bean on deck

At a time when the reporting of wars is tightly controlled by governments and deeply distrusted by the public the work of Australian war correspondent Charles Bean offers an extraordinary example of how well it can be done. But Bean’s significance extends a long way beyond his work as a war correspondent and it took me quite a while to understand just how far.

The reason I wanted to make this film in the first place was because good history films are easier to make when there is a rich source of material and Bean’s legacy was extraordinary. A twelve-volume history of the first world war, 271 note books and diaries, 4000 photographs and the list goes on. I imagined his work would provide a great vehicle for reaching a deeper understanding of what happened in the war but what I didn’t realize was that the film would take a very different turn.

I also knew that Bean was considered the father of the ANZAC legend and to many people that suggests he might be a right wing nationalist. In fact a few of my historian friends had a bit of a go at me for doing another war film. But when I looked closer I realised that Bean was much more interesting than I initially thought.

He made it his life work to try and work out what was special about being an Australian and he did it through his writing and his close observation of people. These ideas took shape well before the war when he wrote the books ‘On The Wool Track’ and ‘Dreadnought of the Darling’. Employed by the Sydney Morning Herald as a feature writer Bean was sent to outback New South Wales to write articles about the wool industry. In the process he began the process of describing what was unique about the Australian character. Egalitarian, resourceful and fiercely independent. It was these ideas he took into and developed in his observations and writings about the Australians experience of the Great War.

It gave me a cold shiver when I realised he was exactly like us as film-makers. His life work was recording who we are as Australians, telling the Australian story and trying to find those bits that are an inspiration to future generations.

bean with soldiers

But as our research progressed I discovered something much more important about Bean. He was not only concerned about describing who we are as Australians but he had a vision for what Australia could become. And that vision grew out of his experience of the war and his strong feeling that in order to justify the sacrifice of the sixty thousand dead Australian soldiers we had an obligation to take the lessons learnt from the war and apply them to the peace.

In late 1918 Bean took time off from the last days of the war to write a pamphlet called In Your Hands Australians. In this booklet he analysed what could be learnt from the war and why the Australian Army had done so well. One reason was because we paid a lot of attention to planning. To win the war you had to have a plan and you had to stick to it. We also did well because we had a very good education system. Whenever the soldiers had a break from the front they would be off to school to learn the latest techniques. Everyone had to know their job and know it well because success depended on the whole team working as one. The other thing he thought the Australians were good at was being involved. There wasn’t any class system or sense of privilege. The AIF was a team where everyone’s contribution was respected and people were promoted on merit not class. And so Bean said that if we apply these principles to the peace then anything is possible, planning, education and community participation are the bedrock on which a great Australia could be built. He said a lot of other things as well about egalitarian values, about working for the community about being a citizen instead of a consumer. But of course things didn’t turn out as Bean hoped. The consequences of the war, the Great Depression and the growth of fascism in Europe put paid to Bean’s hopes for a better world.

But Bean never gave up. In 1944 he wrote about how we may have failed last time but after this war we would have another opportunity to make the world a better place. Charles Bean was much more than the creator of the Anzac legend. He was a man with a vision for a fairer more progressive Australia that could be an example to the rest of world.

John Moore, Producer