Kokoda: The 39th Battalion Review
1942. The War in the Pacific is at its height. Japanese troops land on Papua New Guinea’s north coast. Only a short jungle track – the Kokoda Trail – separates them from Port Moresby on the south coast and from there an invasion of Australia. All that stands in their way are ill-equipped and untrained Australian militia there to unload ships and dig roads. They are known as “chockos” or “chocolate soldiers”, as they are expected to melt in the heat of battle. The Japanese outnumber them ten to one.
War films can and have been made in Australia, whether the conflicts be the Boer War (Breaker Morant), World War I (Gallipoli) or Vietnam (The Odd Angry Shot). For some reason, World War II has been rarely visited – especially if you consider how many movies set during that conflict have been made elsewhere. They include Michael Thornhill’s 1971 Between Wars (which, as its title implies, begins at the close of the Great War and ends during World War II) and the 1980 Attack Force Z, directed by Tim Burstall. Although documentaries have been made about Kokoda, this film is the first dramatic feature on the subject. It reminded me of Attack Force Z in its way: a modestly-scaled war film of a kind we don’t see very often any more, one that doesn’t try to make big statements but to tell its simple story of true-life heroism. And that it does, with admirable economy with a two-digit running time.
A feature debut for co-writer and director Alister Grierson (the IMDB lists four short films), Kokoda is a film better directed than it is written. Though there’s nothing wrong with some salty dialogue, none of the characters in Grierson and John Lonie’s script really come to life. Especially in semi-darkness and with faces caked with mud, they’re often hard to tell apart. As a result it’s not as emotionally engaging as it could be. But where Grierson really scores is his evocation of the mud, heat and sweat of jungle warfare. In particular he has a good eye for the part that insects, leeches and millipedes play in a jungle environment. Some moments are very graphic – squeamish viewers are warned that the film is at the strong end of a 15 certificate. The snake scene early on would finish them off anyway.
As a technical achievement, Kokoda is impressive. DP Jules O’Loughlin makes the most of the locations (Southern Queensland standing in for Papua New Guinea) and uses a handheld camera to good effect. The soundtrack adds a lot to the film’s impact. However, while you can only respect the real-life soldiers who held off the advancing Japanese – and who therefore prevented an invasion of Australia - Kokoda isn’t quite the film to do them justice.
Showbox’s DVD release is dual-layered and encoded for Region 2 only. The packaging adds the subtitle “The 39th Battalion”, but the on-screen title is, as it always has been, Kokoda.
The DVD transfer is in the ratio of 1.78:1, opened up slightly from an intended 1.85:1, and is anamorphically enhanced. For all intents and purposes this is practically identical to the region-free Australian release from Palace films. A comparison follows, Showbox first, Palace second.
Both transfers are sharp, strongly coloured and have good shadow detail, important in some of the darker scenes.
When we get to the soundtrack, the differences begin. Both discs have Dolby Digital 5.1 tracks, though with very different bitrates: 224kbps for Showbox, 448kbps for Palace. The latter has the edge by a small margin, which may increase with higher-spec equipment. Either way, the soundtrack is important to this film, with considerable use of ambient and directional sound. The subwoofer gets to help out quite a bit, especially with a thunderclap (leading into a surround-sound rainstorm) twenty-minutes in and also in the battle scenes. Showbox also provide an analogue 2.0 track (Dolby Surround) but only bother with that one if you can’t play 5.1
Neither edition provides subtitles for the hard of hearing, which is a shame.
The Showbox edition includes an anamorphic theatrical trailer (2:29) and that’s it, apart from trailers for other Showbox releases: Dark Ride, Dead Man’s Cards, Feed, A Different Loyalty, Dragon Tiger Gate and Dongmakgol. “Coming Soon” tags lead to trailers for A Different Loyalty and Ghost Game.
The Palace release is a clear winner for extras. It contains two commentaries (Alister Grierson solo, and Grierson with Jules O’Loughlin), a making-of featurette, deleted scenes, Grierson’s 2005 short film Bomb (which stars Steve Le Marquand, also in Kokoda), a theatrical trailer and a photo gallery.