The Lighthorsemen (1987)

In the Flashback series our writer Dag Sødtholt is shedding light on interesting and perhaps a bit overlooked films. The presentations will vary in scope. Since they are meant to inspire the reader to seek out the films, the articles and the accompanying images will avoid spoilers. Currently there is a special focus on 1980s films.


An excellent war film by the very fine Australian craftsman Simon Wincer, with an absolutely electrifying extended climax, The Lighthorsemen (1987) tells the story of a 1917 Australian odds-defying cavalry charge on Beersheba in Palestine.

The city has to be conquered or else lack of water will mean disaster for troops and horses. The narrative leading up to the battle follows a quite traditional trajectory, but Wincer makes it continuously interesting as cinema, turning the featureless landscape into visually spectacular minimalism, otherwise heavily concentrating on mood as the soldiers are waiting to see action, with lots of attention to male bonding and also the intense relationships with their horses. There is also an amusing counter-intelligence subplot to deceive the city’s Turkish defenders. The prologue swathed in the lush greens of the hero’s Australian surroundings forms a nice contrast to the barrenness of the later war theatre and contains some very nice visual tricks of its own.

The Lighthorsemen can make up a fitting double bill with another Middle East World War I movie featuring Australian troops, Peter Weir‘s Gallipoli (1981), although Wincer’s film lacks its anti-war aspect.

The film is released on a fine Australian Blu-ray, which can be ordered here. (There is also a German Blu-ray.) This release contains the 116 minute theatrical cut, but there is a 15 minute longer director’s cut but to our knowledge that has only ever been released on Laserdisc.

Eye contact with death: the hero, played by Peter Phelps, shares the final moments of an enemy Turkish soldier. A major plot point is that the hero, a formidable sharpshooter, freezes up in the war zone, unable to fire to kill, therefore becoming a liability to his fellow soldiers.
The film is full of nice artistic details: here when one of the soldiers and the foppish intelligence officer arrive at their destination, a crane is softly lowered to the ground to meet the front man as he approaches.
This is one of the visual “tricks” in the prologue: we see a train and behind the last carriage a wipe is starting to reveal the next shot…
… as the carriage is leaving the frame the wipe is following it…
…the impression is that the train itself has functioned as some sort of theatre curtain pulled away to reveal something behind it, namely this shot, shown here in its entirety after the wipe is complete.
This and the following shots (in addition to the article’s top image) are examples of the film’s many stylised and poeticised images.

The opposing armies.
Defenders and attackers.
Horses lined up like coiled springs of energy…
…and then exploding into kinetic action.
Wincer has a well-developed eye for striking compositions.
From the prologue in Australia, its lushness in great contrast to the barren Middle East war theatre…
…hunting wild horses for the war effort.

There is an inspired juxtaposition of one of the film’s most harrowing scenes, the hero staring down at the dying enemy, which dissolves into the happiest, most carefree situation:

Here the soldiers are on a short leave by the sea, and as a testament to the close bond between rider and horse, they give new meaning to riding bareback:


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