Down the track
A stunning documentary details the savagery in New Guinea during World War II, as told by soldiers on both sides, writes Graeme Blundell
WHAT if the Japanese had occupied Australia? Would our defeated nation be infused with Japanese standards of politeness and business culture and with a different form of mysticism and oriental acceptance, similar to the US in Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle? ( This is a trailblazing novel set in a partitioned America in the 1960s with Nazi- run eastern and Japanese- run western portions and a notionally non- aligned bufferzone along the Rockies.)
The idea of a Battle for Australia is attractive, superficially plausible and almost certain to appear as a narrative thread in future alternativehistory science- fiction thrillers.
Indeed, in recent years myths and misunderstandings — leading to a revised reading of history — have accumulated around the battle for the Kokoda Track in New Guinea, where the Japanese advance was stopped heroically in the Pacific War. The History Channel’s exclusive two- hour documentary Beyond Kokoda explores this defining moment in Australian military history and attempts to set the record straight about this almost primordial battleground.
The track was a tortuous 160km switchback of steep ascents and treacherous drop- offs, swollen rivers, huge rocks and tangled roots through the Owen Stanley Range from Buna in the north to Port Moresby in the south.
Water poured over the forest, the steps broke with a continual yellow stream flowing downwards, and the few level areas became pools and puddles of putrid mud. In the high ridges the water softly dripped day and night over the track, through a fetid forest grotesque with moss and growing phosphorescent fungi.
Australians, eventually outnumbered five to one, fighting against better armed and experienced jungle troops, finally sapped the strength of the Japanese, bringing their advance to a halt, then drove them out of New Guinea.
Structured around candid interviews with saddened Australian veterans, this beguiling piece of filmmaking by two young director- producers, Stig Schnell and Shaun Gibbons, also speaks publicly for the first time with still- shocked Japanese warriors. With a production team made up of both nationalities, Beyond Kokoda provides a deeply personal account of the thoughts, feelings and experiences of those directly involved in the awful battle that lasted from July 1942 to February 1943.
Of course, the film revives the simmering debate over whether the Kokoda campaign was not just a decisive Australian victory but one that delivered Australia from Japanese encirclement and possible occupation.
But the producers wisely eschew any crude nationalistic cliches and refuse to canvass simplistic notions that the Japanese supposedly had for the subjugation of Australia, and the destruction of our then European civilisation.
‘‘ This film doesn’t attack the national character; we just want to raise questions about what we have been told about Kokoda,’’ Schnell says. ‘‘ So many books are about beating Australian nationalistic drums, and the jingoism takes us away from what really happened.’’
The producers do this by setting the survivors’ accounts against the sometimes flawed strategic decisions of key commanders and politicians, Australian and Japanese, and the broader context of the war in the Pacific. The idea that there was a Battle for Australia captured the popular imagination at the time, the phrase itself assuming a growing significance in the ways Australians now remember World War II. Though few historians completely endorse the idea, thousands of Australians have embraced it as an inspiring national narrative, sometimes vilifying the sceptics and doubters.
But Schnell says he and Gibbons wanted to strategically pinpoint the corrosive and increasingly pervasive Kokoda myths, not only the notion that the Japanese were poised to sweep into Australia but also the feel- good mythology of the so- called ‘‘ fuzzy- wuzzy angels’’, who helped transport Australian wounded.
‘‘ No one has told us before that they were principally indentured labour, slaves really,’’ Schnell says.
‘‘ We even had interviews with locals who were on the other side and loved the Japanese.’’
What is really extraordinary is that this
fascinating and stylish documentary was made by two young guys with little television experience.
Five years ago the producers, now both 32, formed a TV production company called SGSS Productions; Schnell, a former professional soldier, somewhat reluctantly.
They decided initially to produce a companion DVD to accompany military historian Clive Baker’s book Kokoda Trek , a travelogue on the history of the famous Kokoda Track.
They quickly moved the project into a full- scale historical documentary when they realised, after interviewing their first Australian military veteran, the compelling nature of his account of the war in New Guinea.
‘‘ We had nothing, really, no skill, no experience and no background,’’ says Schnell, still astonished that after all these years, and $ 250,000 of their own cash and many knock- backs, their documentary is about to go to air. We had never used cameras before, though Shaun was a Foxtel editor and had an eye for things.’’
In this documentary, the veterans from both sides sadly distinguish the Kokoda experience as a campaign of exceptional savagery. Few prisoners were taken; most were shot. War conventions were routinely flouted by both sides. The troops were reduced to a primal level, such were the inhuman conditions in which the battle was waged and the impossible expectations made on soldiers of both sides at the front line. Bombs, mortars, screaming, yelling, swearing, bayonets; you name it, it was there,’’ says the dapper sergeant Joe Dawson, one of the most articulate subjects, a strong man who wears compassion for his enemy easily on a tired face. ‘‘ It was a shocking state of affairs; the fellows were going down like flies.’’
The young producers quickly discovered they possessed wonderful sequences of veterans talking about their experiences but no visual overlay, as much original footage of the battle had been destroyed by army censors.
So they had to stage their own re- enactments, which took place in stages across several years, Schnell requisitioning many of his old army buddies. ‘‘ We were after a raw style, visceral, as if from the point of view of a combat cameraman actually in the trenches, chasing through the mud and under the explosions.’’
The use of these graphically shot reenactments, mainly close- ups of men pulling triggers, barrels streaming lead, and seemingly impenetrable jungle vegetation steaming around prone warriors hurling grenades, give a sobering sense of actuality: the visions, nightmares and hallucinations of terrible hand- to- hand war.
These are interspersed with moments of silence, the soldiers of both sides prone in the mud and rain; the absence of excitement, fright or any emotion at all on their faces surreally poetic and frightening. These were so real I had no idea that they were almost amateur re- creations, staged by inexperienced directors.
They are so immediate, in fact, I was reminded of the way Stephen Crane wrote of the way battle scenes sometimes seem weirdly theatrical, staged and ethereally artificial. ‘‘ Scenes of intense gloom, blinding lightning, with a cloaked devil or assassin or other appropriate character muttering deeply amid the awful roll of the thunderdrums,’’ Crane wrote. ‘‘ It was theatric beyond words: one felt like a leaf in this booming chaos, this prolonged tragedy of the night.’’
Avoids nationalistic cliches: Beyond Kokoda attempts to set the historical record straight using interviews with veterans of the battle for New Guinea