Chunuk Bair, directed by Leon Narbey, Phillip Mann

The events that occurred on and about Chunuk Bair, a remote hill on the Gallipoli peninsula, on 7 and 8 August 1915, have been widely celebrated, at least in Australia and New Zealand, where they have achieved something of the status of myth. For the Anzac countries, the Gallipoli campaign with its attendant suffering can stand for a coming of age of their societies, for a new independence of mind, for a departure, in spirit if not in fact, from a subservient status and for a celebration of the grit and gristle which characterize the All Blacks and the Wallabies at their best. Among recent works we can list the Australian film Gallipoli, the various TV documentaries in which the survivors tell their stories, Maurice Shadbolt’s play Once on Chunuk Bair, the publication of major historical evaluations such as Chris Pugsley’s Gallipoli and even the dedication of a special section of the War Museum at Waiouru. And now we have Chunuk Bair.

The film derives from the Shadbolt work and is a mixture of dialogue from the play and new scenes specially created. These explain the background to the action and allow us to meet some influential bunglers such as Brigadier Johnston.

The film Chunuk Bair involves me in contradiction for I both liked it and distrusted parts of it. In its later scenes, it achieves an elegiac beauty characteristic of the best and most thoughtful of films about the war. I found satisfying the final tragic images, whether filled with irony – Holy praying while fixing his bayonet, or pathos – Porky nearly cracking up and needing Smiler to comfort him, or depicting in a general way the plight of men in extremis, pushed to a point of simplicity as death becomes inevitable. Only their courage and a dry-eyed acceptance of their fate make the futility bearable. It is those qualities which reveal the full tragic waste of human resources and potential.

However, the satisfaction I might feel at some of the images cannot hide some significant lapses in construction. I am uneasy about the director’s grasp on his subject. Unlike Gallipoli in which the intention was clearly to make a documentary re-enactment emphasizing the magnitude of the slaughter, Chunuk Bair seems to have several subjects but none of them decisive. At times it offers a quasi-documentary exposition of the soldier’s plight, at others it provides a psychological study of leadership. This entire question is complicated by the film’s relationship to the play. Was it the director’s intention simply to make an adaptation of Shadbolt’s play? If so, I found it’s anti-imperialist satire and indeed much of its anger and comedy muted. To give but one example, it was not made as clear as it might have been that the final explosion which destroyed the men on Chunuk Bair came from the shells fired by the British gun boat.

The decision to film much of the material in the studio has determined its style. Studio work, with its control of lighting and set, is intrinsically more ‘stagey’ than location work and while this is neither a virtue nor a defect in itself, in the case of Chunuk Bair, the studio material does not mesh easily with the scenes shot out of doors. Overall I found the studio scenes preferable for in these a consistent world was created, one not quite real and which matched the unreality of the soldier’s situation. Here the camera could probe and reveal individuals even if it could not provide wide shots which documentary realism requires. Perhaps the virtues of studio work should have been explored more, allowing us to move like ghosts through the warrior’s camp, unseen witnesses.

The directing of some of the characters and Sgt Frank in particular causes concern. in the play Sgt Frank is a socialist by conviction but who also happens to be a superb killer and natural leader of men. In the film this character, apart from having his language cleaned up, was played with a gentleness, almost sadness, which muted the savagery. I am not disputing there is a certain quiet sadness about Frank, but for the balance of the film I would have liked to see more of Frank the ruthless killer, Frank the efficient, Frank the deeply angry, Frank the impertinent. We need his ferocity. One consequence of its absence was that the final scene when he marches down the hill with the bent bayonet in his hand seemed inconsequential rather than filled with murderous intent. Overall, the character of Frank was never bedded into the film with quite the same confidence as (say) Smiler, or Porky or Connolly.

Finally, a comment on Kevin Wilson as Connolly. Just as it is his philosophy concerning the significance of Chunuk Bair that drives the ideology, so it was Kevin Wilson’s performance that knitted the others. He had command of the film and that of the soldiers. It is his face that is etched most clearly on one’s memory at the film’s end.

 

Phillip Mann, a notable writer of science fiction, is also well known as a theatre director.

 

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