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Mutiny on the Western Front (1979)

| Documentary, War
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Credited cast:
F. Birdwood ...
Himself (archive footage) (as Gen. F. Birdwood)
Bill Gammage ...
Himself - Historian
...
Himself (archive footage)
...
Himself (archive footage)
John Terraine ...
Himself - Historian
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Documentary | War

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References All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) See more »

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Thoughtful documentary, misleading title
3 November 1999 | by (Toronto, Canada) – See all my reviews

It's typical of Australians to emphasize their rebellious character, particularly when the object of that rebellion is the British Empire and the time is World War I. But a mutiny?

I was a little surprised at the entire concept myself; I was unaware of any large-scale mutiny of Australian soldiers in the Great War. Had they been involved in the hushed-up British mutiny at Étaples in the Pas de Calais in 1917, documented in the book, and later the 1986 TV production, "The Monocled Mutineer"?

Well, it all turns out to be a little bit of an anti-climax. In 1918, one hundred Diggers coming out of the line refused to turn around immediately when ordered back. They were sent to Dartmoor -- they probably would have preferred transportation to Botany Bay like their forebears -- but were pardoned by George V a few months later after the war ended.

So much for the grandiose "mutiny" of the title.

What this film really takes on is the whole story of Australians on the Western Front following the Gallipoli debacle in 1915. It's a great tale, and a great documentary.

Veterans recount their stories as they retrace their steps through France, intercut with a vast amount of specifically Australian documentary footage from the time. Poignancy, or perhaps irony, is added by contrasting the period footage with similar contemporary scenes in colour, people waving goodbye as ships pull away, tanks of 80 years ago rumbling over fields that tractors traverse today.

The behaviour of the Australian soldiers is much commented upon by a pair of historians. The Australians are boisterous. They're unruly, undisciplined. They don't think highly of a class structure, especially when it's reflected in a military chain of command. There is friction between the Australian and British troops, partly because the Aussies are so much better paid. The mere presence of Australians always leads to inflation in any French town. And the Aussies are an all-volunteer force and expect to be treated accordingly.

All of this sounds very familiar; the Canadian troops in World War I are always described in precisely this way. One point the documentary does not raise is that both Australian and Canadian (and New Zealand) soldiers were physically bigger on average than the British Tommies. Apparently, in the still agricultural Dominions, everyone was much better nourished than they would have been in the dingy, overcrowded mining and manufacturing towns of the Mother Country.

As the war progresses, the Australians evolve into "shock troops". Ditto the Canadians. It is interesting that Canada is never mentioned in this documentary given that the parallels are so strong and so clear. But it's true that Canadian First War films don't mention Australia either.

A point which was true certainly about the Canadian divisions was that German intelligence took special notice of any relocation of Canadian troops since that would signal the beginning of a new offensive. Undoubtedly the same rule must have applied to the Australian divisions, although the documentary does not say so.

In one instance, Canada and Australia part company. According to the documentary, Aussies were notorious for not taking Germans prisoner. I haven't heard that said about Canadians in the First War, although apparently it was true in Northwestern Europe in the Second. There was a particular vendetta between the Canadian Army and the SS following the massacre of some captured Canadians shortly after D-Day. (The massacre of captured Americans at Malmédy during the Battle of the Bulge is the one that got all the press however.)

Australians left their mark all over France and Belgium: Pozières, Villers-Bretonneux, the Somme, Ypres. In Villers, the village schoolhouse keeps a sign up on the wall, "N'oubliez pas l'Australie", and the locals haven't forgotten. The school choir sings "Waltzing Matilda", and you ought to hear how "jumbuck" sounds with a French accent. I was reminded of some village signs I've seen in France: Place du Canada, Ruelle du Canada, and so forth.

The Canadian National Memorial in France can be found on Vimy Ridge, officially opened in 1936 by Edward VIII, . The Australian National Memorial can be found at Villers-Bretonneux. It was opened in 1938 by George VI. I have noticed that several of the rarer scraps of information in this film also appear in Patsy Adam-Smith's book, "The Anzacs", which was published in 1978. I suspect that it was a primary source for this film, or perhaps even its primary instigation.

An item on the itinerary for every well-informed Canadian tourist in Europe is the Menin Gate which commemorates those fallen in battle at Ypres. The Australian crew goes there as well. When each evening traffic is stopped at 8 o'clock, and the Belgians play the Last Post at the Gate, they're doing it for Australians too. Aussies and Canucks cross paths again.

The film ends with poppies growing quietly in a Flanders field. They have always been unusually common there.


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