The Lighthorsemen is a 1987 Australian war film about the men of a World War I light horse unit involved in Sinai and Palestine Campaign’s 1917 Battle of Beersheeba. The film is based on a true story and most of the characters in the film were based on real people (Elyne Mitchell wrote the novelisation based on the screenplay).
It follows in the wake of other Australian New Wave war films such as Breaker Morant (1980), Gallipoli (1981), and the 5-part TV series ANZACS (1985). Recurring themes of these films include the Australian identity, such as mateship and larrikinism, the loss of innocence in war, and also the continued coming of age of the Australian nation and its soldiers (the ANZAC spirit).
The film follows four Australian cavalrymen (Frank, Scotty, Chiller, and Tas) in Palestine in 1917, part of the 4th Light Horse Brigade of the British and Commonwealth forces. When Frank is wounded and dies of his wounds, he is replaced by Dave. Dave finds himself unable to fire his weapon in combat and is transferred to the Medical Corps, where he will not need to carry a weapon, but where he will still be exposed to the fighting.
The British plan the capture of Beersheba. During an attack by Turkish cavalry, Major Richard Meinertzhagen deliberately leaves behind documents indicating that the attack on Beersheba will only be a diversion. The Australians leave for Beersheba, with limited water and supplies. They bombard the town and the 4,000 Turkish-German defenders prepare for an assault. However, the German military advisor, Reichert, believes it is a diversionary attack and advises the Turkish commander he does not need reinforcements. With time running out and water in short supply, the British command suspect any attack upon Beersheba will probably fail. However, the Australian commanders ask the British to send in the Australian Light Horse – the British consent to what they think is a suicide mission.
On 31 October, the 4th and 12th Light Horse Regiments are ordered to attack the Turks. Dave and the rest of the medical detachment prepare for casualties and are ordered in behind the Light Horse. The Turks report the Australian mounted soldiers lining up to charge, however the officer in charge orders the Turks not to open fire until they dismount. The Australians begin advancing on the Turkish positions, gradually speeding up to a charge. The Turks realise too late that the soldiers are not dismounting and open fire. Artillery fire is sporadic and of limited effect and the attack so fast the Turkish infantry forget to adjust the sights on their rifles as the Light Horse get closer, eventually firing straight over the Australians’ heads.
During the charge, Tas is killed by an artillery shell. The remaining Australians make it “under the guns” (advancing faster than the artillery can correct its aim for the reduced range) and reach the Turkish trenches. The Australians subsequently capture the first line of Turkish defences. Scotty and a few others take control of the guns. Chiller is wounded in the trench fight. Dave is struck by a grenade and is seriously wounded while protecting Chiller. Scotty continues to fight on into the town. When most of the remaining Turkish soldiers surrender, Reichert tries to destroy the wells, but is captured by Scotty. Overall, the attack was a success and the Australians miraculously suffered only 31 dead and 36 wounded. This effectively opened the ‘door’ and allowed for the subsequent capture of Jerusalem and the rest of the country. General Allenby, in deference to the Holy City, walked into the city, coming as a liberator not a conqueror.
- Jon Blake as Scotty.
- Peter Phelps as Dave.
- Tony Bonner as Bourchier.
- Bill Kerr as Chauvel.
- John Walton as Tas.
- Gary Sweet as Frank.
- Tim McKenzie as Chiller.
- Shane Briant as Reichert.
- Serge Lazareff as Rankin.
- Sigrid Thornton as Anne.
- Anthony Andrews as Meinertzhagen.
- Ralph Cotterill as Friedrich Kress von Kressenstein.
- Anthony Hawkins as Allenby.
- Gerard Kennedy as Ismet Bey.
The script was written by Ian Jones, who had long been interested in the Australian Light Horse ever since they featured in an episode of Matlock Police in 1971. He visited Beersheba in 1979 and had carefully researched the period. Simon Wincer came on board as director and he succeeded in helping secure a $6 million pre sale to RKO. Antony I. Ginnane’s Film and General Holdings Company succeeded in raising the rest of the money. Simon Wincer later claimed that Ginanne, Ian Jones and himself had to put in their own money at some stage when the film looked like falling over. Well known Australian cinematographer Dean Semler was also brought in.
Despite being set in Palestine and Egypt, the film was shot entirely on location in Victoria and Hawker, South Australia. After the final day of filming had wrapped on 01 December 1986, actor Jon Blake was injured in a car accident near Nectar Brook, South Australia. He suffered permanent paralysis and brain damage.
The musical score was composed by Mario Millo. The original soundtrack recording was produced for compact disc release courtesy of Antony I Ginnane by Philip Powers and Mario Millo for Australian distribution in Australia by 1M1 Records and as a coupling with Shame on LP in the US. The movie was re-cut to a shorter length for the US release, which Wincer thought made the second half better, although he did not like the opening as much.
The film received mixed reviews from critics.
The film grossed A$1,617,288 in Australia after its release in 1987which is equivalent to 8.25 million in 2009 dollars. It was also released in Canada, Sweden, the United Kingdom, and the United States in 1988. It was considered a commercial disappointment, yet Wincer claims its pre-sales and television sales were about $6 million or 60% of the budget.
The film won an AFI award in 1988 for Best Original Music Score and another for Best Achievement in Sound. It was also nominated for Best Achievement in Cinematography.
The Lighthorsemen is included in the Australian Film Commission’s Top Australian films at the Australian box office list at number 83.
The German Empire flag on General Kressenstein’s car features a band of red above a band of white, above a band of black; in reality, the colours were ordered black-white-red. Similarly, the Australian flag – known at the time as the “Australian Blue Ensign” – was not widely used by the Australian Army during World War I. The British Union flag was more widely used by the military, while government regulations and tradition meant the Blue Ensign was used mainly by government buildings and ships.
- The film was directed by Simon Wincer, and several pieces of footage from the climactic scenes were re-used in the episode “Palestine, October 1917” of the television series The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles.
- This episode, which aired in 1993, likewise focuses on the Battle of Beersheeba, and was also directed by Wincer.
- The characters of Anne (Sigrid Thornton) and Dave Mitchell (Peter Phelps were based on a real-life couple who got married after the end of World War I.
- The film depicts a large use of horses and horse-riding and it has been noted that no horses were put-down nor injured during the making of this picture.
- First Australian movie about the Light Horse regiment since Forty Thousand Horsemen (1940) about forty-six years earlier.
- This film was cut by seventeen minutes for release in overseas markets outside of Australia.
- Three factories located in the outback country town of Hawker in South Australia’s Flinders Ranges built various vehicles and weapons for the production including World War One replica tanks, limbers, field guns, and horse-drawn vehicles.
Production & Filming Details
- Director(s): Simon Wincer.
- Jan Bladier … associate producer.
- Antony I. Ginnane … executive producer.
- Ian Jones … producer.
- David Lee … associate producer.
- Simon Wincer … producer.
- Writer(s): Ian Jones.
- Music: Mario Millo.
- Cinematography: Dean Semler.
- Editor(s): Adrian Carr.
- Film Victoria.
- International Film Management.
- Picture Show.
- RKO Pictures.
- The Australian Film Commission.
- Hoyts Distribution (1987) (Australia) (theatrical).
- Cinecom Pictures (1988) (USA) (theatrical).
- Columbia TriStar Home Video (1988) (Australia) (VHS).
- RCA/Columbia-Hoyts Home Video (1988) (Australia) (VHS).
- Vestron Video International (1988) (Belgium) (VHS).
- Warner Home Video (1989) (USA) (VHS) (pan and scan).
- Sky Movies (1991) (UK) (TV).
- Kurt Media (2008) (Germany) (DVD).
- Umbrella Entertainment (2011) (Australia) (theatrical).
- Umbrella Entertainment (2011) (Australia) (Blu-ray) (DVD).
- Umbrella Entertainment (2011) (Australia) (TV).
- Medusa Communications and Marketing (1988) (UK) (theatrical).
- Vestron Video International (1988) (Sweden) (theatrical).
- Ascot Elite Home Entertainment (2012) (Germany) (DVD).
- Belle & Blade Studios (video).
- Home Video Hellas (HVH) (1990) (Greece) (VHS).
- LK-TEL Vídeo (Brazil) (VHS).
- Lumivision (1996) (USA) (video) (laserdisc).
- October Films (1996) (USA) (all media).
- Umbrella Entertainment (2011) (Australia) (video) (VOD).
- Vestron Video International (1989) (Japan) (VHS).
- Video Film Express (2002) (Netherlands) (DVD).
- Warner Home Video (1989) (USA) (VHS).
- Release Date: 10 September 1987.
- Running Time: 107 minutes.
- Rating: PG.
- Country: Australia.
- Language: English.