and I did this, and I felt very angry’. You’ve got to search through the diaries to find little nuggets of him. So I wasn’t kind of overwrought with this man...because we had limited resources on (Woodward), it kind of freed me up to take what his literature told me, but also take what David Roach had written, or Jeremy told me, and my own perceptions of what kind of man this guy was, and create Oliver Woodward, really.”

 “I mean I have a limited knowledge of history, and war history. I don’t know anything ...(but) the amount of reading I did in preparation, I feel like I’m pretty well versed with the First World War now. I just found it compelling, and disturbing, and really fascinating with what transpired back there. “

“I guess when I read the script, I think the filmmakers endeavoured to unearth this story about this amazing feat of Australian bravery and engineering. But I kept saying to Jeremy, ‘I just want to know what happens to your head’, when you spend all of that time in the dark, and the quiet, with Germans maybe above you or below you for eight hour shift, 3 weeks at a time. “

“I’m interested in what happens to this man, this funny little miner guy, who likes the native people, riding his horse, and when he goes over there he is put in the face of hell. What happens to a man. That was my interest. “

Brendan Cowell
"I just want to know what happens to your head, when you spend all of that time in the dark, and the quiet, with Germans maybe above you or below you for eight hour shift, 3 weeks at a time."


Adding to the research was a one week stint in boot camp for the majority of the cast.

 “We were all sent on boot camp, where we learnt all of our military bits and pieces... rifles, bayonets, uniforms, putties...we were sent out into the actual trenches for the night, where we were attacked by mortars, and machine guns... there was a gas attack, and we ate our bully beef, and boiled our tea, slept in the dirt and took shifts during the night to take watch...but I think, quite simply, is that you take a bunch of us up to Townsville away from our friends and family, and you just band together and learn each other’s personalities and traits, then the camaraderie begins” explained Gantley.

“So, yeah, just as in real life with the soldiers, the actors, and the characters, there was a camaraderie formed between all of us. And I think that fed each other. “

Hayes found the experience beneficial in his portrayal of an officer:  “We had Warrick Young, he plays Percy and he served in Afghanistan, so he kind of schooled me on things, and then he’ll let me run the show from an officer’s perspective... we actually had bombs and mortars going off while doing boot camp throughout the night, which is great! It really lends an authenticity to the film...I mean, you couldn’t spend too many nights out there. But even simple things like weapons need to look like you know how to hold your weapon, and those kind of details can really sell or break a film.”

Yet one man who did not attend was Cowell.

 I never really wanted to have that experience, because of the events that happened in the movie where I earn the respect of my troops...they all went on a boot camp for a week, and that’s when I was shooting all of the flashback stuff. So they all bonded...they all had jokes and names for each other, and hilarious stories.”

“When I arrived for those scenes where I say: ‘I’m your new commanding officer’, I never hung out with them, and they were all a group. And Jeremy kind of intended it to be that way, and I don’t see Woodward as one of the boys. I don’t think he is one of those guys who gets on the piss and has a’s not him. He’s a man who kind of separates himself from the group. He’s the guy you want when you want the job done. He’s an engineer, he’s a scientist. He’s a thinker, and he’s a little more educated and he earns the respect of the group by what he does, not by what he says.”

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With the cast prepared and in combat mode, production began in the Queensland city of Townsville, with production designer Clayton Jauncey transforming the films locations and sets into the muddy battlefields and claustrophobic tunnels of Messines, Belgium, circa 1917.

Explained Gantley:To watch the movie you just wouldn’t believe that it was shot in Townsville. The art department did the most incredible job.”

“It was brutal mate!” exclaims Cowell. “If we were indoors we were in a tunnel, but it was 4 foot high. If we were outside, we were under a rain machine getting pounded, or swimming through mud and corpses.”

 “The sets were so real. Clayton Jauncey, he’s a fucking genius! It was so hot and so difficult, that it really helped with the performance, because I knew my character, I knew what the stakes were, and I knew the scenario. So you basically enter the location, enter the scenario, and it’s all there for you. So it’s kind of a blessing, in a lot of ways. How real everything was, and how cruel everything was.”

The worst bit is when you are in your civilians clothes, and you rock up there, and the first thing is the pain in the arse of getting into all of that costume” further reiterates Hayes. “That gear...the shoes that you’re wearing are actual boots from that era, so they don’t have good soles on them.”

“You have a bit of breakfast, and you either dive into the muddy trenches for 16 hours, or go underground. Where we hot most of the stuff was in the trenches, which look amazing. They really did a great job on that. Just incredible.”   

Yet in spite of the harsh conditions of the shoot, Gayton is keen to remind of that there experience pales to the real thing:

“We got to go home and have a shower and have a hot meal, while these men did it every day for years. We could not have the tiniest comprehension of that would have been like.”

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When I tell Sims that I beleived Benath Hill 60 marked the return of the great war epic, it is an opinion that makes him smile: “That is exactly what I wanted the audience to feel like.”

A thrilling scene which involves Woodward and his men in a stealth mission during the dead of night speaks volumes the hard work put into the production.

Sims breaks down the anatomy of the scene, and how he prepared his and crew for the difficult shoot:

“The sequence where they go and blow up the Red House and come back again, that took four nights to shoot. I would get all of the cast down first, once they have been to make-up, and then I would block through the scene that we were gonna do that day, and then we would work with the actors.

I think a lot of people in the crew were fairly shocked, because I very early on knew that when the actors were rehearsing, I didn’t want the rest of the crew to kind of hang in there waiting... So I will tell everyone to go and have a cup of tea, to have a lie down, you got 40 min off. Go and do whatever you need to do. I don’t mind.

Then I would have 40 min with the actors, and we would work on that scene, get the mood and the tone, all of those things in the right area. Then I would invite the heads of each department back to watch the action, and we would talk amongst ourselves about how we might solve various issues.

Then the rest of the crew would come back, and we would play the scene one more time, and tell them what we wanted to do. Then we’d start shooting. There was an initial concern that would make the day too long, it would be too difficult. But of course my instinct was right. It in fact made things much quicker, because we ended up shooting just what we needed, we knew how to shoot it, we didn’t end up changing plans, or fucking around, or any of that stuff.”

Jeremy Sims
“Really, all I wanted to reveal to people, is that (Woodward) was broken. And no matter what, whether it was good, bad, or indifferent, he was effected by this and would never be the same again."


As well as being an important film in terms of its historic value, Beneath Hill 60 also proves that the Australian Film Industry has what it takes to create big scale genre spectacle to rival its international competition, a feat which will hopefully see patrons lining buying tickets at the multiplexes as well as the independent cinema chains.

Hayes, himself a filmmaker, agrees that the local industry needs to get the balance right between big scale films and more intimate projects.

“(Jeremy) Sims wouldn’t have been able to make this film, had he not made Last Train to Freno, and I think that’s the stepping stone that a lot of people seem to forget. You’re not gonna roll in as a first time director and get $10 million to make your first film. No one will trust you with it.”

“I think it’s fantastic that now with the tax rebate, we are able to make bigger film. A lot of our ideas are  stunted in the genesis process by saying ‘We’re never gonna be able to afford it’. So I think there is a culture in Australia where ideas just get smaller, and smaller, and smaller, because that is what your budget is gonna be. Whether it is intentional that you think that way...I think we do. But now I think we are starting to believe that we can make these films on a bigger budget. We can attract private investors....but this one is great. It’s a war movie, and people quite like them.”    

It is an opinion Heathcoate agrees with, yet she does stress one key obstacle.

It’s all well and good to say that we need to release big films, but where is the funding coming from? I think it is more important to focus on great stories, and hopefully if the story is great then people will want to see it, and more people will get excited about it. That is why our film is so great, because it is a big scale war film, but it’s also a great story.”

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Although it does share many virtues with the epic war film of old, Sims is careful to point out that Beneath Hill 60 is not a film which glorifies war in any way.

“Certainly there is no appetite for that. And I don’t think (the audience) want to see anything that is particularly jingoistic either. I think my whole time with this was to tell an honest story, and I wanted it to look like a classic, old fashioned, war movie. So the music cues are old fashioned, and the feel of it is old fashioned.”

What Beneath Hill 60 does bring home is how the choices Woodward made during the act of war brought about unforeseen consequences for his mind and soul, leaving him a broken man inside.

It is a point that Cowell agrees with.

“True to history, all we know is that he did that to the enemy...but in that same sacrifice, he became a murderer. A mass murderer. And that decision will define him for the rest of his life.

“Not a day will go by when he won’t think about what he did. Every time he meets a German for the next 40-50 years of his life, or the grandchild of someone who was there, he will be that guy, you know? And he’s not a murderer, he’s not an evil man. He’s a miner, with this incredible determination and skill. So he was kind of forced into this decision.”

Explains Sims: “Really, all I wanted to reveal to people, is that he was broken. And no matter what, whether it was good, bad, or indifferent, he was effected by this and would never be the same again.”

Beneath Hill 60 will be released on the 15th of April through Paramount Pictures Australia


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