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The Bootleg Files: Kokoda Front Line!

BOOTLEG FILES 671: “Kokoda Front Line!” (1942 Australian newsreel).

LAST SEEN: On YouTube.

AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: None.

REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: No perceived commercial value for the U.S. market.

CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: It can be found on Australian DVD, but it is not likely to be released on a U.S. label.

If you are an Academy Award trivia buff, you will recognize “Kokoda Front Line!” as the first Australian film to win an Oscar. If you are World War II history buff, you will be familiar with the importance of “Kokoda Front Line!” in covering an important battle in the Pacific combat. But if you are not up to speed on either your Oscar factoids or your World War II knowledge, then hopefully you might come away from this week’s column with something worth learning.

Australia entered World War II on September 3, 1939, in alliance with the United Kingdom against Nazi Germany. As a result of this, most of Australia’s military force was shipped to help the British in Europe and North Africa, leaving the Australian continent ill-prepared to defend itself from a possible attack by Japan. As relations between Japan and its Pacific Rim neighbors deteriorated throughout most of 1941, some Australian forces sent overseas began to return home in preparation of a potential war in that region. On December 8, 1941, the day after the Pearl Harbor attack, Australia declared war against Japan.

At the time, there were fears that Japan would invade Australia. That never happened, but in July 1942 Japanese forces landed on the island of New Guinea, which was divided between the Territory of Papua and the Territory of New Guinea, which were both administered by the Australian government. Japan sought to capture the island’s capital city of Port Moresby, but the island’s lack of modern infrastructure made troop movements for both sides extremely difficult. It also didn’t help that Australia’s weapons and military were created for European-style battlefields and not tropical jungle warfare. But long story short, the Australians ultimately prevailed and the expulsion of Japan from New Guinea was a major keystone in the fight to crush Japan.

During the war years, Australians were kept abreast of the conflict through newsreels produced by Cinesound Productions, a company founded in 1931 that churned out a series of narrative and nonfiction films. Narrative film production was placed on hold during the war, with Cinesound focusing on capturing Australia’s contribution to fighting the Axis nations.

Australia’s Department of Information recruited photographer Damien Parer to shoot the Kokoda Track Campaign for a newsreel that would be produced and distributed by Cinesound. While Parer wasn’t on the frontline, he nonetheless captured the impossible conditions that the Australian and New Guinean soldiers fought under. Cinesound director and producer Ken G. Hall convinced Parer to host a one-reel newsreel that encapsulated the danger and the fury of this campaign.

“Kokoda Front Line!” opens with Parer sitting in what looks to be a cheap living room, complete with second-hand furniture and a weird arrangement of flowers. Parer is in a military-style jacket and he tells the viewer that the troops were fighting “an uncanny sort of warfare – you never see a Jap even though he’s only 20 yards away.” Yes, this was wartime and political correctness was on the back burner. “Don’t’ underestimate the Jap,” he adds. “He’s a highly trained soldier, well-disciplined and brave.” But Parer adds that the foe is now up against “some of the finest and toughest troops in the world.”

Parer is then framed in close-up, and he somberly notes the “air of unreality” that disconnects the Australian civilian world with the frontline troops, “as though the war was a million miles away – but it’s not, it’s just outside our door now.”

After Parer’s introduction, the film switches to Parer’s footage from New Guinea. An unidentified narrator backed by a corybantic action-adventure music score that doesn’t fit the grim wartime setting begins to warn about the need to quickly learn jungle warfare in order to defeat the Japanese. Parer’s camera shows Australian airplanes dropping supplies behind the front lines, and the narrator acknowledges the presence of the New Guinea natives by observing how there is “plenty of excitement among the bush boys.” Yes, the New Guineans fighting alongside the Australians were considered “boys.” The troops extract the “utility meals” from the aerial packages and then prepare to invade the “steaming jungle.”

The troops move through the jungles and blow up a hut that was believed to have been used by the Japanese. No enemy is found, however. A parade of soldiers emerging from the jungles are seen returning to safety – and while the narrator says the troops “suffered fearful privations” and “their casualties have not been light,” the viewer never gets any depth on just how difficult and lethal the fight had been. “Minor wounds are attended to” at a field clinic, the narrator adds, while “nearly 400 native carriers” are used to ferry the seriously wounded on stretchers across the New Guinean terrain. A Salvation Army banner is seen and the narrator insists that the soldiers are saluting “a great organization doing a great job.”

Then, the viewer is assaulted with a narration statement that was astonishing, even by the insensitive standards of that bygone era: “The care and consideration for the wounded shown by the natives has won the complete admiration of the troops. With them, the black-skinned boys are white.” Yeah.

The sad thing about “Kokoda Front Line!” is that Parer’s footage is mesmerizing, particularly when his camera captures the New Guineans carrying the wounded on stretchers across mud paths through a torrential downpour. The narrator solemnly observes the struggle is happening “300 miles from Australia’s coastline. Men are sweating, suffering, dying in that jungle so that it cannot happen here.” Parer returns at the end for a brief close-up, commenting that viewers need to realize that while Australia is in peril, the local populations needs to concentrate on crushing the Japanese.

It wasn’t widely known at the time that Parer shot his footage using a 35mm camera which could only capture one minute of footage at a time – unlike U.S. documentary filmmakers who used a lightweight 16mm camera that allowed for more footage to be shot. Working from a surplus of one-minute film takes, Cinesound’s Ken G. Hall assembled Parer’s footage into “Kokoda Front Line!” and released the work as a special full-length edition of the Australian Cinesound Review newsreel series in September 1942, one month after Parer returned from New Guinea. The film marked the first time that Australians saw the conditions of the New Guinea campaign, and it quickly became the most popular film in Australian cinemas.

It is not certain if “Kokoda Front Line!” ever played in U.S. theaters, but it was submitted for the 15th Academy Awards in the Best Documentary category. For that year, the Academy combined both the feature-length and short subject documentaries into a single category, resulting in 25 nominees. The result of that competition was a four-way tie, with “Kokoda Front Line!” sharing the honors with a pair of U.S. military films (John Ford’s “The Battle of Midway” and Frank Capra’s “Prelude to War”) and the Soviet offering “Moscow Strikes Back.” As it was not a standalone documentary but part of a newsreel series, “Kokoda Front Line!” also holds the distinction of being the only newsreel episode to win an Oscar.

The Academy Award was presented to Hall, in his capacity as the film’s producer, and not to Parer, who did not receive producer credit. Actually, Hall received a plaster copy of the award – due to wartime rationing of metals, the proper gold-plated Oscar statuette would not be made available until after the war, with Hall receiving the real deal in late 1945. The inscription on the Oscar statuette read: “To Kokoda Front Line! for its effectiveness in portraying simply yet forcefully the scene of war in New Guinea and for its moving presentation of the bravery and fortitude of our Australian comrades in arms.”

Parer was killed by a Japanese sniper on September 17, 1944, while filming a U.S. Marine advance in Palau; he was only 32 years old at the time of his death. Hall would continue creating nonfiction films into the 1950s – and while he helmed one more narrative feature, the 1946 “Smithy” that was financed by Columbia Pictures and played stateside as “Pacific Adventure,” his work would be mostly unknown to American audiences.

“Kokoda Front Line!” was not released in any commercial home entertainment format in the U.S., although it has been on Australian video and DVD. Decent copies of the film can be found on YouTube. And despite the film’s sometimes indelicate language in describing nonwhites, “Kokoda Front Line!” is an important filmed record of bravery and spirit during a critical period in World War II. It deserves to be more than an Oscar trivia footnote, and more Americans should seek it out and consider the valor of the men that Parer immortalized on film.

IMPORTANT NOTICE: While this weekly column acknowledges the presence of rare film and television productions through the so-called collector-to-collector market, this should not be seen as encouraging or condoning the unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either through DVDs or Blu-ray discs or through postings on Internet video sites.

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