1 May 2024

At The Movies - Before Dawn

From At The Movies, 7:00 pm on 1 May 2024

Before Dawn is an ambitious, low-budget World War I film made in Western Australia.

Before Dawn opens on a young chap in a trench - The Somme, 1916 - waiting for a dawn attack.

Jim is about 19. He joined up, looking for adventure, leaving his dad back on the farm.

He and his two mates Don and Legs don't want to miss anything. After all, everyone agrees the War'll probably be over by Christmas.

Incidentally, don't get too attached to Legs or Don - or indeed most of the people we run into in the course of Before Dawn. We all know what it was like on the Western Front.

Or do we? As the film trots through what we're all too familiar with in a World War One movie - mud, barbed wire, slaughter in No Man's Land, rats, nervous breakdowns and the rest - we wonder why this is being sold as somehow new material.

Have the filmmakers not seen 1917, All Quiet on the Western Front, Gallipoli or even Blackadder Goes Forth? Possibly not. The writer-director, one Jordan Prince-Wright, is in his early 20s, though he's anxious to keep Before Dawn as close to reality as he can.

Much of the material comes directly from diaries kept by the troops at the time.

But as I say, we've been here before. And after decades of more brutal and less sentimental accounts over the years - including Sir Peter Jackson's They Shall Not Grow Old - we tend to be sceptical of old-fashioned, Boys Own Paper heroics.

Which is essentially what Before Dawn is selling.

Another problem - one shared with most war films, particularly those set during World War One - is how similar most of the characters look.

They're all young, short-haired, Australian males - and dependent on audiences knowing the actors, maybe.

You may remember star Levi Miller playing Peter Pan a few years ago. But the rest were mostly new to me, and once covered in mud, it was initially hard to tell Archie from Don or Legs.

The exception was the older Myles Pollard playing, as far as I could tell, every sergeant in every war movie ever made.

The performances and direction are generally pretty good within the limits of a routine war-story format.

The best moments though are the details that don't quite fit that format, obviously plucked from real-life diggers' diaries.

Jim's dad's pipe - "take care of it". The nurse refuses to treat a wounded soldier because she's busy with people she can help. The strange anti-climax at the end of the War.

Those are always the details that stick with you in a war story, not the noble heroics. And it's to the credit of Before Dawn that there are enough of these to keep us mildly interested.

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