Before Dawn review: ANZAC answer to the WWI epic?

This journey into a Western Front hellscape is heart-wrenching and authentic, but fails to keep pace with its big-budget contemporaries

Featured image by Kaleidoscope Entertainment

Jim Collins (Levi Miller) is a young Australian persuaded to fight in the Great War by friends working with him on his family’s sheep station. He is motivated by boredom in the suffocatingly small world of the Australian outback rather than a call of duty to Australia or the empire. 

A movie poster, with the title Before Dawn on a backdrop of a smoke filled trench scene. At the bottom is the quote "when the Western Front became the Allies' final stand."
The latest movie poster for Before Dawn.
(Photo by Kaleidoscope Entertainment)

Following typical fish-out-of-water war movie narrative, the naive young man is soon confronted by the mud, blood and horror of the Western Front. The men Collins has around him become brothers, but are slowly whittled away, falling to bullets, shells and shrapnel. He accumulates survivor’s guilt along the way, questioning whether he could have saved his friends, if only he’d fought harder. 

Related: 10 bleak but beautiful Australian photographs from World War 1

Before Dawn sticks by Collins’ side for over two years in France and gives a unique perspective on the intense interpersonal relationships, far beyond mere camaraderie, forged in the trenches. Writer-director Jordan Prince-Wright brings to life the story of the real Jim Collins, using Great War diaries to enhance the narrative’s historical authenticity. His young characters are highly relatable and richly textured, and we have plenty of time to get to know his protagonist. It is impossible not to feel empathy towards these young men, thousands of miles from home, out of their depth and completely reliant on one another for survival. They navigate a new world of guilt, sorrow and inhuman violence, with only rueful officers like scoutmasters watching over them. 

Five Australian troops rest and talk in a wooden dugout.
Before Dawn’s strengths lie in its depiction of the fraternal relationships between the young ANZAC troops..
(Photo by Kaleidoscope Entertainment)

Related: The Anzacs at Gallipoli: “Trench warfare had to be learned on the job”

Sadly the production’s $10 million budget – a tenth the size of Sam Mendes’ 1917 and half that of Edward Berger’s All Quiet on the Western Front – means Before Dawn can’t match the immense scale and detail of its contemporaries’ battlefield set pieces. $900,000 and tons of timber were used to build earthworks in an unconvincing attempt to transform farmland in Western Australia, into the Western Front. Investment in pyrotechnics, $1.4 million for the final assault on the Hindenburg Line, yields similarly unimpressive results. A few dozen men charge a pillbox among limited blasts and the close-ups immediately following do little to give the scene scale. The nail-biting redemption for Collins in this finale becomes forgettable. 

An Australian officer stands with a whistle to his mouth while the men around him wear helmets and prepare to charge.
ANZAC troops prepare to go over the top.
(Photo by Kaleidoscope Entertainment)

Before Dawn is undeniably an impressive effort for a low-budget independent film, but it fails to make a lasting mark. Speaking about the finale, Prince-Wright told The West Australian: “Months and months of planning went into that particular scene, for 15-20 seconds of the movie.” And therein lies the misplaced focus of Before Dawn. It tries too hard to match the heart-stopping action of recent Great War films, detracting from its successes in developing the ‘mateship’ between Prince-Wright’s profound characters.

Before Dawn is out now in selected UK cinemas. Own it on Blu-ray, DVD and Digital from 2 September

To read our other reviews, including Clare Mulley’s latest book “Agent Zo”, pick up History of War issue 134