Kokoda Front Line!
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.
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.