revisiting Forty Thousand Horsemen

I recently watched one of the greats of Australian cinema, Charles Chauvel’s 1940 wartime adventure Forty Thousand Horsemen. Of course like every Australian I’d seen it before (it used to get screened every Anzac Day on Australian television). It was interesting to look at it today from a slightly different political perspective.

The movie tells the story of the exploits of the Australian Light Horse Brigades in the campaigns against the Ottoman Empire in Palestine and Mesopotamia in the First World War.

It’s a wartime propaganda movie and the propaganda isn’t exactly subtle. The propaganda is however quite interesting. The intention was clearly to drum up support for Australia’s involvement in the Second World War. As you would expect there’s a hysterically anti-German tone. What’s more surprising is that the Ottoman Turks (the people we were actually fighting in these campaigns) are portrayed very sympathetically indeed – they are shown as brave and honourable men doing their duty. The Arabs are portrayed sympathetically as well.

Which of course is fair enough – I doubt if even the most jingoistic Australians had actually hated the Turks in the First World War. My grandfather fought them and he certainly didn’t hate them. In fact most Australians must have been somewhat bewildered to find that we were at war with the Ottoman Empire, a state that would not have ranked very high on a list of potential threats to Australia’s security. In fact it’s difficult to think of any major power that would have been less of a threat to us.

The French come out of it well also. Oddly enough the British are largely ignored, apart from one scene in which Australian soldiers cheerfully loot the baggage of a senior British officer! It’s interesting that the movie makes no attempt to whip up pro-British fervour. That might not be so surprising. Again I can cite my grandfather’s views – he felt no bitterness towards the Germans and Turks against whom he fought but he sure did hate our British allies. The makers of the movie may have felt it to be a safer choice to concentrate on the dastardliness of the Germans and to ignore the British altogether. It’s easy to assume that Australians in 1940 were intensely pro-British but perhaps this is not quite so true after all. There are times when the past turns out to be not quite the way we always thought it was.

Apart from all this and whatever one thinks of war movies Forty Thousand Horsemen is still an exciting and fairly well-made example of the breed.

A fuller review of this movie can be found on my movie blog here.


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