The Dunera Boys (1985)




Director:     Ben Lewin.

Starring:     Joseph Spano (Alexander Engelhardt),  Bob Hoskins (Morrie Mendellsohn),  Joseph Fürst (The Baron)Mary-Anne Fahey (Dora Mendellsohn),  Simon Chilvers (Col. Berry),  Steven Vidler (Tropp),  Moshe Kedem (Rabbi Aronfeld),  John Meillon (Brig. Templeton),  Warren Mitchell (Mr. Baum),  Paul Mason (Friedkin),  Kirk Alexander (Capt. Webber),  Julia Blake (Mum),  Max Bruch (Artaker),  Sally Cooper (Kath),  Marcel Cugola (Aviam).

Made for TV movie.

imprisonment of German nationals in Australia in WWII (among them were Jewish refugees)


Spoiler Warning:  below is a summary of the entire film.

The Austrian Border, 1939. People are waiting to board a train headed for England. A man in his underwear plays a violin for the people waiting for the train. His name is Alexander Engelhardt.

England. A man named Axelrod speaks with a lawyer who will help him find a relative in the USA to take him in when he arrives in America.

London. Alexander Engelhardt is now in London playing his violin in a cafe. There is news on the BBC. The Germans have attacked Poland and the British are at war with Germany.

In a movie theater Alexander keeps looking at the woman sitting next to him. She keeps flirting with him. The guy with the woman warns the Austrian that he just better watch it.

An air raid siren goes off. Heading toward the theater doors, the woman virtually jumps on Alexander. They start going forward toward the doors.  Once outside the woman asks if Alexander ever played the violin in the Branden theater. He says he mostly played in concert halls. When she comes to her house, she just goes in without really even saying goodbye. The violin player is a little perplexed by this.

The girl Dora now sits in the cafe listening to Alexander  play the violin. The woman goes back home to cook her brother dinner. His name is Morrie Mendellsohn. He says he wants to know where she's been. She says she's been listening to music in a cafe.

Alexander comes to visit Dora. During breakfast, he kisses Dora several times.

Morrie is down town doing business as a fishmonger. One of the vendors takes down the old prime minister's picture and replaces it with a picture of Prime Minister Winston Churchill.

Dora and Alexander finish making love and talk about Morrie and other things.

A young boy saw Alexander go in to visit with Dora and now he tells Morrie about it. Morrie runs home but finds only Dora there. She scoffs at Morrie and asks doesn't he know that she's his sister?

Morrie asks Dora what would she say if he could fix her up with a man who is really decent? Dora says the only thing she got from Morrie that was decent was a piece of salmon after the funeral for their mother.

Alexander goes to see Oscar Orloff, Musical Appointments, Thursday to Sunday. Oscar has a job for Alexander at the concert in aide of refugees from Nazi persecution. It will be the first of a series of such concerts.

Alexander says he won't be able to see Dora as much for the following couple of weeks because he is doing a concert tour. She asks Alexander to get a ticket to his concert for her. They kiss goodbye at the door.

Morrie brings some flowers home to Dora but when he sees something that lets him know that Alexander was in the apartment, he starts smashing the flowers on the table and walks out.

At the cafe a man, named Tropp, comes in and sits down in the front. Alexander stops playing the violin and sits somewhat near him. He tells the man that he saw a photograph of him with the Nazi Minister of Propaganda Josef Goebbels. The man says yes, at the Olympic Games. Alexander asks if Goebbels is a friend of his? He says no, they just took a picture of him near Goebbels. The British police come to pick up the young German.

Now the police come for Alexander. They take him away. Then the police come for Morrie. Morrie is shocked. The police apparently have been picking up Jews in London.

In a paddy wagon filled with Jews Morrie asks the policeman who are all these people? German spies, says the policeman. Morrie tells the policeman that he's not one of them. He's not a spy. He's English.

The Jews are now on a ship headed for Australia. The ship's name is the Dunera. Prisoners in groups come up on deck for some organized walking. Things are going smoothly until an officer comes out and starts telling off the various Jewish "spies" walking around on deck.

The young German from Alexander's cafe is one of the crew on the ship. His duty is to keep the bathroom line going quickly. Morrie and Alexander are there together on the ship.

The Jews hold their religious services. One of the men trying to sleep tells the Jews to be quiet.

A group of non-observing Jews come to the rabbi and ask him if he would go speak to the captain and the others. Maybe they don't really know who the Jews are. The rabbi can set them straight on their misunderstandings of the Jews. The rabbi is not interested. He says he doesn't even want to look at these people.

So Baum goes to talk to the nasty British officer. He shows all his papers to the officer. The officer holds the papers and pushes Baum from behind into the center of the walking circle. The officer then throws the papers over the railing into the ocean. This really upsets Baum.

The Jewish men also become very angry when they see that the British soldiers are emptying the Jew's satchels and suitcases. The sailors take some of the items and throw away the rest. Sometimes they throw whole suitcases into the ocean.

The Rabbi now speaks to the nasty officer. He says he and his men never believed that British officers could act like thieves and hooligans. The Rabbi is a huge man. When the officer grabs him by the beard and starts pulling on it saying he smells glue, with an upper cutn the Rabbi knocks the ill-tempered officer out cold.

The enemy prisoners arrive in Australia. With the prisoners come a lot of British soldiers ready to help Australia. They disembark first.

Now the prisoners come off the huge ship. The first one to disembark is the Rabbi. The Australian giving an account of the goings-on over the loud speaker doesn't know who this character could be? Maybe this spokesperson knows nothing about the Jewish culture.

Most of the Jews are wearing dark suits and now the band becomes distracted and stop playing their music. They stand and stare at the odd looking blokes. An Australian redneck throws a bottle of liquor that breaks at the feet of the Rabbi. Other Australians start pelting the Jews with garbage and bottles. Alexander tells Herr Baum that he doesn't think this is America.

The prisoners now take a train ride. The Aussies must think the prisoners are Italian because the sergeants starts reading some statement to the men in broken-Italian. Morrie asks the sergeant what does all that mean in the King's English?

Morrie saw that Alexander had a picture of his sister Dora. He tells Alexander that the picture he has is one of his sister.

Col. Berry is the camp commander. When he arrives at his headquarters, nothing is ready for him. The soldiers are just unpacking the gear and setting things in their proper places. Berry looks very down-hearted. He sits down and says: "Sweet Mary, mother of God."

Col. Berry gets a tour of the place. An officer named Jeff tells Berry about the area. Berry is not impressed. He gives Jeff one piece of advice: "Try not to shoot anybody."

The train pulls into the station where the camp is located. The Jews start detraining. The Jews are pushed into a corral with lots of sheep in it. It's a real mess.

The men are put on the backs of trucks and head out for the camp. The Aussies try to make some small talk with the Jews, but things don't translate too well.

The prisoners are taken into the barracks. The bunks are just wooden cubby holes stacked up to the ceiling. The wood is certainly not as good an option as a military bunk bed with springs.

The Jews take over a building and use it for religious instructions. At night by a fire the men dance accompanied by music. A guard comes to the Col. Berry to get him to take a look at what's going one, but Berry is a bit despondent and drunk and won't come.

A bit later the colonel comes. Even one of the guards is dancing. (He gave his rifle to one of the non-dancers to hold for him.) The colonel now becomes just another spectator. A young boy starts singing a song for the group. The colonel asks Alexander what is the song about and Alexander tells him it's none of his business.

Herr Baum in his business suit complete with a vest walks over to one of the guard towers and says that it's time for the two groups to come to understand one another. He talks about how the Jewish people were set upon by the Nazis and they suffered. Many of his people were killed. But, he says, the guards already know all that. What he has come to say is that somebody gave Churchill the wrong information. The Jews here are not spies or parachutists for the Nazis. "A shocking mistake!"

The sun is very hot and Herr Baum falls to the ground. The young Jew from Alexander's cafe rushes out and picks Baum up and takes him back to the barracks.

The rabbi has a dispute with one of the Jews attacking like a farmer with chickens and sheep. The two are getting nowhere so the rabbi motions for the young guard to come over to him. At first, the guard can't imagine that the rabbi wants him. The rabbi has to keep motioning for him to come over, until he realizes that the rabbi wants to speak with him. He rushes over there.

Col. Berry talks to some official telling him that they are pretty sure that the prisoners are not Italian. The official asks if the colonel was told they were Italians. The colonel says nobody told him anything. The official says a Swiss fellow from the Red Cross will be around soon and the colonel can talk with him.

The guard brings the rabbi in to see the colonel. The young man explains to the colonel that the prisoners need a special knife to slaughter the sheep in the kosher way. The colonel rudely says that he doesn't care about their tradition. The rabbi gets frustrated with the guard and says to him:
"Schmuck!" The rabbi leaves the colonel's office.

Col. Berry asks for the guard's name. Wally, Wally Dunston. The colonel says he wants Wally to take these kinds of matters up with Captain Minter. He doesn't want to have any more dealings with these "freaks".

Herr Baum comes into the office and sits down. He says that now they need their affidavits. They need them and it Baum's responsibility to get them. He tips his hat to the colonel and leaves the office.

Captain Minter meets with the prisoners to say that the Red Cross says each prisoner gets money in the amount of 3 pounds and 15 shillings. He calls out a number of names starting with A and tells the men to come forward. Alexander intervenes and says to sign for the "receipt" for the money is to sign a paper that they are German spies.

Herr Baum is really confused. He says the Australians are not getting a penny from them. How much did the Australians want? So the prisoners stand in defiance of giving the Australians any money. There is a near riot in the place and the prisoners throw the German money around. The captain is scared. A guard shoots his rifle into the air and that stops the protest.

Alexander and the rabbi come over to talk with the colonel. Alexander mocks the colonel by exaggerating what Jews are "supposed" to be like. The colonel says that he understands that the prisoners are saying this has all been some kind of big mistake and they want to stop it before it all gets out of hand! The two prisoners just look at him with no real response.

Berry actually gets his telephone call to the prime minister put through. He explains that the prisoners claim they are being illegally detained. They says they are refugees and know nothing about parachutists. The prime minister tells Berry if this is some kind of a joke, he can just stick it. He now hangs up on Berry.

Berry says he tried. The rabbi gets up to leave. He says in parting: "I'm still waiting for the knives." Alexander calls Berry an idiot and says Berry knows that they don't deserve this. Berry says: "Neither do I."

Alexander tells Morrie that he found out that they will be here until the end of the war. This shocks the other prisoners.

The prisoners are provided with a piano. Among the Jews is a superb piano player. The colonel asks what was the reaction of the prisoners? They mak a list of other musical instruments they will need.

Morrie gives the colonel a tour of the Jewish camp. He is proud of how they have set up a regular community complete with classes for the professors and religious training. On the tour some of the prisoners spit on the ground when they see Berry. Morrie tells the colonel not to take any of this personally. "And they're probably spies and all. Anyway, you can rely on me as a friend. I'm British. Know what I mean? I'm not like the rest of these geezers." The colonel seems totally incapable of interpreting what Morrie was saying to him. He asks Morrie if this is a joke? Oh, no, it's no joke. Morrie tells him he should keep an eye on some of these blokes.

Alexander asks Morrie what was he saying to the colonel? Morrie says he's really got the colonel worried now. He says no one's going to sit on his face and not expect to get teeth marks on their ass.

Someone, probably Morrie, sends a Molotov cocktail to the colonel. As a result, the colonel sends his men into the barracks and the religious services to ransack the places. The captain reports to the colonel that they found nothing. They were just having their New Year's celebration. Furthermore, the rabbi has come to see the colonel.

The rabbi comes in and the colonel shows him the note he has received. The rabbi just tears up the note, slaps the colonel's face and says: "They say than an anti-Semite is someone who hates Jews more than absolutely necessary." He leaves. The colonel rubs the smacked part of his face and looks a bit hopeless.

The colonel uses a microphone to tell the prisoners: "I've had it up to the back teeth with you bastards! The gates are open! If anyone wants to leave!" Morrie walks out of there and then starts running.

The colonel now takes back their piano. The prisoners are not happy about this at all.

Now the colonel turns over the running of the camp to the captain.

One of the youngest Jews escapes from the camp at night. He goes into the town. A pretty girl is running a shop. The fellow asks for one ice cream. She gives the ice cream and he walks out of the store. She just rings a bell. And who should the young lad run into but Morrie himself, who takes a huge bite of the ice cream cone.

During the night Alexander brings the band out and they start playing a lively tune. That wakes up the guards and they file out of their barracks to see what's going on. The colonel comes out in his pajamas. Morrie and the young guy come back to the barracks. Morrie is stunned that everyone is out listening to the orchestra.

Back in London, Morrie's father dies. One of the women says this is what happens when a song goes to jail. Dora says his son is not in jail, he's a prisoner of war.

The defense minister of Britain speaks to a military rabbi. He says to the rabbi that sometimes the government makes mistakes. The rabbi agrees. The minister now asks if the rabbi has ever been to Australia?

The military man in charge of the arrest and deportation is called in. He is told that the cost of this mistake is enough money to run the air force for a year. But what are they going to tell Berry? "We don't have to tell him anything."

Now the camp has a Jewish chef who makes Kosher items. His assistant is none other than Morrie Mendellsohn. The prisoners now have calisthenics in the morning.

Morrie wants to know Alexander's true feelings and his intentions for his sister Dora.

Dora and the English rabbi, Captain Webber, arrive in Australia at the same time. They meet and talk. She tells him that her brother is here to pick her up.

The rabbi confers with the defense minister. He says that the prisoners are to be sent forthwith back to England. He is here just to obtain the refugees' orderly release. There's a glitch here. Apparently the defense minister thinks the refugees are staying in Australia. The captain is a bit perplexed by this because he was very clear in his presentation of his assignment. The minister says this whole thing will be sorted out, but only once the war is over.

A government official tells Dora that they have no record of a Morris Mendellsohn. She tells the official that Morris is a prisoner of war. He says she has to go to the Department of Home Affairs.

The defense minister and his daughter Bernice along with the Australian officer in charge of the camp, Ian Templeton, go down to the camp to meet with Col. Berry. They go on a tour of the camp.

The visitors are a bit shocked to see the freedoms the refugees have in the camp. Berry says that this is a beautiful place for music. They listen to the men's choir sing. Among the activities run by the refugees is a watch repairman, a dentist, a psychiatrist, a barber and a man who shines shoes.

Ian meets a baron and is impressed. The baron asks Ian if they could bring a few prostitutes to the camp for some recreation? A man dresses as a woman and sings for the men. Ian can hardly believe what he is watching. Berry seems to like Bernice.

The young lad still goes downtown to visit with the blonde shop assistant. Morrie plays cards with the girl's mother.

With some liquor in him, Ian starts lightening up and says that what they have done in the camp is absolutely marvelous. The drag queen takes off the wig and eyelashes and says that he met Hitler once but Goebbles also. The drag queen also says that he could go back to Germany to tell Hitler there is no need for this fighting, because the British and Australians are so civilized.

Morrie does some card trick at the table to the delight of the shop family. The young lad tells Morrie that he has to go back to the camp. Morrie is staying. The blonde girl says she will walk with the lad part of the way back.

The blonde calls the lad Jackie. She says she has something to show him. The wife/mother starts to flirt with Morrie, who tells her to be careful because he hasn't had any sex since 1939. The woman replies that was about the time of her last sexual experience even though her husband is still around. She tells Morrie about the sexual fantasy she had about him. She kisses his hand. They kiss at the table while the hubby snores across the table from them.

The blonde takes Jackie into the gardener's shack. Apparently, she wants to have sex with Jackie. She asks him to cut his locks of hair, but Jackie says that's not permitted. So the blonde takes a swig from a bottle of liquor and then lets Jackie drink some. She asks him if he has ever had sex with a girl? Jackie doesn't reply.

Berry says good-bye to his visitors. He tells Ian that the refugees want to set up a university at the camp and they want Berry to be the chancellor. Ian tells Alan to take it easy and then drives off.

Alexander teaches Morrie how to play the violin. With Berry at the piano, the two play a duet for the men. A guard rushes into music hall and tells Berry some bad news. Berry runs out of the hall. The Japanese have just bombed Darwin on the north central coast of Australia.

Berry is ecstatic that they are getting into the war big time. He goes running out around the barracks shouting: "It's on! It's really on! . . . The Japs have just bombed Darwin! . . . Do you know what it means? I'm getting out of this hole."

A whole new set of guards replaces the old set. So when Jackie and Morrie start to walk to town, Morrie gets shot and falls to his knees. He tells Jackie to get out of here. Now Morrie falls to the ground.

The experienced guard is really upset about Morrie getting shot. The new guard says he couldn't just let the man walk off. The other guard says yes you can. They always come back. When the refugees learn of the death they all come running out to see Morrie. Of course, everybody is upset. A little later the guards all come running.

Alexander takes the pistol he got from the new guard and is about to shoot Berry when Tropp stops him. When the guards come by carrying the body of Morrie, Col. Berry goes a little berserk shouting that they weren't to shoot anybody. He yells he's going to kill the new guard.

Jackie is extremely upset about Morrie and when he is alone he cries about his friend.

Passover 1942. Col. Berry is a guest at the ceremony. The military rabbi comes for a visit. He wants to speak to a representative of the Jewish group. Alexander tells him to visit with Herr Baum, but Herr Baum says they can not discuss this mater of the refugees until after Passover is finished.

The door is closed as part of the ceremony. Then there's a knock at the door. A woman soldier with a model's face comes in and walks halfway between the tables. The military rabbi gets up to say that the refugees are released forthwith. The whole group seems shocked for no one says anything. Then the silence is broken by Col. Berry who asks: "But why?"

Dora comes to the small shop in town. She tells the proprietor that she came here looking for her brother, but there seems to be nothing here. She asks Dora where she's from? London, England. The proprietor says it never rains, but it pours. She knew a bloke from London who used to come around the store. Dora asks why isn't he coming anymore? The woman says she doesn't really know, but he must have taken his business elsewhere.

Now Japanese POWs start arriving at the camp. They stare at a mural consisting of the painted faces of the men who were at the camp for awhile.

The refugees are now dressed in Australian army uniforms. They are heading out today. Dora comes up to Herr Baum and asks if he knows this fellow in the picture? Yes, but the lady is too late. "He already went back to Italy."

Alexander and Dora now see each other. Dora has a big smile on her face.




The British make a terrible mistake. They pick up a rather large group of Jewish refugee men and send them to a prison camp in Australia. The film starts to become a comedy when both sides finally realize that this whole thing is one terrible misunderstanding. There are all kinds of misunderstandings between the two groups, who know little about each other. At times the film has a Catch-22 flavor about it.

Over time the two communities start liking each other. And the Jews, most of them very educated and talented, establish a little town in the midst of the prison. And there is plenty of music because quite a few of the men play musical instruments. Bob Hoskins as Morrie Mendellsohn was just terrific, but isn't he always? Moshe Kedem (as Rabbi Aronfeld) was also very good.

Good movie with a funny bone. I recommend it.

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.



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