The Australians make good horse movies. And why not? As in America, the horse was an essential element in exploring and settling a huge continent; it’s part of the national folklore, and the Australians, like the Americans, enjoy celebrating the horse in film.
Aside from the Man From Snowy River films, one of the better Australian horse movies was Phar Lap, the true story of a champion race horse. Now that film’s director, Simon Wincer, has chosen another true story to tell, and this time it’s an excuse to get dozens of thundering hoofbeats into the act.
Oh, there are some people in it too. (Though Wincer is rather less good with men than with horses.) The Lighthorsemen is based on the events leading up to a battle in Palestine in 1917, when the British were fighting the Turks for control of the crucial town of Beersheba. When the town refused to fall to the British forces, the battle culminated, as does the film, in an incredible dash, by an elite group of Australian cavalry called the Lighthorsemen, straight into enemy fire across four miles of unprotected desert.
In many ways the entire film exists for this final gallop. The 90 minutes leading up to it consist of conventional war-movie action, specifically about four proud Lighthorsemen and the green recruit (Peter Phelps) they, break in. The new guy has to wrestle with the strict code of the tightly knit horsemen, as well as his unexpected inability to shoot the enemy. He also gets a romantic idyll, in the form of the nurse (Sigrid Thornton) who tends him at the Army hospital.
The most interesting part of the movie before the finale is a side plot about a British intelligence man (Anthony Andrews) who must concoct a ruse to divert the Turks from the impending attack. It’s a clever episode, and Andrews (the star of Brideshead Revisited) gives a sly performance.
The movie as a whole is a simpleminded affair, old-fashioned in the manner of Phar Lap. The final charge is stupendous action filmmaking, as a company of horses gallop at full steam across the plain, directly Into the teeth of enemy fire. The men whoop and holler and brandish their sabers; and the horses wind up stealing the show anyway.
First published in The Herald, May 8, 1988
A sad postscript to this film is that actor Jon Blake, who plays Scotty, was injured in a car accident at the end of shooting in 1986, which left him with permanent and catastrophic brain damage. He was coming on as “the next Mel Gibson,” and his family was awarded a large settlement based on the potential of his future earnings. He died in 2011.
Yes, I’m posting two Simon Wincer horse movies in a row. This movie was shot by Dean Semler, who had done The Road Warrior and would win an Oscar for Dances with Wolves. He would also return to horses – how to these things happen? – as the DP on Appaloosa and Secretariat. Lately he’s been working for Adam Sandler’s factory. The life of a cinematographer is funny.