Forty Thousand Horsemen (1941)




Director:  Charles Chauvel

Starring:  Harvey Adams (Von Hausen),  Betty Bryant (Juliet Rouget),  Chips Rafferty (Jim),  Eric Reiman (Von Schiller), Grant Taylor (Red Gallagher),  Pat Twohill (Larry),  Joe Valli (Scotty),  Albert C. Winn (Sheik Abu)

In 1917, during WWI, Australian light horse cavalry charged the Turkish-held town of Beersheba, Palestine. It may have been the last successful cavalry charge in military history.  There is a great cavalry charge in the movie.  (Wayne Peake of Sydney Australia said that the actor Chips Rafferty used to be the ideal Australian male in the days before Crocodile Dundee (actor Paul Hogan))




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

"When Germany stretched greedy hands towards the Middle East in the War of 1914-1918  -- a great cavalry force came into being.  They were the men from Australia and New Zealand  -- The ANZACS -- the "mad bushmen"  --  the men from "Down Under."  Call them what you will  -  their glories can never grow dim.  They met the Germanized army in the burning desert of Sinai.  They foght and suffered to emerge triumphant  -- the greatest cavalry force of modern times.  To these dauntless riders and their gallant horses, this story is dedicated, to them with pride . . ."

Jerusalem 1916.  The Frenchman Paul Rouget runs a wine store.  His daughter Juliet will be taken to stay with the sheik of Arish.  She does not want to leave her father, so they have to force her to go.  Captain Von Schiller of the German army arrives with his men.  They bust through the door.  They have a list of charges against Rouget, none of which he denies.  The Germans hang Rouget in his own wine store.  Hiding from the Germans in the back, Juliet knows her father is dead. 

Colonel Von Hausen of the German army and Inspector General of the Turkish army Ismet inspect the weapons.  They want to attract the British and their allies up from the Suez Canal.  They talk about the Australian lighthorsemen and their uniforms, making fun of the latter.  The officers also talk about how the problems of too little water will cause big problems for the British and their allies, and especially for their thousands of horses, and that ultimately it will be the desert that will stop the British. 

Three Aussie buddies, Red Gallagher, Larry and Jim ride their donkeys right into Café Chantant.  A number of women dance on the state.  There are plenty of women for all of the soldiers in the place.  The fellows are having a grand time.  Red complains that the soldiers just seem to be waiting, killing time and chasing shadows.  But the situation changes almost immediately. The outposts of the British have been attacked.  An Aussie soldier comes into the Café to tell the soldiers that all leaves are canceled.  There is fighting at the Oasis of Ograntina.  The cavalry is on the move heading for Orgratina.  The journey proves to be a long and difficult one.

El Arish.  Juliet dresses as a boy to make the Germans and Turks think that she is a boy.  Captain Von Shiller comes in to talk to the sheik.  The sheik tells him that Juliet is his youngest son.  The shiek sends for Achman, who knows all the water wells in the area, to accompany the Germans.  Captain Von Shiller requests that the sheik's son also accompany the army, as a guarantee of good faith..  Juliet goes with Achman.  At camp Achman tells Juliet that the Turks will attack tonight.  Achman leaves to tell the British about what he has discovered.  The Turks push through by Achman's camp.  Juliet goes with them.  On the way she finds Achman dead on the side of the sandy path.  (She is very upset, but can't show it.)

"For three nights and three days the thin line of Australians held firm as the great battle for the Suez Canal raged between burning sandhills and palm-fringed wells."  During the battle, the three buddies steal some wine from the supplies meant for the officers.   They have a little celebration, but they are ready for the action.  They are there when the command is given to fix bayonets and charge the enemy.  The Turks run.  The Aussies on horseback scamper after them.  The German advisers force the retreating Turkish soldiers to halt and get into a defensive line.  The line is able to stop the Australian cavalry from pushing the Turks farther back. 

Jim and Larry don't know what has happened to their mate Red.  His horse is back, but Red is not.  Red's horse breaks free and runs away. 

The Germans and Turks have already lost half of their army.  At camp Juliet goes down to the oasis to fetch some water.  There she finds Red, wounded and weak.  Juliet brings him water and bandages his wound.  Red thinks she is a young man.  Juliet seems to take an immediate liking to him.  By the time Red feels stronger his faithful horse reaches him.  He rides the horse back to his unit.  Jim and Larry are very relieved and happy to see him back. 

The Turks are on the move.  They are retreating to Gaza and Beersheba.  Juliet is able to get away to talk with the sheik.  She wants to dress as a woman in order to see Red again while looking attractive, but the sheik insists that she must remain in male costume.  The Aussies approach the town.  The sheik goes out to greet them and to welcome them to their town.  Juliet runs into Red, Jim and Larry washing themselves.  She becomes very embarrassed and virtually runs away from them.  This makes the guys very curious about the young fellow.  Red tells the others that there is something familiar about the young man's face.  He thinks he has met him before. 

Red runs into Juliet later when she is dressed in female attire.  He takes a fancy to her right away.  He tells her that he feels he has seen her before.  She just laughs.  They have to make a run for shelter when they come under an air attack.  A dog fight in the sky develops and the enemy airplane is shot down.  Eventually, Juliet tells him that they met earlier when he was wounded.  This really confuses Red.  Then she has to explain the rest of the story to him.  Unfortunately, the lighthorsemen are moving out and Red has to say good-bye to Juliet. 

Gaza, the village of Samson and Delilah of the Old Testament of the Bible.  The German and Turk officers think that the Australians will be sent to Beersheba to block any reinforcements from reaching the Turks in Gaza.  Australian lighthorsemen reach the rear of Gaza.  They have the Turks running again.  Larry and Jim are seriously wounded during the attack.  Red continues fighting.  He charges the Turkish defenses and gets himself captured. 

Juliet asks the soldier where is Red; have they seen him.  No is the constant answer.  Red is being held in prison.  He soon escapes, but is caught again.  Red receives a sentence of hard labor working on the walls of the fortress.  While working there, he overhears some important information.  An Arab sharp shooter shoots the guard nearest Red.  This allows Red to make another escape.  The guards give chase to the two men.  The two run into a cave and Red sees Juliet there waiting for him.  The Arab man detonates explosives placed at the cave entrance to prevent the guards from catching them.  The three make it back behind British lines.  It is raining and the three seek shelter in a small shack.  The Arab leaves to deliver some information to the British.  Now alone Red and Juliet have a real chance to come together.  And they do.  The next morning the Arab man comes back.  Before Red leaves to go back to his unit, he asks the Arab man to tell Juliet that when all this is over, he will find her, somehow.  Juliet awakens in time to see Red just before he goes over the farthest sand dune.

Red once again reaches his unit, only to receive the bad news that his buddies Jim and Larry are dead.  But this does not prevent him from telling Captain Gordon that Beersheba has been set up to be dynamited.  The captain thanks him, but it is too late for any changes in the plan of assault.  Red participates in the charge at Beersheba.  His horse goes down, but he jumps onto another.  The Australians jump over the trenches to enter into the town. 

Captain Von Schiller heads into the control room and demands that Ismet throw the switches to blow up the fortress.  Ismet says no because most of his army is still in the town and many of them will be killed.  Von Schiller then shoots Ismet dead.  He is just about to throw the switches when Red jumps into the control center.  He fights with the German and wins.  He then pulls all the wires leading to the switches. 

"Beersheba falls to the British.  Following the victory came the deliverance of Jerusalem on December 9, 1917 and the shattering of German domination throughout the Holy Land."

Red looks for Juliet.  He sees a sign saying Café Juliet Rouget.  Red goes inside but she is not there.  He starts walking along a road.  To his front, Juliet is driving a cart toward him.  The two meet on the road and are reunited. 

Pretty good movie.  It is not as good as "The Lighthorsemen".  The movie was made during World War II and the emphasis was on stressing the idea of patriotism to the Australian movie audience.  Nowadays, the written statements at the beginning of the film are almost embarrassing in their praise of the Lighthorsemen.  It now seems quite old-fashioned.  And since Germany was the greater enemy than the Turks, the emphasis is on the evil Germans behind the scenes manipulating their weaker ally.  It's all a bit over-done.  The audio on the VHS tape is very poor and I missed a lot of what was said.  I had to rewind the tape numerous times to make sure I got the important parts.  That was a pain.  In the night scenes, the tape is now too dark to see much.  It was surprising that very little time was spend on the attack on Beersheba, which was perhaps the great glory ever won by Australia on the battlefield.  What was included wer more scenes from the battles before arriving near Gaza and Beersheba.  The cavalry charge in the movie is good, but nowhere as good as in the other movie.  Almost in every way the other movie is better, so watch that one first. 

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.     

Historical Background:


see "Light Horsemen" (1987) 



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