Australian’s at War; ‘Kokoda’ and ‘Beneath Hill 60’

18 May


“You’re not even real soldiers are you?” – Conventions of the [Australia] War Film Genre


According to Albert Moran and Errol Vieth (2006), the French term ‘genre’ is used in the English language ‘as an immediate way to designate a film kind or type’ (p.1). Each genre then has specific conventions which make it unique and recognisable, including narrative structure, content, settings, themes, period, and characterisations (RNS Blogspot, 2008). This creates expectations among audiences (McMahon and Quin:1990, p.35). The following response will compare two recent Australia Films that fall under the genre of ‘War’; Kokoda (Grierson, 2006) and Beneath Hill 60 (Sims, 2010). I have chosen to compare and analyse; one, how these two films fulfil the expectations of a war film through the genre’s identifiable narrative structure and two, how each film represents Australianness and promotes qualities that define an Australian national identity through characterisation(s).

Kokoda and Beneath Hill 60 are two of Australia’s more recent war films that make up only a handful of Australian war films ever made. This is surprising considering Australia’s history is rich with military engagements, crucial battles and legendary wartime characters (Williams, 2010). Both Kokoda and Beneath Hill 60 are dramatisations of real war situations and incidents of Australian participation in each of the World Wars.

War films are concerned with warfare, are usually about naval, air or land battles, and can be fiction or based on true events. Moran and Vieth (2006) identify war films as a well-defined subgenre of the action-adventure genre (p.17).  They note the following as an identifiable plot structure of the war film subgenre;

“…the survival narrative, focuses on a small band in an extreme situation of distress and danger…To escape from this peril and to reach safety, the group must embark on a journey that is also an ordeal of endurance, suffering and courage…the journey and the task thrown up many different challenges and dangers and very often members of the ensemble are struck down and fail to survive.” (Moran and Vieth, 2006, p.17).

Kokoda is based on the bitter battle fought between Australian and Japanese soldiers on the Kokoda Track in Papua New Guinea in World War II. Under dire conditions and against the odds, the courage, strength and sacrifice of Australian soldiers on the Kokoda Track inevitably stopped the approaching Japanese army invading Australia. The film centres on a fictional patrol of Australian volunteer soldiers who become lost and get cut off from the Kokoda Track. This group must journey to regroup with fellow soldiers whilst battling with the Track’s infamous conditions; rugged and isolated terrain, humid days and tropical diseases; a seemingly strong and invisible enemy and malfunctioning equipment. The Australian soldiers are challenged both physically and mentally by what they have to endure and witness. It then becomes a film of survival, focusing on the soldiers as individuals and as a group, rather than the war itself. While many of the group are killed during their journey, three survive against the odds, through pure luck, strength, courage, sacrifice and mateship.  

Beneath Hill 60 tells the little-known true story of the 1st Australian mining battalion, a group of civilian miners from around Australia sent to the Western Front to dig under enemy lines in World War I. The miners, who are barely trained as soldiers and poorly equipped with scant regard for military etiquette, struggle through adversity and the horrors of war. They are challenged mentally and physically when it becomes their duty to dig and defend a leaking maze of interweaving tunnels, deep beneath German lines on the Messines Ridge in Belgium, packed with enough high explosives to break the German stronghold at Hill 60. They are constantly in dangerous situations when underground, digging through wet sand and blue clay with little resources to strengthen mine walls, experiencing cave-ins and low levels of oxygen, and are at continual threat from German tunnelers. Although a forgotten episode in Australia’s military history, the battle at Messines Ridge was one of the most successful in the Allied Campaign. Nonetheless, there are significant human causalities and loss to the mining battalion.

Although Kokoda and Beneath Hill 60 differ in situation and context, they are films that centre on Australians at war with a specific focus on the physical and mental impact of war. Due to this focus, both films present a strong human resonance. Soldiers are removed from combat in a sense through dialogue, letters from home and visual flashbacks of home life (FilmReferenceWebsite), allowing the audience to get to know the soldiers as fellow human beings. They become someone’s husband, father, son or brother. Aussie humour and larrikinism also breaks the tension of narrative in both films. We see ideal ‘Australian’ themes and qualities embodied by characters emerge under fire and in dire conditions through this focus on humanisation.

Themes that are common to Australian films include mateship, endurance, sacrifice, camaraderie, courage, the underdog and a healthy anti-authoritarianism. These qualities, common to the Anzac Myth, have come to define an Australian national identity. In this sense, Kokoda and Beneath Hill 60 promote and celebrate Australianness through their characters.

The [Australian] war film genre produces archetypal characters that are present in both films. These include; the often hated [British] authority figure (K: AIF Lieutenant, BH60: Lieutenant Robert Clayton [Leon Ford]), the young and naïve soldier (Johnno [Tom Budge], Frank Tiffin [Harrison Gilbertson]), the not-so-confident but eventually respected leader (Jack Scholt [Jack Finsterer], Captain Oliver Woodward [Brendan Cowell]), the blood-related soldiers (Brothers; Jack & Max Scholt [Simon Stone], Father & Son [Alan Dukes & Alex Thompson]) and the ‘sacrificer’ (Bluey [Christopher Baker], Streaky [Mark Coles Smith]). These characters all, except the [often British] authority figure, embody Australian qualities that celebrate what it means to be Australia. Mateship in both films ultimately drives the courage and endurance of characters, allowing some to survive the atrocities of war.

Therefore, it can be concluded from the comparison and analysis above that Australia War Films, such as Kokoda (Grierson, 2006) and Beneath Hill 60 (Sims, 2010), fulfil the conventions of the war film genre. Both films focus on the mental and physical impact of war on soldiers, with narrative structure, content, characterisation and representation of ‘Australianness’ common to both films discussed.

By: Megan Walford, z3291268

Word Count; 998


Anon., ‘Defining the War Film’, Film Reference (Website), <> Accessed 11 May 2011

McMahon, B and Quin, R 1990, Australian Images, Science Press, Marrickville (NSW).

Moran, A., and Vieth, E., 2006, Film in Australia: An Introduction, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

RNS (BlogAuthor), 2008, ‘Understanding Film Genre’, in Understanding Media (Blog), 6 Oct 2008, <> Accessed 9 May 2011

Williams, E., 2010, ‘Beneath Hill 60: Deep and Meaningful’, The Australian (Online), April 17, 2010 <> Accessed 11 May 2011

Filmography (See Trailers below):

Kokoda, (Alister Grierson, 2006)

Beneath Hill 60, (Jeremy Sims, 2010)

Kokoda (Alister Grierson, 2006)

Beneath Hill 60 (Jeremy Sims, 2010)

FUN FACT!: Australia Actor, Steve Le Marquand, is in both Kokoda (‘Sam’) and Beneath Hill 60 (Sergeant Bill Fraser) !!


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