Kokoda Front Line!

Kokoda Front Line!
Cinesound Movietone Productions
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This iconic and Academy Award-winning newsreel shot by Damien Parer contains some of the most recognised images of Australian troops in the Second World War.

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. Summary by Poppy De Souza

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.

Kokoda Front Line! Synopsis

This Academy award-winning Cinesound Review newsreel special shows Australian troops on the Kokoda track in the jungles of New Guinea during the Second World War.

It features footage shot by war correspondent Damien Parer for the Commonwealth Department of Information. It contains an opening address to camera by Parer and voice-over commentary by actor Peter Bathurst.

Kokoda Front Line! Curator's Notes

This iconic newsreel contains some of the most recognised images of Australian troops in the Second World War, images that have contributed to the collective visual memory of the events at Kokoda. This newsreel presented audiences with visuals of the war unlike any they had seen. The shots of the troops trudging through the thick tropical jungle and being hauled on stretchers over narrow muddy passages stood in stark contrast to the open battlefields of Europe. It was the first time that audiences saw the gruelling conditions under which the campaign in the Pacific was being fought, a war that seemed until this point 'a million miles away’ (as Parer notes in his opening address to camera). Parer’s experience filming in New Guinea convinced him that people back in Australia needed to realise that the war was closer than they thought. He wanted to shake people out of their complacency and alert them to the urgency and importance of the campaign. Parer had gained his credentials in the Middle East where he covered the war with fellow adventurer and cinematographer Frank Hurley. His trustworthiness as an 'experienced and reliable observer’ is described in the introductory text of the newsreel.

Parer was sent to New Guinea by the Department of Information in August 1942, by which time Australian troops were positioned in the jungles behind Port Moresby to counter the Japanese forces. At Kokoda, the inexperienced 39th Battalion had already begun a fighting withdrawal along the track. That Parer is filming their retreat is masked by the courageous spirit of the men, captured by Parer in all their bravery and suffering. Unusually for a war newsreel, there is no actual fighting in Kokoda Front Line!. That the Japanese were 'masters of camouflage and deception’ is represented through their very absence from the film. Instead, Cinesound’s chief director, Ken G Hall, created intense drama from Parer’s footage through showing the physical and emotional battle of the troops in rugged and unwelcoming terrain.

Parer placed himself ahead of the troops, often filming from precarious locations in order to present the steep inclines and narrowness of the track. Lugging his 35mm camera and film stock (which only lasted for one minute at a time), Parer’s determination to present an emotionally true account of events as he saw them resulted in some of the most memorable images of the Second World War. Standout sequences include the Papuan stretcher bearers carrying the wounded over fast-flowing rivers and up steep inclines; bandaged and wounded soldiers recuperating at a village hut; the parade of the 39th Battalion at Menari after their retreat from Kokoda; and probably the most famous of all – members of the Battalion, framed from the waist down, trudging through ankle-thick mud along the track. Parer’s still and moving pictures have themselves become documents for historical research – used, for example, as evidence that the Papuan carriers largely hailed from coastal tribes and not from those in the Kokoda area. The recent Australian feature film, Kokoda (2006), recreates Parer’s work and uses camera angles and frame compositions based on his filming in New Guinea.

The weekly Cinesound Review – billed as the 'voice of Australia’ – began in the early 1930s with the coming of sound film. Cinesound Productions had successfully produced feature films during the 1930s but ceased not long after the war started. The Cinesound Review came into its stride during the years of the Second World War when events provided Cinesound with its best and most memorable material. Fox Movietone News, a contemporary of the Cinesound Review, also produced a newsreel special on Kokoda using Parer’s footage and many of the same key sequences, but it did not create nearly the level of interest or impact that Hall’s production had. This could be due to the extra believability created in Cinesound’s edition from Parer’s introductory speech to camera (which, in a stroke of genius by editor Terry Banks, is reprised in the closing moments of the film). It is Parer’s measured sincerity and first person account of events in New Guinea which give the film its weight. Parer’s pictures say a lot on their own, but newly returned from the front-lines, with Kokoda still on his mind, Parer convincingly and urgently argues that the war is ‘just outside our door’.

This newsreel was first screened on 18 September 1942.

Notes by Poppy De Souza

Education Notes

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.