Forty Thousand Horsemen (1941)


Excuse me while I rant a little but Great War Films from the early 1940’s tend to have a problem or two. I’ve reviewed a couple already, Sergeant York and The Fighting 69th. Both of these films could be considered a call to arms for the USA. Funded by interventionists and laced with pro-war rhetoric, they helped turn the tide of public opinion in favour of joining the conflict. To a certain extent these films and the liberties they took with the truths of the incidents they portray, could be considered partially responsible for the deaths of thousands of young men. Men who were whipped into a fevered state of patriotic fervour, who jumped at the chance to sign up and head to war.

My film today is another in what is probably a long line of propaganda laden, ideology riddled, pro-war rush jobs that were designed to curry the favour of the populace. The particular populace I’m talking about here is Australia. I’m no expert on these things but in the stereotype loaded world in my head Australians are a pretty contrary bunch. Stick a hoighty toighty, top hatted British Gent in front of them telling them to come along and help the Motherland and they’d be chucking barbequed sangers and corked hats at him before he’d had a chance to finish his first sip of tea. The job of this film was to remind the down to earth, honest, common or garden Aussie about their place in the Commonwealth and how they fought so gallantly in the Great War to aid the British.

Thus we have ‘Forty Thousand Horsemen’. The story of the Light Horse battalions of ANZAC troops in the Great War as they fought through Mesopotamia and The Sinai. Are there larrikins? You betcha. The boys wind up and pilfer the wares of the locals with games of ‘Two Up’ and connive to pinch their donkeys. They ride these donkeys into drinking establishments where the other larrikins, fortified with cheap local grog, are lustily groping the women folk. Within seconds we are rewarded with a few rounds of ‘Waltzing Matilda’. I groan. Ten minutes in and I’ve already heard Waltzing bloody Matilda three times.

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You want stereotypes, I’ve got stereotypes for you. There are blacked up Aussies with false beards playing Arabs with Jamaican accents, there’s an Aussie girl playing a French girl who lives in a small Arabian village. Her accent is…. ‘ow yoo zay…..disserent’. It’s a bit Japanese with a hint of Welsh. There are goose stepping Germans with big headed generals who ignore every warning the local fuzzy wuzzys give them. Those Germans, they eat your babies and set fire to old peoples’ houses don’t you know. They’re evil.

I rolled my eyes on several occasions within the first few minutes and started to look around for ways to self harm. There’s a Star Wars pre amble text which talks about German warlords plundering the country, hell bent upon the conquest of Britain in the Middle East. Dear lord what have I let myself in for? The Germans are portrayed as Evil idiots and the loveable ANZAC rogues as dashing, young sons of an earnest and hardworking nation.

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The story has two paths. It follows the Light Horse as they work their way through the Middle East mispronouncing place names wherever they go. They start in ‘Mess-pot-eemya’ before moving on to ‘Si-nee-eye’. There are terrible, borderline 80’s racist accents and false beards everywhere. It’s a shocker it really is. It has a love story between a particularly dashing young Aussie chap and the Frenchie with the dodgy accent. There is also a ridiculous conceit in the pre-cursors to their relationship where she is dressed as a young arab boy. A young arab boy with a girls face, a girls voice, dressed in a blouse, with tits!

There are a few battle scenes which seem okay on the surface I suppose. Lots of horses and people running about on sand. Then I started to notice things like shells going off right next to people and them people carrying on running through the small puffs of sand that these 12lb metal canisters chockablock with explosives tended to kick up.

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I have plenty more complaints. The Aussie troops seem almost impervious to German bullets, or if they do become mortally wounded they quickly become not mortally wounded following the drinking of some water. Also our ANZAC heroes seem to keep getting lost in the steaming hot desert only to bump into each other again after walking randomly for a few hours. I could really go on about how gut wrenchingly dreadful this film is but I just can’t be arsed. It is terrible. Yes it is.  And I absolutely love it. It’s a classic ‘So bad it’s good’ film. Go watch it for yourself, even though it’s a car wreck you won’t be able to hate it, I promise. 

Next up we jump forward to 1952 for the John Ford version of ‘What Price Glory’. James Cagney in a Great War comedy drama. Last time I read those words in that order I ended up watching the terrible ‘The Fighting 69th’. Bugger.

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