Before Dawn is a Generic Anti Anti-War Film

The word ‘limitation’ isn’t in director Jordon Prince-Wright’s vocabulary.

His first feature film, 2018’s The Decadent and Depraved, saw him tackle the Meat Pie Western alongside co-director Axel August, operating on a grand scale that most independent filmmakers would baulk at: location shoots, actors doing their own stunts, era-specific weaponry. A less cautious critic might call the work visionary.

For his 2024 solo-directorial effort, Before Dawn, Prince-Wright expands on that idea of scale to transform a farm in Esperance, Western Australia into somewhere France, replete with era-appropriate costumes and $900,000 trenches to push the actors right into the action. Before Dawn explores the story of Anzac soldiers fighting on the Western front in World War One, with Jarrad Russell’s script hobbled together from – or as the press release states, ‘inspired by’ – real-life diary entries of soldiers.

Our main conduit is Levi Miller’s generic Jim Collins, a drover’s son who defies his father’s wishes to stay home and work, heading out alongside his mates to fight in the war, telling his tired dad that he’ll be ‘back in six months’. Miller is a confident actor who has managed to be the shining point in a series of duds (he’s one of the few positive elements of 2015’s Pan, and elevated the otherwise forgettable A Wrinkle in Time, 2018), while also impressing with a group of solid leading turns (Red Dog: True Blue, 2016; Jasper Jones, 2017; Streamline, 2021), but with Before Dawn, he’s given little to work with on the page, and is seemingly guided by a director who’s more concerned about the level of mud on his face that the emotion in his eyes. This is a consistent ailment across the board for most of Before Dawn’s bevy of basic cannon fodder.

Industry stalwarts like Travis Jeffrey, Myles Pollard, and Stephen Peacocke, manage to elevate the copy-and-paste bloke on the page into something that resembles an idea of a character. As cinematographer Daniel Quinn’s impressive camerawork settles on Jeffrey’s Thomas Nickels, we see a youthful man who gradually becomes an anguished and tortured soldier throughout the course of the war, with his transformation being a rare shining point within the film. As with Pollard’s Sgt Beaufort and Peacocke’s Cpl Beale, Jeffrey’s Thomas feels like a character that he has created from his own research, rather than from what was on the page.

It’s with Russell’s script and Prince-Wright’s translation of it to the screen that Before Dawn is fundamentally let down. Russell and Prince-Wright are so eager to rush to the action that they brush over the presumed knowledge of how in the 1910s Australia didn’t have conscription, leading many Australian men to choose to fight in WW1, or succumb to the societal pressure. While this may feel like a cursory detail, that these Australian and New Zealand soldiers would leave their home and put their lives on the line to fight in a war that’s raging on a different continent because it was ‘the right thing to do’, it is an important aspect of what makes the WW1 Anzac legacy continue to resonate some 110 years after the Great War commenced.

As Anzac Soldier Number Six lays dying in a pool of mud, he stares up into baby faced Jim’s eyes, uttering the same line we’ve heard countless times before in similar surface-level war flicks, ‘I’m scared Jim. I just want to go home.’ That word – ‘home’ – is uttered a lot throughout Before Dawn, but it’s written in a way that lacks a sense of weight or importance, leading to rote line readings that neglect the understanding that home is a place of warmth, comfort, love, and family. That it’s a place worth fighting for and worth risking your life to return to.

Before Dawn takes place over years, yet months flit by without impact between a cut. The weight of time is barely acknowledged, with the barren, bloodied mudscape remaining the same barren, bloodied mudscape for the entirety of the soldier’s duration in the ditches. Miller’s Jim maintains a fresh face throughout his years away from home, a place he rarely vocalises a desire to return to, with a leaden narration employed to remind the audience that he does know it exists.

Before Dawn has an all-too-brief runtime of 89 minutes plus credits, causing a hurried pace that leads to a trope-heavy film that weighs down Prince-Wright and Russell’s aspirational work. One such moment sees generic Jim stumbling into a ditch, landing face-to-face with Jack Flanagan’s ‘Captured Fritz’. After a short tussle, Jim lets the Fritz go. As an audience member, we carry the knowledge of similar scenes from All Quiet on the Western Front or Saving Private Ryan, leading us to recognise that Jim let him loose because he saw himself in the man, a note that Before Dawn fails to acknowledge.

One of the basic elements of scriptwriting is that character informs action, with action building characters. It’s a structural aspect which is desperately missing in Before Dawn. It may be a cruel thing to compare this independently produced flickto something like the Hollywood-backed Saving Private Ryan, but given Prince-Wright has namechecked Spielberg as an inspiration in the past, I’ll take a moment to reflect on the way that Robert Rodat seeds character building elements into that WW2 epic. For example, in the moment of respite right before the climax of the film, the battalion who has fought to save the life of one man finally gets to hear his story, with Matt Damon emotionally discussing the memories of his fallen brothers. It’s a short scene that reinforces why these soldiers have pushed themselves so far into enemy territory to risk their lives for one man, and in turn, why they would continue to do so as they each fall to the heinous, careless hand of the German forces. We care about these soldiers simply because they’ve been given the space and time to become human beings.

Miller’s Jim is given nary a moment of internal conceptualisation, furthering the realisation that these aren’t characters but rather walking talking concepts of who World War One Anzacs were. I’d call Before Dawn military cosplay, but that is a disrespect to cosplayers who have a deep understanding of their characters lore, history, and purpose. Here, Aussie soldiers exist for one reason: to kill the faceless Fritz. That’s it.

When asked about that adherence to authenticity by Peter Gray of The AU Review, Prince-Wright responded saying:

“It’s very hard to build sets to scale, which is what we did. That was pretty much 80% of the job done. And the rest of it was going, “Okay, now we need to tell the story as close to the diaries as possible.” Obviously there’s legal reasons and what not, so you can’t do everything 100% accurately, but I found that most of the battle was won because we had actual pyrotechnics (on set) going off.”

Interview: Jordon Prince-Wright on his Australian WWI drama Before Dawn; “I knew I needed to tell this story.” Peter Gray, The AU Review

It goes without saying, but no matter how neat the explosion may look on screen, that is not storytelling. It’s just an impressive bang.

While the filmmakers have kept mum about the final budget for the film, it is clear that it sits close to the $10 million mark, with a lot of the publicity focused on those $900,000 trenches. Like a stuck record, I’ll belabour the point about the script again and say, if you’ve got almost $10 million to your name and are going to engage over 1000 people to work on your production, then at the very least, get a story full of characters that jump off the page first before you hit roll. If not, then you’re left with a production like Before Dawn which looks the part but does not act the part.

This is not to say that a sizable chunk of that $10 million is not on the screen. Daniel Quinn’s cinematography is consistently stunning, and if there’s one reason to seek out a big screen viewing of Before Dawn, it’s to witness his equally expansive and curiously intimate cinematography at work. The climactic battle shot is mighty impressive, with Quinn’s camera soaring above the action as explosions fire off around the storming forces, creating a spectacle to behold. However, the cacophony of violence that comes with the flood of gung-ho generic gents into the Fritz’s trenches carries a grounded brutality that the film simply does not earn. With no investment in characters, good or evil, the fight instead feels like a bunch of blokes slaughtering a group of similarly dressed strangers.

Elevating Quinn’s cinematography is the work of composer Sean Tinnion. I yearn to see the film that he had in mind when he crafted his score, which does a lot of the heavy lifting to create an idea of emotion in Before Dawn. Equally unscathed is editor Saxon Wright who swiftly and coherently pulls together the triage of scenes into something resembling a picture show.

As a champion of Australian filmmaking, I’m told that I must respect the ambition of independent filmmakers like Jordon Prince-Wright, someone for whom the word ‘limitation’ does not exist in his vocabulary. He saw a story, felt the need to tell it, worked with a screenwriter to do so, and pulled together the cast and crew and about ten million bucks to make it a reality.

In interviews, Prince-Wright has talked about those Anzac letters, the ones that inspired some kind of reflection on the past and burned a fire inside him to bring those stories to the screen. Whatever it was that resonated with him has lost its way in translation to the big screen, seemingly swallowed under the sods of Esperance dirt. Not once does it feel like he’s asked himself whether he’s the right person to have told this story.

Which leads me to take stock of Spielberg’s notable quote, “Every war movie, good or bad, is an anti-war film.” Before Dawn is so devoid of personality or point of view that it results in a film that has nothing to say on the subject of war, nor does it rouse a jingoistic sensibility that came with the Dirty Dozen era of war stories. It is, in its purest form, an anti anti-war film. Before Dawn is a tale that neither honours or disrespects the memories of the fallen, instead it sits as an inert entity that exists to be forgotten amidst the catalogue of like-minded flicks that are disappointingly dubbed ‘mindless entertainment.’  Surely the Anzacs deserve more than that.

Director: Jordon Prince-Wright

Cast: Levi Miller, Travis Jeffery, Myles Pollard

Writer: Jarrad Russell

Producer: Jordon Prince-Wright

Score: Sean Tinnion

Cinematography: Daniel Quinn

Editor: Saxon Wright

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Andrew F Peirce

Andrew is passionate about Australian cinema, Australian politics, Australian culture, and Australia in general. Found regularly talking online about Sweet Country, and reminding people to watch Young Adult.

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