Forty Thousand Horsemen – 1941

There was a swashbuckling element of adventure behind the making of ‘Horsemen’, yet this film was a turning point in my father’s career. He was said to have matured as a director, with a greater sense of realism. It was a timely morale booster, as W.W.11 was looming and Australian men would soon be enlisting. When a contingent of Light Horse was in Sydney for the city’s sesquicentenary, in 1938, Chauvel seized the opportunity to feature the horsemen in the film’s desert marches. He gained the Army’s permission to use the Light Horsemen, initially for one day only. This audacious gamble was his ‘shop window’ and the catalyst for the rest of the film, both creatively and financially.

While action scenes were filmed on the sandhills of Kurnell, the eastern village of El-Arish, constructed for the film, became our second home. Technicians, actors and equipment had to travel over seven miles of sandy track each day to reach the location. When vehicles bogged, everyone had to get out and lend a hand, including the actors. The Assistant Director found El-Arish’s minaret a useful vantage point from which to shout orders to the cast or technicians.

With the story following the exploits of three larrikin Aussie soldiers, “Forty Thousand Horsemen” gave Chips Rafferty his first starring role and established his lanky, humorous persona. Betty Bryant played the beautiful French girl, Juliette, providing the film’s love interest. There was an eccentric mix of Australian, ‘Turkish’ and ‘German’ soldiers, some stunt riders, Arabs, camels and horses. Those in Turkish and German uniforms cheekily declined to eat their lunch with the Aussies! In his spare time, my father studied French and Italian films; I believe the results are evident in ‘Horsemen’, particularly in lighting and visual imagery. The film’s interiors, including a market in Cairo and a portion of Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem, were constructed and filmed in Cinesound Studios, rivalling those of “Heritage” in scope.

The charge on Beersheba was re-enacted and filmed on flattish ground near Orange, NSW, where there was an Army encampment at the time.

“Forty Thousand Horsemen” could be seen as Chauvel’s blockbuster; certainly it was the best-loved of his films. It opened in 1941 and was successful both in Australia and overseas, making a good profit for its backers.

Excerpt from the biography:

“Thanks to Chips’ ad-libbing, the market scene in which the three soldiers – Red, Jim and Larry – see the pretty French girl, Juliette, carrying a large basket of oranges, became a comical highlight of the film. When Red sees the girl and says cheekily to his pals “Do you see what I see?!” Chips was supposed to say something about “…a little dish from up the Nile”, but he didn’t like the lines, so in the first take, after “Do you see what I see?!”, Chips replied, with an ecstatic grin, “Oranges!””


Posted by scarlsson at 10:00, February 8 2012.

What a difference between Kurnell today and the sweeping sand dune country that we saw in 1938.

The sandhills of north Cronulla/Kurnell stretched for about 250 miles and provided a convincing stand-in for the Sinai Desert. The ravages of sand-mining and landfill operations, 4WD driving and horse riding have since reduced them to a small area used today for fitness training.

Excerpts from biography:

“The men were in the saddle at 3 a.m., waiting for the dawn shots Chauvel wanted. The sky was overcast and a slight drizzle began, filling Charles and Elsa with apprehension. These sand dunes, with their shifting shadows and wind-tossed crests, seemed to embody all Charles’ hopes for the film.”

“The horsemen milled about in the dawn light, silhouetted against the sky as they formed their lines and rode softly along the crest of the dunes. Long lines of mounted men made new shadows on the pristine sand, as they circled the dunes or ploughed over the top, the horses’ hooves sending up plumes of sand. They were re-enacting the movements of former Anzacs in Sinai, who had been keenly aware that they were following an historic route, with maybe the ghosts of earlier armies.”

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