The Lighthorsemen (1987)

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It’s the 80’s, man. Don Johnson is driving his lambo around Miami, grown men are wearing cycling shorts to the pub, mullets are THE thing, Rick Astley is Never Gonna Give You Up, Jive Bunny! You get my point, I hope. The 80’s wasn’t a decade of quality output. Big call, I know, but there you go. Money seemed to be the key and as such quality went out the window. If I focus on the films of the 80’s and particularly Great War Films the pickings are slim. Luckily, the little that is available out there is of a decent quality and for this I can mainly thank Australia.

As I’ve pointed out before, Australia was a hotbed of Great War Film production in the 1980’s as part of its general film industry resurgence from the mid/late 70’s through until about 1990. It was an era that gave the world films such as Mad Max, Crocodile Dundee and Dead Calm. There were a wide variety of genres produced in Australia during this era but looking back now over these years there is one genre that stands out as their trademark. They had the ability to knock out great Great War Films.

Starting, in 1980, with the Boer War film ‘Breaker Morant’, the tone was set for what was to come. Over the subsequent years films such as Mel Gibson’s Great War cameo ‘Gallipoli’ in 1981, ANZACS the TV series in 1985 and then finally my focus for today ‘The Lighthorsemen’ in 1987 proved that the Aussies had the talent, the writers, the locations and the money to produce some quality stuff.

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‘The Lighthorsemen’ (1987) is the story of an Australian Light Horse division at the end of the Palestine and Sinai campaigns during the latter years of the Great War. Avid readers of this blog (or Great War Film enthusiasts) might remember this as the central tenet of ’40,000 Horsemen’ (1940) and indeed they do cover most of the same ground, but this is not a remake. The similarities are due to the fact that the battles in this location were especially well documented by the various combatants and military leaders so that in years to come the actions of pretty much all the belligerents have been accurately replayed, laid out and poured over by generations of historians.

This isn’t the first time I’ve seen this film. It’s probably the third or fourth time over the years so I’m aware of the historical accuracy and the energy that has been poured into making this a document as well as a piece of entertainment. There are the obvious details of the real life characters portrayed in the film but there are also small details that have been well researched and added to the film for no other reason than because that was how it was. In the impressively large scale charge and subsequent hand to hand combat that ends the film, for instance, the horsemen are seen with bayonet in hand, this was a direct order for this particular charge and the fact that it ended up in the film, without fanfare or, indeed, any attention drawn to it is a sign of the lengths the team when to to ensure things were right.

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Having said that there are some details that have come into question in more recent years. There is a scene where an intelligence officer (the real life Richard Meinertzhagen) drops a bag with a false story that was used to draw Turkish troops away from the proposed attack at Beersheeba. This is now considered apocryphal as the only source was Meinertzhagen himself who was a famous bullshitter and self-promoter (and maybe murderer!). Still, these lapses from the reality don’t cause any issues and, indeed, add something to the story.

As an aside it is worthy of note that this was Aussie actor Jon Blake’s last film. Driving home after the final day of shooting, Jon was involved in a car crash that left him paralysed and unable to talk. Whilst externally he was unharmed except for a scratch on his cheek he suffered severe brain damage and would not act again. He was, at the time, considered to be the next Mel Gibson (hopefully without the anti-Semitic views of course) and it’s a shame that his career ended in this way.

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Back to the movie and I think it’s worth mentioning that It’s not perfect. The film has a dis-jointed feel which I think is due to the amount of stuff they’ve tried to cram in. There are un-important details that have been shoe-horned into the script for the sake of providing a fuller picture of the issues faced by the men. This is great for us Great War buffs but, for the vast majority of people who just want a story and some entertainment, it drags out the film maybe 20 minutes too long.

The camera work is solid with a bit of a ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ feel to it which must surely have been their benchmark I suppose. The fact that this was shot entirely in Australia is another nod to the skills of the production crew. The sweeping cavalry charges with hundreds of horses and riders galloping full tilt at the horizon are a treat for the eye and something I wish I could’ve experienced in real life (without the distinct possibility of imminent death though, please). The acting is solid enough with some of the cast from Gallipoli and ANZACs used to good effect. The low point is probably Jon Blake’s dodgy ’Oirish’ accent, but no biggy. There’s also a VERY homoerotic naked bareback ‘horse-riding through the surf’ scene which stands out like a sore thumb.

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So ‘The Lighthorsemen’ is a well put together film with experienced actors, writers and crew who have all pulled together to produce a well researched, historically accurate and above all entertaining feature. It does have its faults (don’t we all) but ultimately it’s a good un and a fine curtain call for Jon Blake. Clicky Clicky here to grab yourself a copy.

Next up we’re into the 90’s and I’ve decided on another film I’ve seen before (and liked) ‘Regeneration’ (1997). The story of Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon at Craiglockhart Hospital. I’m looking forward to this one.

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