• The Master Craftsman

Production Designer Bernard Hides and “The Lighthorsemen” movie (South Australia, 1987)

The Apprentice:

Future Production Designer Bernard Hides was born in Chatswood, Sydney in 1935. A year later the family relocated to New Guinea where his father worked for the trading company Burns Philp, but were evacuated back to Australia in December just prior to the bombing of Port Moresby. In his biographical notes, Bernard states that “my mother and I arrived back in Sydney with just a suitcase of clothes”.

Several years of living with relatives followed, before being moved into “emergency housing” at a migrant barracks on the upper north shore, and eventually into a housing commission home in Eastwood. Bernard was schooled at Eastwood where he did his Leaving Certificate in 1952 with the ambition of becoming a naval architect. 

Following the advice that if he wanted to design boats, he should “learn how to build them first”, Bernard found a job at Cockatoo Island docks as a ‘Shipwright Apprentice’. He spent 2 years in that position whilst studying nights at the old Ultimo Tech College (now Tafe). On his 3rd year, he moved from the construction yard to the Mould Loft where he was taught to develop the curved hull of ships into timber patterns for the shipyard… a dark art known as “the geometry of shipbuilding”; it was a skill that was to later serve him well in his film career. 

He also commenced studies in Engineering at the UNSW alongside his Tech course studies. For 5 days and 5 nights each week he worked and studied to achieve his goal of becoming a naval architect.

Cockatoo Docks Drawing Office – 1946

In 1955, he was called up for 6 months National Service. Bernard spent the time wisely, by nominating for the Air Force… and learning to fly a plane. Though he never pursued flying after his national service, his familiarity with aircraft would again come in handy during his film career… especially for “the Survivor” (1981) where he built a crashed 747 in a paddock in South Australia and “The Race for the Yankee Zephyr” (also 1981) where he floated a DC3 down a river in New Zealand.

In 1958 Bernard finished his apprenticeship and was now a fully designated “Shipwright Lofts-Man” working in the drafting office at Cockatoo Island alongside 8 qualified naval architects and 8 trainees still studying at university … all being watched over by a head architect from a glass panelled office. The only problem as Bernard saw it was that shipyards were closing down throughout the country (Brisbane and Newcastle had already gone, Whyalla and Melbourne were rumoured to be next) … and there were too many naval architects wanting to work in a dying industry. He knew he had to change careers – quickly.

Television had just started in Australia with the first broadcast in September 1956, so Bernard reasoned that he would just change his degree studies from Mechanical to Electrical Engineering. He made appointments with Channels 7, 9 and the ABC and took the day off to visit them. 

As it turned out, 7 and 9 were interested, but not hiring. The ABC was more helpful; with an engineer asking him a lot of questions, some technical, he was offered a job as a Technician in Training… at a pay rate lower than his job in the dockyard, but it was a firm offer. 

It was the sliding doors moment than changed his life; In his biographical notes, Bernard explains how it unfolded…

It was just after lunch, I felt that I had succeeded in my attempt to change my career. The Canteen at Gore Hill was still open, so I went in and had a sandwich. A chap came in, seeing I was alone at my table, he came over and joined me. 

A conversation developed. He asked what department I worked in at the ABC. I told him I was just here, looking for a job and that I may have one in the tech dept. 

He asked where I had come from …where I had been working… I told him that I was a draughtsman in the ships drawing office at Cockatoo Docks, He told me there was a chap named “Jack Montgomery”, who was looking for a draftsman and he pointed me in the direction of his office. I have no idea who my benefactor was, or this was another job possibility. So, I finished my sandwich and found Mr. Montgomery’s office. 

He was a man about 45, an American, I told him of my encounter in the canteen, and his only comment was could I draft. 

“Yes of course”

He showed me a sketch of a room, three walls, no roof: “Could I elevate this”. I asked for an explanation of what he really wanted, he then showed me to his drawing board, gave me a pencil and sheet of paper and said he would be back shortly. 

I finished this floor plan and extended elevation and waited. An hour went by before he returned. He glanced at my drafting and said “You’ve got the job”! I asked what the job was… 

Jack said that his position was in the Art Department designing sets for the various tv productions, produced by the ABC… 

… the hardest was going home and telling my mum I had given up my dream of being a Naval Architect. 

I just started a whole new apprenticeship. I learnt a new trade from the designers who were then there – Jack Montgomery, Philip Hickie, Desmonde Downing and later Doug Smith. Four of the most talented, generous people, they were never reluctant to impart their knowledge of design … how to read a script…how to talk to, and approach and guide Producers and Directors who never were never quite sure of what they wanted… how to create dreams for people who can’t dream. 

I stayed at the ABV TV studios at Gore Hill till 1976. During these years, my education continued every day… 

The ABC studio complex at Gore Hill in its heyday – now demolished!

1987: The Master Craftsman:

By 1987, with some 27 films and TV series behind him, Bernard Hides had well and truly arrived at the top of his profession. His style was predominantly realist, but executed with the skills of a master craftsman … and always on time and budget. Although he later stated that he couldn’t design ballets, or operas, (Zoom interview with Bob Hill, 2020), there were always touches of flair that informed his sets with something extra… and they always looked like the characters lived – or died – in their settings.

In 1986, well after the first wave of the Great Australian Film Renaissance had come and gone, Producer Antony I Ginnane and Director Simon Wincer launched into a $10.5 million production of “The Light Horsemen” – a typically jingoistic reinforcement of the values of Australian mateship, heroic military prowess and a golden view of the past – in this case the 1917 Australian cavalry charge that took the fortified desert town of Beersheba (then in “Palestine”, now in Israel) from the Turkish army. Naturally it featured some rough and tumble Aussie actors, Sigrid Thornton and… horses… lots of horses! 

“The Lighthorsemen” 1987 – Guns, action, horses – Romance!

It was in this mid 80’s film landscape of extraordinary ambition and brutally tight art department budgets that Bernard Hides accepted the job as Production Designer on the most expensive homegrown movie yet attempted in Australia. It was to be a full-scale period film that required a ten week shoot in a remote desert… featuring hundreds of historically accurate cavalry horses, military uniforms, guns, tanks, tents, stunts, special effects… intricate interiors and a replica Middle Eastern town complete with major buildings and a huge minaret!

The Previous Film Version of the Charge at Beersheba – “40,000 Horsemen” (1940):

The Lighthorsemen, 1940 … also filled with guns, action, horses – Romance!

A film on the same subject had already been made in 1940 – The heroic film pioneer Charles Chauvel’s landmark “40,000 Horsemen”. Despite the grandiose promise of the title, there are, of course, fewer than a couple of hundred mounted men in even the widest shot…

Chauvel’s version was shot (mostly) in the sand dunes of Kurnell in 1939 & 1940. The wide shots of several hundred horsemen charging across scrubby ground were actually filmed in Bathurst NSW where horses and riders were more readily available, with the sand dunes and main unit footage being shot in Cronulla much later. A small adobe town (with a practical minaret) was built along the beach and some 100 plus expert horsemen (apparently on loan from the army) went charging through the sand dunes. The set served as two locations, one of them being the coastal village of Al Arish, which the Light Horse took earlier in the Gaza campaign, and the town of Beersheba – which is actually inland. 

Australian Eric Thompson, who originally trained as an architect in Sydney, had previously worked in Hollywood for MGM and in Australia for Cinesound, was appointed “Art Director” – there being no regular usage of the “Production Design” credit at that time. With his team comprising many of his Cinesound regulars, Eric built a series of beautifully textured sets that served the script well… that withstand close scrutiny, even today:

Top: Al Arish/Beersheba – Kurnell, 1940
Bottom: Beersheba, Bondi Junction (Cinesound Studios) 1940 … which includes an unlikely nightclub complete with dancing girls!

When “40,000 Horsemen” was released in these early days of WW2, the film was a resounding financial success and a great morale booster… due in no small part to its “indomitable Aussie soldier” mythology and a great cavalry charge sequence.

Note: There is a full article on Eric Thompson’s career and the making of “40,000 Horsemen” archived within the APDG website.

The Light Horse Ride Again – in Colour – 1987:

UK poster – with 50% more aircraft and 25% more tanks than appear in the move itself!

The Location: … Just head 370kms north of Adelaide… then drive another 45 minutes to location down a bumpy dirt road…

The town of Hawker in South Australia (population @ 300) is approximately 370 kms north of Adelaide… and not exactly a location teeming with building supplies and 5 Star hotels. In fact, it’s literally a one pub stop in the middle of nowhere, right on the edge of the Flinders Ranges and the perfect place to re-stage the 1917 charge of the Australian Light Horse into a heavily defended Turkish held town.

16. Beersheba, Palestine- 1917

Since the nearest “big” town of Port Augusta (population @12,000 in 1986) is some 60 kms further south from Hawker… and hardly a quick trip for a runner looking for supplies of nails, or a tray of Darlinghurst strength cappuccinos… the production company took over every available building, plus the existing caravan park in Hawker – where they created an extended “canvas and caravan” mini town for the cast, crew, horse wranglers, armorers and assorted support people. They even had to build ablution blocks and install additional phone links. 

Bernard Hides, now a senior figure in the industry, got to stay in a luxurious shearer’s quarters on a nearby cattle station.

In this pre-digital age Bernard took on the massive responsibility of delivering the extraordinary number of physical settings the film required. Assisted by a single Art Director (Virginia Bieneman) and a handful of top level props and construction personnel, Bernard took a traditional approach to his design process: From rough sketches, he constructed card models and drafted plans … and set to work building and dressing his vision of WW1 in  outback South Australia on a budget that had been locked in 2 years earlier, yet not upgraded to cover any cost increases… so he had to devise a way of ‘doing it for the money available’; a conundrum every designer and art director know all too well!

His methodology for designing to his budget limit was a stroke of genius: in a recent email, he stated…

The model I built from cardboard…. I worked out possible cost per square foot …

materials and labour… started with a piece of card that represented the square foot cost at 1/4 inch scale then drew up and cut the card till it was all used!

It was a dead simple solution – and 100% effective!

A typical Bernard sketch

    19.         20. 

   Happy snaps of the Beersheba card model – note the 2 streets culminating in a town square

In wide shots, the dimensions of the built town are fully revealed… and they even put a rather nervous actor at the top of the Minaret!

Set Dressing & Scenic Art

The art department Prep and Build for the film took 12 weeks, (which included rebuilding all the set facades that blew down in hurricane strength winds), yet the final result is literally quite staggering in its scale and detail. The town that Bernard constructed served as both a smaller village (‘Khan Yunis’), the walls of Gaza and as Beersheba itself for the charge sequence. 

The flat rooves and distressed rendered walls work perfectly for interchanging the locations… and feature outstanding scenic art finishes:

24. Beersheba – street set

25. Gaza Walls

The Big Buildings

The Beersheba Town Hall and Mosque, having been thoroughly researched, were accurately executed in the Hawker desert…

The Mosque is the centrepiece of Bernard’s design for the town… and the façade’s detail stands up to any close scrutiny… especially the finishes crafted by scenic artist Ray Pedlar (“Pedlar the Painter”) and his team…

Guns & Weapons

In a war film, guns and weapons are critically important… and never more so that when it’s a period movie. Though the small arms were supplied and managed by armorer Bryan Burns, Bernard designed a built working replica 25 pound canons, (“7.7cm Feldkanone”)… that even recoiled when fired!

“7.7 cm Feldkanone”

Period Tents

Period Tents were manufactured from scratch: one was also made from lightweight calico material for translucency when filming … a special request from DOP, Dean Semler.  They were made in all shapes and sizes…

Horse Drawn Wagons**

Apart from the working “Feldkanones”, the film features multiple period appropriate horse drawn wagons and ambulances etc; It’s also the only film I’ve noticed a Wheelwright credit!

Bernard also designed and built three British Mark IV tanks from scratch. Using his training in marine engineering, rather than dressing over existing tractors or Caterpillars, he crafted his Mk IVs to be relatively lightweight – and pulled themselves along by onboard mining winches attached to cables buried just under the sand. The result was that 4 men could pick one up and return it to a start mark for a quick reset in “the battle for Gaza” which was filmed in the sand dunes of Coffin Bay, near Port Lincoln – some 300 kms away…

The onboard guns fired practical pyro rounds…

The onboard guns fired practical pyro rounds…

… But ultimately meet a grim fate at the aptly named Coffin Bay – near Port Lincoln

As mentioned previously, the Head Armorer was Bryan Burns – who supplied and wrangled all the small arms for the film; it was an amazing feat to round up so many practical period accurate weapons that actually worked…

Turkish soldiers fired Mauser rifles…

… and Maxim machine guns… (in this case, possibly fired by the Head Armorer, Bryan Burns)

whilst the Australians fired back with Lee Enfield 303’s…

… and Lewis machine guns…

The Australians were chased and bombed by a solitary German Aircraft… a facsimile of which the production found in Adelaide. Painted up and armed with an appropriate machine gun, it certainly looks the part…

erman reconnaissance aircraft ***

German reconnaissance aircraft (possibly a post war Avro Avian Mk IV) armed with the Parabellum MG17 in observer’s cockpit.

To which the art department added a row of convincing hand bombs in a custom-made rack…

To which the art department added a row of convincing hand bombs in a custom-made rack…

Horses and Uniforms

Since the film is filled with either soldiers, nurses or horses in virtually every scene, in collaboration with Costume Designer David Rowe, Bernard had the responsibility for ensuring that the Australian, British, German and Turkish uniforms were 100% historically correct. Much of the soldiers’ buttons, badges, patches and straps etc. were handmade in Australia and the uniforms were put together by 23 seamstresses; However, 50 period correct saddles for the foreground action scenes had to be made in India!

flying horses…

… and charging horses: you can never have too many horses!

The Flying Production Designer

To manage the sets in the film’s other locations, Bernard took to the skies, often a couple of times in the same week: A light plane was made available to get him to Port Lincoln for the tank battle set-ups, or to take him to Adelaide where he could then jet to Melbourne to supervise the Victorian shoots. 

Various sites around the state were used for the Australian sequences in the prologue – most notably at several railway stations around the state and in the high country for the horse round ups… which made for a striking contrast with the harsh deserts of “Palestine” in South Australia:

High Country – Victoria

The Al Arish hospital went from an exterior in Hawker…

To an interior in Melbourne…

1987: Release, Critics, Box Office … and a Tragedy:

All Movie posters are better in French!

Note: there are still 50% more aircraft in this poster than in the film!

“The Lighthorsemen”, the biggest blockbuster ever made in Australia, with its huge industry hopes for critical and financial success, was released in 1987…  to what are euphemistically called “mixed reviews”. In fact, they were pretty awful – especially from the clearer eyed foreign critics. The late, great Roger Ebert unequivocally praised its horse scenes… but dismissed its dramatic elements:

…the rest of the movie is atmosphere, action and horses – lots of horses, wonderful horses, good-looking, high-spirited horses who star, finally, in one of the most thrilling cavalry charges ever filmed. The horses are so photogenic that the human actors hardly have a chance against them, especially considering that all of their dialogue has been heard countless times before in countless earlier movies.

The Washington Post took a similar stance; whilst making a horrible pun in its review caption – “Neigh to The Lighthorsemen” –  It summed the film up as…

 Mostly … equine cinematography, a four-legged coffee table movie about the Australian cavalry.

Even the “usual suspects”, (the Australian critics who regularly added an additional 1 & a half stars mark-up to their Oz movie reviews), were circumspect, comparing it unfavourably to “Gallipoli” and “Breaker Morant”. On the National Film & Sound Archive website, former SMH film critic Paul Byrnes quotes David Stratton’s comment made a year after the film had floundered at the box office…

David Stratton, in his book The Avocado Plantation (1990, Pan Macmillan) lays the blame firmly on the screenplay ‘which is pedestrian and uninvolving and which includes an extraneous love affair between the hero, Dave (Peter Phelps) and a nurse played by Sigrid Thornton’. Stratton continues: ‘the central characters in the film never come alive the way Archy and Frank did in “Gallipoli”

Though the film’s reputation has been a little restored in the 2000’s as a solid period film with brilliantly filmed horse action sequences, as recently as 2020 the SBS critic Don Groves characterised the film as “creaky” and lacking emotional drama:

…Missing are the compelling characters, raw drama, powerful emotional charge, sharp dialogue and inspired filmmaking which earned Gallipoli and Breaker Morant their status as enduring classics.

Ultimately, for its ‘biggest ever Australian budget’, “The Lighthorsemen” did a dismal $1.87 million domestically and little business overseas; It’s considered one of the great flops of Australian cinema – though it later sold well on DVD and in secondary markets. It also may have contributed to the death of Australian period films as local audiences turned towards more contemporary issues… with equally mixed success.

However, despite the lack of enthusiasm from the critics and audiences alike, the film looks amazing… and the production design is a very large part of that look. Astonishingly, though the film received a nomination for Dean Semler’s customary exquisite cinematography at the 1988 AFI Awards, plus wins for Sound Recording and Music Score, Bernard Hide’s extraordinary set design and flawlessly executed art department garnered not even a hint of a mention. 

The Production Design award went to the more politically woke production “Ground Zero” and its serviceable art department.

                                                            ***

Tragedy:

By far the most enduring industry memory of the film is the tragic accident that befell the 28 year old co-lead actor Jon Blake, designated “the next Mel Gibson”, on the last day of the film’s production; Driving back from location at night after shooting the final scenes, 40 kms from Port Augusta he swerved to miss an oncoming car, (reportedly with its lights out), and collided with a parked vehicle on the side of the road. He suffered permanent brain damage and was rendered quadriplegic. After a litany of court battles with the insurers and a record financial award – made, then vastly reduced on appeal – Jon Blake died in 2011 at the age of 52 without ever recovering his ability to speak or become mobile. It was a tragedy on every level.

The sad fate of Jon Blake – “the next Mel Gibson”

The Master Craftsman Moves On:

Like all travelling film crew gypsies, Bernard packed up his swag and closed the door on the comfortable shearers quarters outside Hawker where he had stayed throughout the production of “The Lighthorsemen”…

He moved quickly on to his next job… an excellent period TV mini-series called “Poor Man’s Orange”, shot in Sydney… and then on to further highly regarded films and series in Australia and throughout Asia, before eventually basing himself in Los Angeles for 15 years. 

There’s no way to do justice to his overseas career in a few sentences, but in the hyper competitive USA film industry, Bernard worked continuously on successful shows throughout multiple seasons, across multiple countries, executing sets from spaceships to entire towns… before returning to Australia at the age of 75 and retiring on the far north coast of NSW with his wife – his “Lighthorsemen” Art Director, Virginia Bieneman. 

After more than 50 years of continuous and masteful work in film design, Bernard’s (now barely visited) LinkedIn account displays a beautiful line drawing of sailing boats … and a caption listing him as “Artist– retired Beachside”…

    … which seems like the perfect reward for a brilliant career!

Article by Bob Hill. Bob@bobhill.com.au August 2022

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