Forty Thousand Horsemen

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FORTY THOUSAND HORSEMEN thundered into theaters in Australia in late 1940, arriving in the US a year later. Made while Australian troops, as soldiers in the British Empire, were fighting Nazis in the North African desert, this large-scale propaganda rouser drummed up patriotic sentiment—and a big box-office haul—by tying the contemporaneous sacrifice to that made two decades earlier in the Middle East, again fighting Germans, again on behalf of the distant rulers of the Empire. *

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Jerusalem, 1916. On leave in Cairo (forget about the 1915 Gallipoli fiasco), the rowdy blokes of the Australian Light Horse Cavalry are called back into action against the Turks, serving as Germany’s ally in WW1. ‘Red’ (Grant Taylor), ‘Jim’ (Chips Rafferty) and ‘Larry’ (Pat Twohill) take heroic parts in several battles, and in his off-time Red finds tentative tent romance with French girl ‘Juliette’ (Betty Bryant), who for a while masquerades as a boy (not very convincingly) in order to deceive the dastardly Heinies. Eventually, the guys participate in the famous charge at the Battle of Beersheba. Now, be a mate and go sign up! Winston needs us!…

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Directed and produced by Charles Chauvel, who also co-wrote, with his wife Elsa, and novelist E.V. Timms.  Their efforts saw, if not thousands, but for sure impressive hundreds anyway of horsemen kicking up a storm amid explosions in filming at the Cronulla sand dunes in New South Wales. Adjusting pounds to dollars and factoring inflation (good bloody luck), the approximate equivalent of $2,150,000 was lavished. It  proved a major hit on home turf, made the lanky and likable Rafferty a star and was a boon to Australia’s film industry.

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Let’s be kind and say the script and acting could be better. The earnest Miss Bryant is pitiful; in step with the fight against the Nazis, the German’s are portrayed with lip-smacking villainy; the noisy action scenes are furious but daffy (the sound made by hundreds of charging horses is pretty awesome). If I’d seen this as a kid, I would’ve thought it was cool. The soundtrack plays the hell out of “Waltzing Matilda”.

100 minutes, well-photographed by George Heath and Tasmin Higgins. 20 years old in his debut, future character actor fave Michael Pate gets to play no less than three bit parts.

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* Charles Chauvel’s father served in the Light Horse and uncle, Gen. Sir Harry Chauvel, had commanded the New Zealand and Australian desert corps in Palestine in WW I.  Lest the audience wonder, Chauvel makes no bones with his Prologue: “When Germany stretched greedy hands towards the Middle East in the war or 1914-1918, a great cavalry force came into being. They were the men from Australia and New Zealand – The ANZACS – the “Mad Bushmen” – the men from “Downunder”. Call them what you will – their glories can never grow dim. They met the Germanised Army in the burning desert of Sinai. They fought and suffered to emerge triumphant – the greatest cavalry force of modern times. To these dauntless riders and their gallant horses this story is dedicated. To them with pride, their own sons are saying today“The torch you threw to us, we caught and now our hands will hold it high. It’s glorious light will never die!”   

Chauvel also introduced Errol Flynn to the movies in 1933s In The Wake Of The Bounty. Nicknamed “The Red-Cross Queen”, the film’s leading lady only did a bit more acting (just as well, considering); Betty Bryant found her calling as a humanitarian, helping start the Foundation for the Peoples of the South Pacific. Chips Rafferty became a mainstay of Australian cinema. Co-scripter E.V. Timms (who had been badly wounded in 1915 at Gallipoli) wrote 25 novels and dozens of stories. Among his screenplays was Uncivilized, a whopper from 1936, re-titled Pituri to conquer the USA; looks like a real hoot.

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