Even though Australia is not exactly perceived as a leader in global cinema, war films are more or less a specialty of Aussie filmmakers. Peter Weir’s Gallipoli remains a true classic, while more recent efforts like Kokoda and Beneath Hill 60 have managed to tell compelling tales with limited resources. 2013’s Forbidden Ground (also known as Battle Ground) was a low-budget, reportedly self-financed endeavour on the part of directors Johan Earl and Adrian Powers, making it a passion project that should’ve yielded something special. Alas, the finished product is burdened by an amateurish feel pervading most every frame.Forbidden Ground is a flat, underwhelming effort all the way through to its core, and it’s hard to see anything but wasted potential on-screen.
Following a British charge on German lines in France during World War I, only three soldiers are left alive – Sergeant Major Arthur Wilkins (co-director Earl), Corporal Richard Jennings (Martin Copping), and Private O’Leary (Tim Pocock). In the aftermath, the men are left stranded in the middle of No Man’s Land, with a matter of hours to return to allied trenches before the area is hit with an artillery bombardment. With Jennings suffering from a missing leg, it’s a slow crawl across the treacherous, muddy terrain in the dark, with hostile German soldiers on one side and on-edge British soldiers on the other side.
The minimal budget of Forbidden Ground is clear from the outset. As a result, the picture is never quite convincing – it gets close at times, but Earl and Powers are never able to push it over the line. Costuming and firearms look authentic enough, but CGI is extremely rocky and over-used, with phoney-looking bullet hits and various other elements that look too obviously digital. Added to this, the film carries a cheap appearance – visuals look consistently flat, and the colour palette is just excessively washed-out, a done-to-death technique that hasn’t been innovative in about a decade. Close-ups are frequent, restricting the film’s scope and again making the budget pretty obvious. Added to this, the majority of Forbidden Ground takes place at night in presumably pitch-black conditions in the middle of No Man’s Land, yet lighting is too harsh and illuminating; artificial light sources are clearly being used. And with underwhelming sound design, pacing is much too dreary throughout – the movie simply refuses to come to life in any substantial way.
Dramatically, Forbidden Ground is very flat, which is also due in large part to the dull acting. It’s difficult to connect with any of the soldiers on-screen, and it’s even harder to recall names to go with the faces. The put-on British accents by the predominantly Australian cast are never quite convincing enough, either. Forbidden Ground also revels in typical anti-war film clichés – for instance, there are snobby, arrogant commanding officers who have no problem sending soldiers to their death for no good reason. You could say that this is historically accurate, but the depiction here borders on cartoonish, lacking conviction and depth. German soldiers are also shown, but, even to casual viewers, it’s obvious that they are merely Australian actors speaking in German with no attempt to emulate European tonal inclinations or accents. It’s just really false. And this is to say nothing of the pretentious, moralising screenplay, which also contains bone-headed anti-abortion themes.
To the credit of Earl and Powers, some parts of Forbidden Ground are exciting and/or touching, but other moments are marred by choppy editing and slapdash direction. There’s just not a great deal of flair or tension here; it’s all very ordinary. Forbidden Ground looks and feels every bit the straight-to-video war drama that it is, and that’s extremely unfortunate. It gets points for ambition considering it was a virtually no-budget movie, but ambition is not the same as achievement. There are far better war movies out there.