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Kokoda

dir: Alister Grierson
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For most countries, the most powerful and enduring myths they possess have to do with war. Australia is no different. I’m not using the term ‘myth’ in the pejorative sense, but in the sense that mythologising aspects of history is part of the formation of a nation’s identity.

In Australia, our war myths don’t have to do with conquering savage nations or achieving stunning victories as enemies are laid to waste. Look at our most well known military conflicts that are regularly mentioned or spoken of in respectful, blokey tones. Gallipoli, Kokoda, Long Tan, El Alamein, Tobruk: these battles have much in common, and the way they are remembered says a lot about how Australia sees itself.

These aren’t occasions where the professionalism and superior might of Australia’s fighting men is lionised. These aren’t times where people speak of the Aussie soldier’s efforts as being superhuman machines tearing through the enemy’s ranks with nothing but a stale Vegemite sandwich crust and a broken stubby as weapons.

These Australian myths of war don’t celebrate victory, glory or triumph. That wouldn’t be true blue, or dinky di. Australian soldiers, whether officers or not, long ago abandoned any pretence of adopting the haughty manner and patrician airs of the British commanders who sent many an Aussie soldier needlessly to their death. Big-noting, having tickets on themselves, that’s not their way.

No, Aussie war myths celebrate the Aussie soldier’s ability to endure. To abide. It is not their success in ending the lives of their enemies that is prized (although it is appreciated). Nor is it the superiority of their numbers, training or technology that is celebrated. It is their durability to survive virtually anything any other army can throw at them.

Kokoda is part of that mythologising process. I mean the film, not just the place. On the Kokoda Track, in the Owen Stanley mountain ranges, Aussie soldiers outlasted vastly superior Japanese numbers and ultimately played a major part in preventing the Japanese from seizing Port Moresby in 1942.

To mention that Japan’s ambitions of naval superiority in the Pacific had been dashed by both the Battle of Midway and the Battle of the Coral Sea prior to this would seem churlish. To acknowledge the fact that dysentery, malaria and starvation probably killed more Japanese soldiers than the Aussies did seems like nitpicking.

Nonetheless, it is one of these occasions that make up a part of the myth that a country wants to believe about itself. Our boys suffered, fought and survived. In the mud, amidst the death and disease, Our Boys joked, remembered their loved ones, died valiantly, but ultimately got through it all.

That’s the entire film, right there. The director, Alister Grierson, goes a long way towards reinforcing these same ideas throughout the course of the film. A group of soldiers from the 39th Battalion, nicknamed ‘chocos’ because they’re perceived as being soft, are cut off by a Japanese advance, and must try to hold their position to prevent the Japanese from ultimately capturing Port Moresby. In the film it is stated that to have allowed the Japanese to do so would have damned Australia, so they’re not just fighting for their lives, they were fighting for the nation. Regardless of whether it has anything to do with reality or not.

But this mountain fighting, hip deep in mud and half starved to death, doesn’t make for ‘epic’ film-making opportunities. This isn’t the Normandy Beach invasion from Saving Private Ryan. Nor is this The Odd Angry Shot, Australia’s attempt to show the camaraderie and absurdity of Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam war.

This is just a bunch of fairly generic guys fighting and dying in the mud. A few shots try to give us a sense of the scale of the conflict, but mostly tight shots reign, giving us a close-up, claustrophobic feel to their experiences.

These guys aren’t Aryan super-soldiers. They’re the knockabout larrikin kind of guys you’d expect to appear in an Aussie film about such a conflict. As such, despite the fact that I could tell one from the other (but not know who was talking about whom, or remember any of their names), they mostly merge into each other except for the strange main character whose blue eyes stand out in direct contrast with the blood or mud on his skin.

The guys fight valiantly, they die miserably, they shit themselves out of fear, they bloodily shit themselves because they have dysentery, and they have no higher ambition than to survive and to try to look after their mates. They have moments of levity and humour, gruffness and compassion, and at all times they shine like beacons of what people used to talk about as the essentially ‘Australian’ character before Prime Ministers bastardised the phrase ‘mateship’.

I might not have been able to tell them apart, but at the very least they acted like what we could assume were conscripted guys of the era. They’re laconic, they’re not eloquent, they swear and they whimper in their darkest moments. Some are brave, some are afraid, but mostly they just try to find a way to get through it all, and to try to look after their mates. Ambitions of conquest or delusions of grand triumphs evade the thoughts of these men entirely, they just want to survive, and if killing the enemy helps them survive, then so be it.

At first they are meant to block the tide of Japanese soldiers who outnumber them 5 to 1. They are forced to retreat, and get cut off from the rest of their force. The relentless Japanese are never glimpsed fully, almost like the shark in Jaws for most of that flick’s length. We know them from their angry words, their distinctive uniforms, and the fern fronds used as camouflage, but we never see their faces. They are a relentless, ruthless and sadistic enemy, less human and more alien.

We see them tormenting and then beheading a poor Aussie soldier. We see them showing absolutely no compassion, no mercy to their opponents. They may appear as aliens in Kokoda, but it is clear, as is not an exaggeration, that they see their Aussie enemy as beneath contempt and deserving mutilation and atrocity.

There are some ugly scenes in this flick, ugly scenes. Vicious deaths, and some pretty nasty circumstances that let us never forget the ugliness beneath the heroic myths. For this the flick should be commended. Visually and from a technical point of view, the film is also an impressive achievement.

I could not stomach a film that would stoop to glorifying war these days. I’m not sure if I could ever have tolerated it, but now more than ever, it would seem to be a degenerate act of callousness to make a war film that gloried in the deaths of anyone on whatever battlefield. When living in a time of war (which, to be honest, has been almost every year since the end of World War II), with wars ongoing, do we not prefer a film that shows the end of a conflict, rather than the messy middle?

Don’t read me wrong, I’m not implying that Kokoda goes down this track. It’s just that war films, done well, will always be amongst the most powerful films in the medium, whether the film is made by Sergei Eisenstein, Spielberg or Uwe Boll. Well, maybe not Boll. And such power sways the minds of many. Thus I approach all war films, these days, with wariness.

At just 90 minutes, the flick breezes through these difficult days, and conveys a sense of what the Aussies went through, but probably doesn’t do a sterling job of developing any characters or adequately situating the conflict in the overall scheme of things. There are also a few moments, fairly early on, of such cheesiness that it threatened to ruin whatever credibility the flick earns later on. A conversation between one of the guys and a medic sticks out as badly written, badly performed and poorly integrated in the fabric of the movie, and should have been re-thought.

For what it is, as a snapshot of one of the defining battles in Australian history (on the symbolic and not literal playing field), it is easy to forgive some of the film’s shortcomings and to applaud its risky attempts to tell an Australian war story. And whilst it doesn’t always work, it manages to horrify and entertain, and gives us a feel for the horror that these men lived through, and a sense of the spirit (they hope) that endures.

7 Japanese bayonets through the eyeball out of 10

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“Glory is not the exultation of war, but the exultation of man, nobility made transcendent in the fiery crucible of war.” – The Colonel, Kokoda.

As opposed to the actual quote:

“That glory is not of the exultation of war but the exaltation of man, the nobility of man sublimated in the fiery crucible of war, shining faithfulness and fortitude and gentleness and compassion elevated from all dross.” – Colonel Ralph Honner

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