Lighthorsemen, The (Blu-ray Review)
Release Date(s)1987 (April 6, 2022)
Studio(s)Cinecom Pictures (Umbrella Entertainment – Sunburnt Screens #20)
- Film/Program Grade: B
- Video Grade: B
- Audio Grade: B+
- Extras Grade: B+
[Editor’s Note: This is a REGION-FREE Australian Blu-ray import.]
The Lighthorsemen is an Australian film that tells the story of the Battle of Beersheba in 1917, and the crucial role played by the Australian Mounted Division’s 4th Light Horse Brigade. The Light Horse weren’t actually cavalry, but rather mounted infantry. It made some of the British officers dismiss them, but it gave them an unexpected tactical advantage in the battle. Members of the 4th and 12th Light Horse Regiments made an audaciously bold charge against entrenched Turkish forces, rifles slung across their backs and nothing more than bayonets in their hands, but they closed the gap so quickly that they were able to get inside the range of the Turkish artillery. Even the Turkish riflemen and machine gunners struggled to adjust their sites quickly enough to compensate for the speed of the Australian advance.
Screenwriter Ian Jones had become interested in the Light Horse while working on the Australian television series Matlock Police, where he had included a character who was a veteran. He did significant research into the subject, which he parlayed not just into this script, but also into three different books: The Australian Light Horse, The Legend of the Light Horse, and A Thousand Miles of Battles: The Saga of the Australian Light Horse in WWI. Director Simon Wincer, on the other hand, has had a long relationship with horses in general—he was the director of Phar Lap, and also produced The Man from Snowy River. Wincer has comfortably moved back and forth between television and feature films all throughout his career, helming horse operas like The Lonesome Dove and Quigley Down Under. He still managed to squeeze horses into other milieus, even into superhero films like The Phantom. It’s with good reason that he proudly included the following title card at the end of The Lighthorsemen:
“No horses were killed or injured during the making of this film.”
As a result, The Lighthorsemen isn’t really an actor’s film, although lead actors Gary Sweet, Jon Blake, Tim McKenzie, John Walton, and Peter Phelps all have their own rugged charms. Wincer also managed to include his Snapshot star Sigrid Thornton in a small role, and she’s always a welcome addition. Regardless, this is still a horse lover’s film, with some truly impressively staged action sequences involving scores of riders on well-trained mounts. There’s an appealingly old-fashioned quality to The Lighthorsemen; in some ways, it plays like a WWI film that could have been made during the war. That’s for good and for ill, as it’s not a particularly nuanced look at the realities of armed conflict, but Australians are justifiably proud of the Light Horse, and for good reasons. Plus, the shameful way that the British treated Australian troops had already been covered powerfully in films like Peter Weir’s Gallipoli, so a little judicious flag-waving is understandable here. As Australian historian Jonathan King has noted, “Gallipoli was a British-led defeat. Beersheba was an Australian-led victory.”
Cinematographer Dean Semler shot The Lighthorsemen on 35 mm film using Panavision Panaflex Gold cameras with Panavision C- and E-series anamorphic lenses, framed at 2.35:1 for its theatrical release. There’s no information about the master that Umbrella used for this Blu-ray version, but it appears to be an older one. It’s a little soft throughout, most likely coming from a secondary source such as an interpositive. Any optical work such as shots with on-screen titles look even softer. The opening title crawl does waver a bit, though the actual credits don’t display that issue, and there are very fleeting scratches and speckling visible at times. The colors are well-saturated—almost too much so. The flesh tones can veer reddish, with scenes lit by firelight turning orange. On the other hand, the colors in landscapes, costumes, and sets are especially vivid, with brilliant greens and reds; as a result, the landscapes are particularly dramatic. It may or may not be accurate to Semler’s original intentions, but flesh tones aside, it’s a striking look.
Audio is offered in English 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio, with optional English subtitles. The Lighthorsemen was released theatrically in Dolby Stereo, so this is a four-channel mix matrixed into two. When properly decoded, it’s an immersive mix, with active surround envelopment. Horses and vehicles pan in and out of the surrounds, and the sounds of gunfire and artillery are heard all throughout the soundstage. The memorable score by Mario Millo sounds expansive here. The bass isn’t very deep, which detrimentally affects the sense of dynamic impact, but it’s still a nice mix overall.
Umbrella Entertainment’s Region-Free Blu-ray release of The Lighthorsemen is #20 in their Sunburnt Screens line. The insert is reversible, with the flip side omitting the mandatory Australian “PG” classification from the front cover artwork, and also substituting the theatrical poster art for the back cover blurb. The extras are mostly new to this edition, with only the commentary track having been ported over from Umbrella’s previous 2011 Blu-ray release:
- Audio Commentary with Simon Wincer
- Interview with Producer Antony I. Ginnane (HD – 20:44)
- Interview with Simon Wincer (HD – 20:24)
- Interview with Mario Millo (HD – 18:11)
- Deleted Scenes (Upscaled HD – 15 in all – 30:13)
- Production Gallery (HD – 36 in all – 3:02)
- Theatrical Trailer (Upscaled HD – :56)
Wincer is a pretty laid-back commentator, but he has plenty of interesting information to share. He offers details about the shooting locations, the cinematography, the training that the actors underwent, and more. The entire film was shot in Australia, and while that should have easily provided the necessary desert settings, it ended up being one of the wettest years on record. Another challenge was that all of the hardware, from tanks to artillery, had to be built from scratch for the film. Wincer also points out a rather mind-blowing fact: Anthony Hawkins, who played General Edmund Allenby, was the cousin of Jack Hawkins, who played Allenby in Lawrence of Arabia. Wincer does describe some of the action occasionally, and has a few moments of silence, but it’s still a valuable commentary for fans of the film.
Antony I. Ginnane opens his interview by explaining the complicated way that The Lighthorsemen was financed, and how the whole project was put together. He also provides insight into the state of the Australian film industry at that time, and pays tribute to Jon Blake, who was injured in a car accident after the last day of shooting, suffering career-ending brain damage. In Simon Wincer’s interview, he talks about his relationship with writer Ian Jones, and how the two of them became interested in the Light Horse on the set of Matlock Police. Wincer gives more details about the actual shooting of The Lighthorsemen, including the casting, and also pays tribute to Blake. Wincer finally got to visit the real Beersheba while shooting an episode of The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles, and he shares his thoughts about the differences and the similarities to the sets that they had built for The Lighthorsemen. Mario Millo’s interview features him talking about the process of writing, orchestrating, and recording the score, which he says was the biggest that he had worked on up to that point. He also shares how his father’s death impacted the emotions of the music that he was writing at the time. This is the only interview that was conducted via Zoom, and it does break up at a couple of points, but it’s otherwise clear.
The Deleted Scenes can be played individually, or as a group. Six of them are actually deleted scenes, while seven are scene extensions, with one alternate take and another collection of snippets included as well. There’s nothing essential here, and some of the dialogue is even more on-the-nose than what’s in the final cut, but it’s still a nice glimpse of the way that films are shaped during the editing process. The Production Gallery includes conceptual artwork, storyboards, and promotional material such as pressbook excerpts.
The Lighthorsemen was a quintessentially Australian production, from conception to execution, covering a specific element of Australian history that had been neglected in international films about WWI. Even in its native country, it was the first feature film on the subject since 1940’s 40,000 Horsemen. That fact alone makes it notable, and it provides an important reminder that some kinds of heroism can be overlooked in the annals of history, especially when it doesn’t involve any of the major powers. It’s nice that Umbrella has given The Lighthorsemen the deluxe treatment on Blu-ray, and the disc is well-worth the purchase for fans of the film, or those who are curious about the period.
- Stephen Bjork
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