I consider movies like the Australian World War II film “Kokoda” a gem. The treat of such a movie lies in the opportunity to experience the war, of which I am unendingly fascinated with, from a perspective I had never seen before. Having been weaned on Hollywood’s American-centric fare, it’s easy to forget that the war was, as the name implies, a world effort. In “Kokoda”, we follow a small band of irregular Australian solders, nicknamed “chocos” (or “chocolate soldiers”) by the Australian regular army (AIF) for their less than stellar performances on the battlefield. The film marks the Japanese invasion of New Guinea in 1942, the closest Japanese forces ever came to invading Australia , before being repelled at Kokoda by the poorly regarded, poorly armed, poorly trained, undermanned, and mostly untested chocos.
Much of the film is told from the myopic POV of a small group of chocos as they guard “the track”, a stretch of dirt road that runs through Kokoda’s massive, insect and disease-ridden forestry. After an initial encounter with ghostly Japanese elite forces (one of them literally appears behind a choco and slices his throat), the group ends up wandering around Kokoda’s dense jungles, unsure of where they are going, or why. Meanwhile, the Japanese continue to attack the rest of the Australian forces, slaughtering their way through Aussie and the island’s indigenous population on their march to Australia . Outnumbered 10 to 1, the chocos didn’t have a chance in hell. Luckily for Australia , no one told them that.
Much of the film’s action comes from the harsh, natural climate of Kokoda itself, as it attempts to drown, swallow, and disease Australia ‘s protectors as well as its invaders, showing little regard for the human it is trying to snuff out of existence. At one point, one of the choco’s boots literally comes undone, forcing him to endure on foot for the rest of the way. The men are constantly besieged by diarrhea, resulting in a rather creative adjustment to one’s pants with the aid of a knife. Much of “Kokoda” is like that, focusing much of its running time on the battle between man and nature rather than man against man. While the chocos engage in skirmishes with the overrunning Japanese every now and then, it is Kokoda itself that is their greatest battle.
Curiously, while the native Aussies seem terribly unprepared for the climates of Kokoda, the Japanese seems shockingly unbothered by it. Surely, nothing in Japan could have prepared them for this, and yet the Japanese seem almost like natives compared to the muddy, bloody, and dysentery-plague Aussies. Of course much of this can be put on the filmmakers wishing to make the Japanese appear to be an invincible force, which would in turn make the Aussie’s victory at Kokoda all the more dramatic. Still, one can’t help but be mildly amused by the portrayals. It’s akin to Japanese tourist getting lost in Harlem , but instead of becoming disoriented, they instead easily adopt OG personalities and begin listening to gangsta rap.
Like most contemporary war films, war in “Kokoda” is, indeed, hell. Were the Japanese really this brutal? To answer that question, one only need ask the Chinese about Nanking during World War II. You haven’t seen what a real massacre looks like until you’ve seen the Japanese Imperial Army in action during the Second World War. These guys put the “mass” in “mass murder”, and the phrase “Geneva Convention protection” probably translated into Japanese as, ” Geneva is a nice city to visit if you get the chance.”
The script by director Alister Grierson and co-writer John Lonie uses a pair of brothers, Jack and Max (Jack Finsterer and Simon Stone, respectively) as our “in” on the story. The result is not entirely successful, as “Kokoda” is a 90-minute movie, and the film’s pace is much too hurried for deep characterization. By the time the chocos are in the thick of it, and racing through the jungle for survival against the advancing Japanese horde, it’s hard to keep track of who is who. Only after the ranks have thinned significantly does it become obvious that our lead is Jack, the older of the two brothers, and his steely determination to save his brother at all costs surfaces. Travis McMahon, as the battle-hardened Darko, also stands out, but I really couldn’t tell you who any of the other characters are. Maybe it’s all the mud and blood and jungle fatigues…
As war films go, “Kokoda” has problems. It’s not as action-packed as most contemporary war movies. If judged by the standards of, say, “Saving Private Ryan” — or perhaps, the more aesthetically similar “Thin Red Line” — “Kokoda” comes up short in the “stuff blows up real good” department. Stuff does blow up, but not all that well. Alister Grierson is a first-time feature film director, and it shows. The movie approaches its human side well enough, but the war moments are competent, but not excellent. Still, as the film isn’t about the battles, but rather the human will to survive put up against a great and unyielding test provided by the elements of Kokoda, this lacking surface element of the film can be forgiven.
Overall, “Kokoda” makes for interesting viewing. Kokoda was the closest the Australians ever really got to defending the homeland from invaders, and it was the first time the Japanese were pushed back in defeat in the war, so the battle itself is a major landmark in the war effort against the Axis Powers. Grierson has clearly made it clear that the human moments are his primary concern, and in that respect he succeeds in telling the story he wanted to tell. A more polished film director might have paid more attention to the details of the film’s battles, but then it might not have been the same movie.
Alister Grierson (director) / Alister Grierson, John Lonie (screenplay)
CAST: Jack Finsterer …. Jack Scholt
Travis McMahon …. Darko
Simon Stone …. Max Scholt
Luke Ford …. Burke
Tom Budge …. Johnno
Steve Le Marquand …. Sam
Ewen Leslie …. Wilstead
Christopher Baker …. Blue
Angus Sampson …. Dan