Australian Screen

Australia’s audiovisual heritage online

Forty Thousand Horsemen (1940)

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Clip description

The German commander at Beersheba (Eric Reiman) is temporarily befuddled by an artillery barrage that’s designed to throw up dust. Out of this murk come hundreds of Australian Light Horsemen, in a great charge across open ground, followed by heavy hand-to-hand fighting. Red Gallagher (Grant Taylor), the only one of the three mates left alive, takes his place in the charge.

Curator’s notes

The charge at Beersheba is often described as the last great cavalry charge of modern warfare, although there are controversies about whether it was necessary, or even a cavalry charge, in the technical sense of those words. Whatever it was, it had become a legendary attack by the time that Chauvel recreated it, and the sequence was worthy of the charge’s reputation.

Most of the charge on flat ground was not shot at Kurnell, but later, on the Western Plains near Orange. The editing of the sequence, by William Shepherd, shows a sophistication that was not often present in Australian films of the 1930s. According to some Australian film historians, this was the sequence that helped put Australian filmmaking on the map. Graham Shirley and Brian Adams, in their book Australian Cinema – The First 80 Years, wrote that ‘this sequence went a long way towards making Forty Thousand Horsemen the first Australian film of genuine international stature’. The charge at Beersheba was recreated again in Simon Wincer’s film, The Lighthorsemen, from 1987.

Teacher’s notes

provided by The Le@rning FederationEducation Services Australia

This black-and-white clip shows graphic scenes of the charge of the Australian Light Horse down a sand dune onto the trenches of the Turkish enemy below. The soundtrack includes a bugle call, the sound of gunfire and shells, the pounding of hooves and shouts and horses whinnying. Among the melee of the charge one soldier’s horse goes down, but he catches another and remounts. Individual scenes of hand-to-hand combat and soldiers from both sides being killed or wounded break up the massed scenes of the Light Horse charging.

Educational value points

  • This clip is taken from the Australian feature film Forty Thousand Horsemen made by Charles Chauvel during the Second World War. It features Australian soldiers in the First World War fighting in the Middle East. It was released in December 1940 just ten months after the first Australian troops had landed in the Middle East and had a clear propaganda purpose.
  • The clip re-creates one of the most important events in the Palestine campaign of the First World War, the heroic charge of the 4th Light Horse to break through the Turkish defence line and take Beersheba in October 1917. Capturing Beersheba and its wells secured a water supply for the British forces, broke the enemy lines, and enabled the Allied troops to move forward into Palestine.
  • The film footage of the charge conveys the excitement and bravery of the event, and inspires admiration for the bravery of the 4th Light Horse. Quick cross-cutting, a deafening soundtrack of horses’ hooves, shouts and gunfire, camera positions that show close-ups of the action, and footage conveying the speed of the charge all contribute to the impressive achievement and demonstrate the skills filmmaker Chauvel had acquired on a recent trip to Hollywood.
  • The clip is from one of the most important films in Australian film history, Forty Thousand Horsemen (1940). Made by noted filmmaker Charles Chauvel, it broke all box office records in Australia possibly because, with the country at war, the public wanted to see Australian soldiers as heroes and because it was one of the greatest cavalry charges in military history. The dramatic re-creation of the charge of the Light Horse to take Beersheba increased the film’s appeal.
  • In what has been described as history’s last great mounted charge, the 4th and 12th Light Horse regiments used the advantage of speed and surprise to charge the Turkish lines and to take the town of Beersheba, which the Turks were defending. The charge was made as a result of orders from the British command received by Australian Lieutenant-General Harry Chauvel (1865–1945) at 4.30 pm on 31 October 1917 that Beersheba must be taken that day.
  • The Light Horse were mounted riflemen who dismounted to fight, as seen in this clip. The horses were to provide transport to the site of combat and a swift exit away from it. However there was a change in tactics of the Light Horse in the charge on Beersheba. The soldiers did not dismount for hand-to-hand combat but stayed on their horses and used their bayonets as swords.
  • Charles Chauvel was inspired to make the film from his uncle General Harry Chauvel’s letters home and it is clear that these letters and other records from key participants have informed the film recreation. Ion Idriess (1899–1979), a soldier who was an eye-witness of the charge, referred to Turkish bayonets thrusting up into bellies of horses, 'mad shouts’ of men jumping into the trenches, thundering hooves and horses leaping across the trenches.
  • The death and injury of combatants in the confrontation between the Australians and Turks is shown in the clip. Considering that the Light Horsemen charged straight towards machine guns and Turkish riflemen with no chance to return fire or defend themselves until they were on top of their enemy, their casualties were light. According to the official war records only 35 were killed and 32 wounded.
  • The clip provides an example of the work of Australian filmmaker Charles Chauvel (1897–1959). He made nine feature films, many of which, like Forty Thousand Horsemen, pursued epic narratives. He pursued a film career first in Hollywood and then in Australia, where he became a strong advocate of the local film industry. His work includes The Rats of Tobruk (1944), another celebration of Australian heroism in war, and Jedda (1955), the first Australian colour feature film.

We see two Turkish officers ensconced in a bunker in the midst of a furious battle. One is looking through binoculars.
Man 1 I can’t see through these.
Man 2 The Australians are charging!

A bugle plays as masses of horsemen charge over the hill. Despite heavy gunfire, the Light Horse cross enemy lines and some of the soldiers are soon engaged in hand-to-hand combat.

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All materials on the site, including but not limited to text, video clips, audio clips, designs, logos, illustrations and still images, are protected by the Copyright Laws of Australia and international conventions. All rights are reserved.

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  • 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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