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Kokoda Front Line! (1942)

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‘It’s just outside our door’ education content clip 1

This clip chosen to be PG

Clip description

This clip includes footage filmed by Damien Parer of Papuan stretcher bearers carrying wounded Australian troops from the 39th Battalion along the Kokoda trail through dense jungle terrain and across a river. The voice-over commentary by actor Peter Bathurst emphasises the harsh conditions, the bravery of the troops and the care and kindness of the Papuan carriers. It also shows the presence of the Salvation Army and includes a shot of Father Albert Moore lighting the cigarette of a wounded soldier. Another wounded man with his arm in a sling stands outside a village hut. The final sequence contains a series of shots filmed from elevated positions along the track of the stretcher bearers carrying wounded soldiers and troops climbing through steep sections in gruelling conditions. Members of the 39th Battalion are framed from the waist down, trudging through ankle-thick mud as the image of Damien Parer is superimposed on screen in a reprise from his introduction to camera. He addresses the audience directly to remind them that the 'country is in peril’. The clip ends with a dissolve back to feet trudging along the muddy track. An evocative instrumental score is used throughout the clip.

Curator’s notes

This clip shows the emotional climax to Kokoda Front Line! and includes some of the most iconic moving images of Australians during the Second World War. Parer’s framing is carefully composed. In one scene, a wounded soldier appears as a Jesus-like figure – shirtless and reclining on his arms. He is given a cigarette by Salvation Army officer Albert Moore. The figures in the foreground are crouched around the soldier, while three others stand visible in the background. This arrangement of figures has been pointed out by many writers who cite Parer’s Catholic background as an influence on his imagery. Many other scenes in this clip are representative of the way in which the Australian troops are depicted throughout the newsreel as brave and spirited soldiers battling an unseen enemy in difficult, tropical terrain. Parer’s great admiration and empathy for the troops (he himself filmed with a weighty 35mm camera in the same harsh physical conditions) is also apparent in his speech to camera, reprised at the end of the newsreel.

The Papuan carriers are presented as a quiet and kind people and have a significant presence within Parer’s footage. Commentary by Peter Bathurst in an earlier segment notes that over 400 Papuan carriers were needed for 45 stretcher cases. In a piece of commentary firmly placed within the language of the times, the voice-over says that, in their assistance to the Australian troops, the Papuan 'black-skinned boys are white’. Today this type of language would be considered at best patronising, but the intent at the time was to show that they were held in high esteem by those on the ground.

The absence of the Japanese within these images is also representative of the rest of the newsreel. This contributes to the mystification of the Japanese enemy. Their invisibility is used by Parer to demonstrate their high level of cunning and deception. There is no visual record of front-line battle or combat here, and the only evidence of the Japanese army is the wounded Aussie soldier. Despite there not being any signs of the enemy, or any urgency to the images themselves, the emotional drama is built around the conditions that the brave troops face and the remarkably persuasive commentary.

The crescendo comes with the final sequence in the film, in which Parer is superimposed on the screen as he addresses the camera with quiet sincerity. The reprise of the final part of Parer’s introductory address to camera reminds the audience that what they’ve just seen is an eyewitness account from an 'experienced and reliable observer’ (as the opening titles attest). The closing image is also memorable and emotionally powerful. In filming them from the waist down – their ankles deep in mud – the men from the 39th Battalion represent every Australian soldier fighting hard for his country.

Teacher’s notes

provided by The Le@rning FederationEducation Services Australia

This black-and-white clip from the Cinesound newsreel Kokoda Front Line! shows the terrible conditions on the mountainous Kokoda Trail in September 1942 as Papuan stretcher bearers carry badly wounded soldiers back from the front line and reinforcements struggle towards it. These scenes include footage of soldiers in the care of the Salvation Army. The voice-over describes the troops’ esteem of the Papuans, and the effect of the endless rain. The clip ends with cameraman Damien Parer urging audiences to focus all their efforts on defeating the Japanese.

Educational value points

  • This clip includes the most famous first-hand newsreel footage of the Australian fighting retreat along the Kokoda Trail in 1942. The images of the Papuan bearers carrying Australian wounded and the close-ups of soldiers’ legs as they struggle in the mud of the track are now seen as iconic Australian images. The footage was the first Australians had seen of the horrors of the Kokoda campaign and in Sydney audiences queued around the block to get a cinema seat.
  • The battle for the Kokoda Trail, scene of some of the most desperate fighting by Australian troops in the Second World War (1939–45), began on 21 July 1942 when the Japanese landed on the north coast of what is now Papua New Guinea. Their aim was to capture Port Moresby by crossing the Owen Stanley Range along the Trail, a foot track about 166 km long. Australian troops eventually held the Trail, with 625 killed and more than 1,600 wounded.
  • The Papuan villagers seen carrying Australian soldiers became known as 'fuzzy wuzzy angels’ from a soldier’s verse published in the popular press: 'May the mothers of Australia when they offer up a prayer / mention these impromptu angels with their fuzzy wuzzy hair’. Despite its unthinking 1940s racism, the narrator’s description of 'the black-skinned boys’ as 'white’, as well as the newsreel footage, reveals the foundation for an enduring gratitude.
  • The Salvation Army’s refreshment centre for exhausted and wounded troops was set up on 6 September 1942 at Uberi at the foot of the Track’s infamous Golden Stairs. Established by one of its best known officers, chaplain Major Albert Moore, seen here lighting a cigarette for a wounded digger, at times the centre provided an average of 204 L of hot tea or coffee a day. Fifteen stretcher bearers brought up supplies, enabling the making not only of tea and coffee but also jam tarts and scones.
  • The rhetorical style of the narration would have heightened the newsreel audience’s sense that Australia was in jeopardy and their realisation that the men seen here were all that stood between them and imminent invasion. Not only is the narration eloquent in itself but it also provides an extraordinary reminder that a film made for propaganda purposes can nevertheless be emotionally truthful in some circumstances.
  • The talent and commitment of Damien Parer (1912–44) imbue every scene, enhanced by Cinesound’s editing. Many of his shots are beautifully composed with light falling on the soldiers’ faces. Parer briefed producer Ken Hall, emphasising the danger Australia was facing and the suffering of the troops. At this briefing it was decided that Parer should speak on film. Parer was reluctant but Hall was convinced that his sincerity would shine through.

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When you access australianscreen you agree that:

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  • You may embed the clip for non-commercial educational purposes including for use on a school intranet site or a school resource catalogue.
  • The National Film and Sound Archive’s permission must be sought to amend any information in the materials, unless otherwise stated in notices throughout the Site.

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ANY UNAUTHORISED USE OF MATERIAL ON THIS SITE MAY RESULT IN CIVIL AND CRIMINAL LIABILITY.

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