Why David Stratton didn’t dig Beneath Hill 60

by on April 15, 2010

in Film analysis, Story structure

Brendan Cowell and Gyton Grantley in Beneath Hill 60

Beneath Hill 60 is a decent film but it “didn’t connect” with ABC reviewer, David Stratton. We look at why, and how good basic narrative material could have been tweaked to appeal more to the eminence gris of Australian cinema – and movie-goers in general.

An Australian film that actually tries to tell a story

Firstly, the filmmakers need to be congratulated. Instead of making a grim kitchen sink drama in the grand Australian tradition, they have actually tried to tell us a story that might appeal to a broad audience. And it’s one with a lot of promise. A little known story of unheralded Australians in WW1 who tunnel under the Germans and unleash “the greatest man-made explosion the world has ever known”. That’s a marketable proposition.

And there is a lot to like about the film. The acting. The production design. The cinematography. The dry humour. It’s definitely one of the better recent Australian films. But as a cinematic story, it doesn’t fulfil its potential. Here are the changes that I think could have made a significant difference to the emotional power of the story. (Spoiler alert: obviously, don’t read on if you don’t want to find out what happens in the movie.)

A surprisingly uncinematic target

I think the film has a good title. “Beneath Hill 60” gives us some idea of what the story is about and it turns the quest into an image. We conjure up what we imagine Hill 60 might look like and that’s an important part of telling a story on film. It helps if the hero’s objective is something the audience can wrap their heads around.

Unfortunately, the Hill 60 we’re delivered in the film is an enormous disappointment and they know it. When Woodward (Brendan Cowell) looks through the viewfinder he finds it’s not so much a mountain they have to detonate but a molehill.

Clearly underwhelmed, he’s told, “What were you expecting? The Matterhorn”. I admire the humour. That’s often a great way to get yourself out of a screenwriting corner. However, it still leaves us with a quest that isn’t especially cinematic. The idea of blowing up that clump of earth isn’t going to fire the imaginations of the audience as you’d like. I’m sure the filmmakers would respond that this is a fair and honest representation of what Hill 60 looked like. So they had two means at their disposal to make the quest more cinematic.

1. Lie – which I wouldn’t have ruled out, since your primary duty is to entertain your audience not keep present a faithful historical record.

2. Emphasise the stakes – which brings me to my second concern about the film’s story.

Defining the stakes

As I will stress many times in my film courses, there are 4 basic storytelling questions:
1. What does the hero want?
2. Why do they want it?
3. What’s stopping them from getting it?
4. What’s at stake?

1. We know what the heroes want. To tunnel under Hill 60 and blow it up.

2. We know why they want it. Because Hill 60 gives the Germans a strategic advantage.

3. We know what’s going to make it hard for them to achieve their objectives. Those nasty Germans.

4. But what’s at stake? This is where the writer could really have helped us out more.

It’s not clear what the consequences will be if they don’t blow up Hill 60. In some ways, the audience is treated like the soldiers themselves. Don’t ask why it’s important. Just take our word that it’s important. That’s not good enough. If you want us to care about what you’re trying to achieve, we need to understand why it matters.

Compounding this lack of clarity around the stakes is the fact that we’re told in the coda that the Hill was reclaimed by the Germans in the following year. So it was all for nothing? That doesn’t leave me with a great feeling as I walk back into the street I have to tell you.

Having said that, the entire exercise could have been absolutely futile – like Gallipoli, for example – if the characters’ journeys had been compelling. Unfortunately, they weren’t and this brings me to what I believe is the primary failing of the screenplay.

Story without a character journey is just plot

I think there’s a perception among novice screenwriters that in the first draft you’ll write your “story” and that in later drafts you’ll address all that “girlie stuff” like character arcs and emotional engagement. I’m afraid it doesn’t really work like that.

A “story” without a character arc isn’t a story. It’s just plot. And films that are just plot are very rarely successful. Plot isn’t there for its own sake. It’s there to challenge the character and force them to grow. Because it’s through character growth you get emotional engagement. If the plot doesn’t drive character growth then we don’t ride with the characters, we just watch them. And, unfortunately, that’s what happens in Beneath Hill 60.

I don’t always agree with David Stratton but I concur with his assessment of Beneath Hill 60: “I felt removed. I just didn’t feel that I was connected with these characters”.

The Strat feels that the flashbacks to Woodward’s pre-war life back in Townsville are the problem and he’s partially right. I think it was a mistake to meet Woodward already in the war – in fact, in the tunnel – before we’d been introduced to his character in his ordinary world. But the flashbacks might have worked if they created a ground zero for the character. They don’t.

They just tell us that that he was late into the war and that he’s keen on the 16 year-old daughter of a family he knows well. Are they indicating he was a coward? No, he displays bravery very early in his war effort. So if he doesn’t lack courage, what is his character flaw? Why does he need this story to happen to him? What are you showing us he can’t do at the start of the story that he must be able to do by the time he reaches the climax of Act 3?

None of the flashbacks provide any answers to these questions. So we’re heading off on a journey with inadequate narrative provisions. No matter how intriguing you might think this tale of World War 1 tunnellers is, it’s not going to have much emotional impact on us because the story doesn’t have the personal dimension that allows it to be universal. In film terms, it’s not a story. It’s just plot.

What’s the theme?

The absence of a character arc for Woodward – or someone – is the main reason the film doesn’t pack an emotional punch and what will limit its box office appeal both here and particularly in the States. But I also finished the film not knowing what the filmmakers wanted to say. What’s the theme? War is bad? If that was the theme, the whole story needs to be shaped to dramatise that. The final scene of the group on the church steps at Woodward’s wedding feels like an after-thought.

Understanding what makes a film story great

Beneath Hill 60 seems to have the hallmarks of what we’d call a “good story”. You could imagine that guy pulling Woodward’s discarded diary out of a bin and thinking, Eureka! What a great yarn! Well, yes and no.

Yes, the exploits of this group of literal Aussie diggers are novel and interesting and contain moments of bravery, suspense, comedy and tragedy. But, in film, you need more than that for a great story.

We need to connect at the beginning with a flawed individual and ride with them as the events of the story don’t just unfold but confront us at a human level. The quest should force the hero to evolve or die and when we reach that climax in the final act ideally they’ll be faced with a choice: fall back into their old ways or take the tougher path demanded by their higher selves. Beneath Hill 60, alas, doesn’t take us on that journey. It’s a solid film. But David Stratton is right. It’s well short of a cracking yarn.

If you’d like to learn more about the shape of the classic film story, come to my next screenwriting class.

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