Pop Culture Item Consumed: The Lighthorsemen, a 1987 film about the Australian mounted infantry in World War I, dramatizing one of the last significant military charges, if not the last such charge, conducted on horseback. Anyone who loves movies has certain films that changed the way he or she thinks about cinema — films that caused one to discard the idea that motion pictures are mere entertainment. For me, The Lighthorsemen is among the pictures that elevated film from a pastime to something between hobby and obsession.
As an excellent World War I adventure film, The Lighthorsemen does not reach the heights of Lawrence of Arabia, but it offers a great pulp war story along with, for my money, the best horse-mounted charge ever filmed. For some inexplicable reason, The Lighthorsemen is not available on a legitimate DVD release in the United States. There’s a good DVD release in Australia, and the movie is available in the U.S. on VHS; beyond that there is only the godtopus-awful Chinese transfer sold on Amazon, a dub so bad it could single-handedly revive “Made in Hong Kong” as shorthand for poor craftsmanship.
Beverage Consumed: In my mind, accompanied by loyal commenter and my alterna-universe Pajiba spouse Smokin, we drank neat rye whiskey, with Shiner Bock behind it, at the Alamo Drafthouse on South Lamar in Austin, Texas. (In actuality, I had Wild Turkey rye whiskey alone in my living room. We’ve covered this whiskey here before with my favorite rye, Old Potrero, but Wild Turkey is an elemental expression of rye whiskey, all fire and flint with the occasional hillbilly back hair that didn’t get caught in the filter. Just think of it as the worm at the bottom of the bottle.) Smokin spent most of SXSW helping us rid Austin of the demon scourge of Jameson’s Irish, and after five days of steady work, I’m pretty sure we managed to make it all disappear.
Am I the only one who doesn’t understand how Alamo Drafthouse is not the starting template for every movie theater? For those of you who haven’t had the pleasure (and after 26 years of steady drinking, I finally did), Alamo Drafthouse is a chain of movie theaters, primarily in Austin, offering bar and food service throughout the movie. Alamo Drafthouse began as a second-run and special feature theater, with such novelties as old silent films scored by live local bands. (Wiki has a good write-up about the Drafthouse.) Over the last few years, Alamo Drafthouse has moved to largely first-run features, including many of the premieres at SXSW. But what really distinguishes the Drafthouse is its lengthy menu of comfort food — chicken-fried pork chop and mac-and-cheese, anyone? — and its long list of draft beer choices, from old favorites like Guinness and Stella Artois to obscurities such as Anchor’s Old Foghorn.
Sunday morning, Prisco, Dustin and I went there to see a horrible Heather Graham film (is that redundant outside Boogey Nights?) called ExTerminators, which was redeemed only through the heroic efforts of a wonderful hangover cure: a sandwich called “The Breakfast Club” — they’re heavy on the movie-themed puns at the Drafthouse — consisting of lettuce, tomato, and a pile of peppered bacon on sourdough bread, topped with chipotle mayo and … drumroll … a fried egg. I love this sandwich so much, I wanted to take it behind the insurance conglomerate and give it a bonus. As I suckled at Stella (sexy!), the fog and cobwebs began to clear from my head. At one point, I became so charitable that I thought Heather Graham was not the worst actor alive. The next night, it was lather, rinse, repeat, with a “Royale with Cheese” burger and draft Newcastle Brown Ale.
And now, dear reader, it is up to you. Call your Congressman. Make it happen.
Summary of Action: The narrative of The Lighthorsemen follows a farmboy, Dave (Peter Phelps), as he acclimates to life in a light horse regiment, assigned to bunk with three hardscrabble veterans, Tas (John Walton), Chiller (Tim McKenzie), and Scotty (Jon Blake). The trio initially resents Dave’s arrival as a reminder of their beloved comrade Frank (Gary Sweet), wounded in a skirmish and replaced by someone they view as a useless pup. Their suspicions increase when Dave freezes in his first firefight, unable to shoot his rifle. Yet Dave also proves his fearlessness to them, risking his life and suffering a serious injury while saving all four of their mounts during an air raid. Sent behind the lines to a field hospital, Dave meets a pretty nurse, Anne (Sigrid Thornton), who helps Dave cope with his shame. When Dave returns to the front, however, he is re-assigned as a battlefield medic, a tacit recognition of both his limitations and his courage, which Dave views as a failure. If you’ve ever seen an adventure movie before, you don’t need me to tell you that the next time Dave meets up with Tas, Chiller, and Scotty, it’s in the heat of the battlefield crucible.
On paper, The Lighthorsemen might come across as a bit cliché. There’s no shortage of tales about callow soldiers in their first harrowing combat, the shame of perceived cowardice on the battlefield, or romance blooming with angelic nurses in wartime. A number of factors redeem The Lighthorsemen from such stereotypes, however, including a backdrop that renders the story compelling because it actually happened, as well as the fine craftsmanship displayed in the making of the film.
To a great degree, The Lighthorsemen succeeds by taking likeable characters and weaving their pulpy narrative thread into a historical tapestry much larger than their personal travails. In 1917, as World War I consumed millions of civilian and military casualties, the Allied advance in Palestine stalled at Gaza as entrenched, ferocious Turkish resistance repeatedly pushed back British-led troops attempting to defeat the Ottoman forces supporting Germany. A change in British commanders brought a new strategy, however: a surprise attack by a lighter, faster force at the end of the Turkish line opposite Gaza. The Ottoman military front ran southeast from Gaza’s location on the Mediterranean to the fortress at Beersheba, an oasis of wells deep in the inhospitable desert. Getting a large military force to Beersheba without detection required quick-strike units moving rapidly through the desert without provisions or water.
That’s where the Australian light horse came in. During the late 1800s, Australia’s desert-like terrain led to extensive use of mounted infantry, meaning mobile soldiers trained to fight on foot with rifles and bayonets but transported to and from the battlefield on horseback. Australian light horse, as they were called, could remain in the field with their mounts for months at a time, reacting quickly to tactical changes without being constrained by the increasing vulnerability of mounted fighters in modern warfare. The historical advantages of cavalry attacks had disappeared in the early 1900s in the face of barbed wire and machine guns — fighting from horseback presented an easy profile for enemy target practice. In World War I, however, mounted infantry could still be useful in battles involving difficult terrain and rapid movement over long distances.
Director Simon Wincer’s realization of these boot-leather-tough soldiers is justifiably the heart of the film, and for most of its two hour running time Dave’s personal melodrama takes a backseat to the dusty, unforgiving lot of everyday enlisted men gutting out a harsh, alien existence thousands of miles from their homes in Australia. The camaraderie among Tas, Chiller and Scotty rings as true as the sun coming up, and the bone-weary rotation of heat, patrols, and camp life makes one grateful for a peacetime existence. The officers come across realistically, as well, especially untested-but-brass-testicled Colonel Murray Bourchier, who led the light horse on their journey into history. In fine Aussie tradition, the British high command is portrayed as pompous stuffed shirts who don’t understand a good weapon when it’s in their hands.
All that aside, you only need one reason to see this film: The Charge. The last quarter of the film follows the 4th and 12th regiments of the Australian lighthorsemen — about 800 mounted soldiers — as they prepare to take Beersheba, then tear ass across three miles of open ground into the fiery jaws of Turkish artillery, machine guns, and rifle trenches. By the time they reached the plain facing Beersheba, the Aussies’ horses had traveled for two days with no water, while the soldiers had only their personal canteens. Among the many moving images in The Lighthorsemen is a soldier willfully disobeying orders by sharing his water with his horse, and the devotion of the lighthorsemen to their mounts is a continual thread. Despite my having seen it a couple of dozen times, the charge is so suspenseful and exhilarating that I get a little verklempt just writing about it. The sequence must have been incredibly challenging to stage and film, with hundreds of riders participating in some shots and numerous horseback stunts interspersed as the shelling and machine gun fire rain down. (The film contains a closing disclaimer that no horses were injured or killed during filming; the Arabic extras, on the other hand ….) The battle scenes, while not to the level of realism of Saving Private Ryan, feel immediate and dangerous; if you like war movies at all, this one is well worth seeing.
The Lighthorsemen was obviously influenced heavily by other films and would not exist at all without the earlier success of 1981’s Gallipoli, about Australian infantry at the battle of Gallipoli in the same Middle Eastern conflict. The thirsty, secret march of the light horse brigades across the desert also echoes Lawrence of Arabia’s daring march across the Sinai, as well as that film’s general dissatisfaction with British management of the Allied effort. One might call The Lighthorsemen derivative in this sense, except that its events actually happened, right down to the romance between Dave and Anne and the real-life light horse soldiers depicted. If anything, the importance of Lawrence’s gambit is a bit overplayed in that film, while the light horse attack on Beersheba risked the capture or death of tens of thousands of soldiers if the charge failed.
As mentioned above, the DVD of this film is not easy to come by unless you live in Australia. Outside the U.S., there is a Region 2 DVD that should work in many countries; otherwise, you’re stuck with VHS. Somehow, the grainy VHS tape actually made it more enjoyable, like something from a time capsule.
How the Pairing Held Up: The Lighthorsemen is almost a Western, given its themes and subject matter, so rye whiskey is the perfect viewing companion. And as soon as I get my stomach lining replaced, I’ll be ready for another bacon-and-egg sangwitch.
Tastes Like: Three parts desert dust, two parts horse sweat, and two parts gritty exhilaration as we fly across the dry plain. “Delicious” would be an insult.
Overall Rating: Three out of four bayonets; Dave only uses his for peeling apples.
Ted Boynton is a dedicated sot who plans to leave his barstool to stalk Whit Stillman, now that someone has found Whit Stillman. Ted also manages to hold down a job and a wife, three hours each per day, whether they need it or not. Readers may scold, hector, admonish or taunt Ted by e-mailing him at [email protected]