Forty Thousand Horsemen

21 December 2006 by Robyn Van-Dyk

The David Lean film Lawrence of Arabia is one of the more famous examples of art contributing to the Lawrence legend. Lesser known is the Australian feature film Forty Thousand Horsemen which can also be considered as significant for its role in legend making, however, for the Australian Light Horse.

Poster Forty Thousand Horsemen

Released in 1940, the film’s nationalistic sentiment and dramatisation of Australian success in battle touched a strong chord with a new generation at war. The story follows three larrikin Light Horsemen and their role in the desert campaigns. The three leads, played by Grant Taylor, Chips Rafferty and Pat Toohill, are introduced to us playing two-up in a market place and indulging in tom foolery, including taking a wild donkey ride through town and into a cabaret club. The celebrated climax of the story plays out the famous charge at Beersheba. The film broke national box office records and also had considerable success on the international market.

The film’s director, Charles Chauvel was the nephew of Sir Harry Chauvel, initially commander of the Australian and New Zealand Mounted Division and later the Desert Mounted Corps, the first Australian to command a corps in the war. From the early phases of the film’s production, Charles Chauvel was able to build upon the support of veterans, the light horse and even the Australian War Memorial. Chauvel used real Light Horsemen for one of the first shot scenes. A Light Horse regiment, gathered in Sydney for the New South Wales sesquicentenary celebrations, was permitted to take part in the filming for one day, playing out the charge at Beersheba. This was an ambitious undertaking that succeeded through some good fortune: with Light Horsemen, cast and crew all waiting for the rain to cease and the sun to come out so as to start the shoot.

Chauvel used this high action scene to raise finance for the whole production. Frank Hurley was one of four cameramen who shot the scene. The filming took place in the sand hills at Cronulla. Elsa Chauvel in her published memoires wrote that Hurley requested a pit to shoot from, with just a small opening for his camera. He produced some of the film’s most famous images from this angle: the thunder of horses’ hooves and the underside of their bellies riding over him.

Sir Donald Cameron, DSO the famous Light Horsemen to whom the Turks surrendered at Ziza on 28 September 1918 and who led his regiment in the charge at Beersheba, saw some preliminary footage of the charge scene and was so impressed that he purchased shares and played a strong role in promoting the film.

In 1939 Charles Chauvel wrote to the Director of the Australian War Memorial, Major John Treloar, expressing a wish to work closely with the Memorial. Chauvel studied still photographs and original footage from the Memorial’s collections as part of his research for the film and was also interested in borrowing items from the Memorial’s collections for close up scenes. The latter, however, did not occur as the Memorial did not have enough duplicates to loan.

There is also some correspondence between the Memorial’s director Treloar and Chauvel over a feared clash of films on the Light Horse. The Memorial at the time was planning on touring a screening of original Light Horse footage from its collections to raise funds for the creation of the murals and stained glass windows in the Hall of Memory. There is much reassurance in correspondence from Treloar that the RSL club tour of the original footage was not likely to clash with a major film release from Universal Pictures.


Archival - AWM93 3/1/79 Published - Elsa Chauvel, My life with Charles Chauvel (Sydney: Shakespeare Head Press, 1973) Andrew Pike and Ross Cooper, Australian film, 1900-1977 : a guide to feature film production (Melbourne: Oxford, 1980)