Before Dawn review: Anzac war horrors that shaped a nation

Based on real diaries, Before Dawn doesn’t shy away from the horrors of war, but it doesn’t hammer them home either.

Now gone from living memory, for most of us the First World War is little more than a collection of cliches. Trenches, mud, mateship, Anzac Day, hopefully a sense that war is futile and horrific; beyond that lies a great unknown. Based on true stories from WWI soldiers, Australian film Before Dawn is clearly designed to fill in that gap, if mostly with broad strokes.

It’s 1916, and Jim Collins (Levi Miller) is having a rough time it on the family sheep station. His mates are about to join up, and while he’s on the fence – he’s clearly needed at home, and farming is essential to the war effort – the call of mateship (and the need to escape his domineering father) win out. After all, signing up to fight with your friends always works out well, right?

Pretty soon Jim is deep in the mud of the Somme, slowly having the urge to be a hero (or just to keep on volunteering for missions into no man’s land) battered out of him. At this stage the war is less about waves of men going over the top and more about small raids to wipe out machine gun nests, but even trying to survive in a trench has its dangers. Snipers, artillery and boredom are all constant threats; with two years left to go (the film follows his unit up to Armistice Day), there’s a lot than can (and will) go wrong.

Trench warfare

Trench warfare is the perfect set up for a war film without a Hollywood budget, and despite some clear limitations (don’t look too closely at the very Australian trees in the distance) this largely creates a grittily convincing atmosphere. Well, unless you notice the trenches aren’t deep enough to keep everyone’s head protected from snipers, but as there are a few moments where our heroes are shown digging them deeper let’s just say these particular trenches are a work in progress and move on.

Nitpicking is especially unfair in this film’s case because it’s clearly not aiming for complete historical accuracy. The characters are drawn in such a way as to emphasise their similarities with the young men of a century later rather than their differences, with the aim to put the viewer in their shoes (did people say ‘tough shit, mate’ in 1918?).

Jim and his chums are intentionally generic, with only Sergeant Beaufort (Myles Pollard) standing out as someone who’s presumably an ancestor of Bryan Brown. The war itself is the main character here.

Before Dawn. Image: Umbrella Entertainment.

It’s no surprise then that the film is somewhat plotless and filmed in a fairly straightforward fashion, with the focus mostly on the small scale struggle to stay alive. Stealing gloves to keep warm, trying to find decent food, constantly filling sandbags; they’re as much a part of trench warfare as going out on night missions and dragging your wounded mates to a first aid station.

Over the top

It’s not until the film’s climax that we follow Jim and his unit over the top and into the German trenches for a more traditional battle, which turns out to be a particularly bloody stretch of slaughter. Before Dawn probably strikes the right balance as far as war’s brutality goes: there’s enough rats and corpses around for it to be realistic, not so many that you’d be worried to show it to a high-school class.

The result is something that doesn’t shy away from the horrors of war, but it doesn’t hammer them home either. This isn’t a story about how war turns men into monsters, or even where they do much of anything heroic (though Jim’s reputation for being a crack shot does come into play towards the end). It’s about how for tens of thousands of Australians the war was a horrific ordeal, a disaster that shaped a generation and the way this country sees itself.

We could probably do with a few more like it.

Before Dawn is in cinemas now.


3.5 out of 5 stars


Levi Miller, Travis Jeffrey, Ed Oxenbould, Stephen Peacocke


Jordon Prince-Wright

Format: Movie

Country: Australia

Release: 04 April 2024

Anthony Morris is a freelance film and television writer. He’s been a regular contributor to The Big Issue, Empire Magazine, Junkee, Broadsheet, The Wheeler Centre and Forte Magazine, where he’s currently the film editor. Other publications he’s contributed to include Vice, The Vine, Kill Your Darlings (where he was their online film columnist), The Lifted Brow, Urban Walkabout and Spook Magazine. He’s the co-author of hit romantic comedy novel The Hot Guy, and he’s also written some short stories he’d rather you didn’t mention. You can follow him on Twitter @morrbeat and read some of his reviews on the blog It’s Better in the Dark.