The Greatest Explosion the World Had Ever Known

The horrors of WWI have been depicted in an abundance of films over the last many years. We have all seen films showing the senseless death and destruction that took place down in the trenches and above in no man’s land, but have you ever given a thought to the battle that waged beneath? This week, I’ll be reviewing the Australian film “Beneath Hill 60”, a true story of bravery that, unfortunately, is not widely known.

Brendan Cowell as Oliver Woodward in the underground tunnels

Jeremy Sims’ “Beneath Hill 60” tells the story of the Queensland miner, Oliver Woodward (Brendan Cowell), as he finds himself on the Western Front leading the 1st Australian Tunnelling Company, a group of Aussie miners. Their job is to tunnel deep below the German trenches, fill the tunnels with explosives, and set off the greatest explosion the world had ever known. An explosion so large that it was heard across the Channel in London.

The claustrophobic tunnels

The film begins beneath the trenches of France, where Woodward has only just arrived. Here, both the Germans and the Allied forces are attempting to use underground mining to their advantage. Woodward’s men are kept stationed throughout the underground labyrinth, stethoscopes in ears, listening for the advancing German diggers. After successfully deterring the Germans, Woodward and his men are promoted to the tunnels of the dreaded Hill 60 in the area of Ypres, Belgium. This series of tunnels is unlike those the men have already faced. The tunnels extend to 25–30 m (80–120 feet) underground, and were cut through layers of blue clay that was surrounded by areas of quicksand. The tunnels of Hill 60 are part of a much larger series of shafts and galleries that contain over 450,000 kg (990000 lbs) of explosives, with the plan of detonating 21 mines beneath the German bunker. It becomes a race against the clock, as the German miners begin to suspect the Allies’ activity.

The trenches

For an Australian war film, this movie is quite impressive. I do not mean to sound condescending to our local industry, more to say that “Beneath Hill 60” achieved a lot with the small budget that most Aussie films work with. War movies are a costly enterprise, and it is not easy to recreate the expansive battle grounds. As much of the action in this film takes place in muddy trenches and in the narrow tunnels beneath the surface, Sims was able to capture the atmosphere of the war, without having to worry about large battle scenes. The film contains a host of Aussie talent, however, not many of whom have made careers for themselves internationally. The acting of all the soldiers is faultless, especially Brendan Cowell as Woodward. The movie is cut with flashbacks to life just before the war, and we are shown Woodward courting his sweetheart, Marjorie (Bella Heathcote). Here is the only criticism I have for the movie, and it is simply that I find Heathcote’s acting slightly unconvincing.

Bella Heathcote as Marjorie

This film contains some well-crafted and quite moving scenes, including a football game in no man’s land after an early victory against the Germans. What I really like about this film is that it does not glorify these events. It portrays them simply as fact. The opposing Germans are not a faceless enemy, but rather a group of men fighting just as hard to survive. Likewise, Woodward, who did receive a Military Cross for his actions, is not the faultless hero. He was just a miner who had to make some tough decisions that would have stayed with him for the rest of his life.

A football game in the muddy no man's land

Beneath Hill 60 (2010)

Directed by: Jeremy Sims

Stars: Brendan Cowell, Gyton Grantley and Bella Heathcote

Distributed by: Paramount Pictures

Running time: 117 min

Em’s rating: 3/5