Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
"Fighting? In Turkey? What's that got to do with us?" asks an old codger deep in the Western Austrialian desert. Young Archy Hamilton answers, "We have to fight them over there so we won't have to fight them here!" The old man says "The Huns want this desert? They're welcome to it!"
Australian filmmaker Peter Weir broke with his succession of strange genre meanderings and ethereal spiritual investigations (The Cars that Ate Paris, Picnic at Hanging Rock, The Last Wave, The Plumber) to tackle a deep-rooted theme known to every one of his countrymen. In 1915, a freshly consolidated Australian nation sent thousands of troops to help Britain fight the Kaiser. Gallipoli was a battlefield on the coast of Turkey where untold thousands were slaughtered in futile trench warfare. As many interviewees on this special edition attest, Gallipoli was where the nation lost its innocence. Accounts still diverge along political lines, but the facts support the pacifist version seen here - British generals considered their volunteer ANZAC (Australia-New Zealand Army Corps) battallions as pawns to be spent like pocket change.
"Pacifist" isn't exactly the right word, as Gallipoli more accurately opens ones eyes to the reality of war. A nation is "sold" an image of a glorious adventure justified by wild tales of enemy atrocities (The Huns crucify cats?) and presented as an opportunity for bored or disillusioned young men to find their destinies by putting on uniforms and taking up guns like real men. Nobody talks about what really happens in war, which is anything but glorious.
Peter Weir directs Gallipoli with a fine sense of simplicity, showing the experience of "the flower of Australia" - idealistic youths eager to do the honorable right thing. A battle epic pared down to essentials, it has a wide scope but keeps our attention focused on our daring young heroes.
1915. Eighteen year-old Western Australian champion sprinter Archy Hamilton could be an Olympic contender, but he breaks the heart of his trainer Jack (Bill Kerr) by running away to join the elite Australian cavalry. He's joined by talented sprinter Frank Dunne (Mel Gibson), who tries to join but can't ride a horse and ends up in the infantry with his other friends. Training in Cairo, the ANZAC cavalrymen are converted to infantry so Archy persuades his Major Barton (Bill Hunter of Newsfront to let his "mate" Frank in after all. At Gallipoli the ANZACS finds out that they're being used as cannon fodder 'diversion' for English landings elsewhere, and the entire unit realizes that they have to obey orders and charge Turkish machine guns, a lunatic mass suicide due to bad military planning.
Gallipoli is not some weepy ode to slain heroes. Archy Harrison goes off to war and is refused, but he persists out of honor and a sense of personal destiny. One by one the illusions of military glory are taken away, as Archy discovers that the English consider their volunteer ANZAC allies as uncouth and unworthy. Gallipoli turns out to be a grotesque "Catch-22" stalemate, with absentee commanders issuing callously wrong-headed orders. Any attempt to take the Turkish trenches is met with machine gun fire that kills waves of men wholesale. Yet the ANZACS are expected to follow orders and die: You go over the top because everyone else is, and you aren't going to let your mates down.
When given an opportunity to sidestep certain death, Archy chooses to stay with his "mates." He suggests that his best friend, Frank, a reluctant soldier that had to be cajoled into enlisting, be given the non-combat assignment instead. The horrors of war surprise generation after generation of young men raised with illusions of glory. Archy is but one of thousands of spirited and pure-hearted men fed to the killing fields of WW1.
So Gallipoli is about the price of the tradition of war and not about politics or pacifism per se. It suggests that any conflict where a bureaucracy is in charge of life and death decisions is going to result in grievous errors. It is not an indictment of the callous negligence of evil generals, as seen in Stanley Kubrick's powerful but strident Paths of Glory. We aren't given the luxury of sitting back and passing judgment on military murderers and arrogant martinets - the stubborn commander issuing the bad orders is just a man under pressure from his superiors, acting on bad information. The soldiers of Gallipoli know what it means to be a soldier: When you sign the papers, no matter what the recruiting propaganda said, They Own Your Ass. If you're told to follow wrong, pointless or suicidal orders, no matter. You have to do it. In the case of Archy Hamilton's corps, their entire self-image is invested in loyalty to command. Honor dictates that they go over the top. It's a basic human tragedy rarely touched on in war movies. 1
Mark Lee is picture perfect as the fresh-faced and wholesome Archy, a champion runner who gets the idea that a grand future awaits him if he just keeps his ideals intact. Mel Gibson was already the bigger star but takes a fine secondary role as the less bumpkinish but equally impressionable Frank. When national honor can't make him enlist, flashy uniforms and the chance to attract girls will. Bill Hunter is a fine choice as their wary and worthy Major, the kind of officer that, knowing the unit is shipping out in a few hours, gives 'his boys' permission to sneak into an officers-only formal dance. A sizeable cast is left behind in Western Australia, especially Archy's Uncle Jack (Bill Kerr), a wise old man who knows what may happen to Archy but realizes there's no way to stop a young man with his mind made up
The most profound moment in Gallipoli for this viewer was the last-minute meeting of Archy and Les, the braggart back in Australia who was set up as the film's villain. They're now in the same dire predicament, facing certain death, and their petty differences now mean nothing.
Paramount's Special Collector's Edition of Gallipoli is a single-disc release with a fine enhanced transfer and audio mastered in 5.1 and 2.0 in English and mono in French. 1981 was the year of the synthesized music score (anyone remember Chariots of Fire? and occasional bursts of Jean-Michel Jarre synth noodlings from Oxygène now stand out as glaringly anachronistic. But they're only one part of a varied and effective soundscape.
The unattributed docu Entrenched: The Making of Gallipoli is splintered into six chapters but organized into the now-familiar "play all" configuration used to circumvent Guild guidelines. The studio wins all around -- six 'extras' to tout instead of one. It's a good show, with producer Patricia Lovell and director Weir telling the story of the making of the film through insightful anecdotes. Young Mark Lee got the lead role by showing up as a model for a still session to raise interest in the project - he had the perfect face, even if he needed strong coaching to feel up to the task of acting. Mel Gibson laughs as he admits that his biggest concern during shooting the underwater bathing scenes is that his 'willy' was going to show up in dailies!
A trailer is also included.
Gallipoli is the perfect film to show impressionable fourteen year-old boys harboring daydreams of righteous combat and glorious battlefield destinies - think for a moment of how our culture and media glorify combat and aggression, especially in entertainment for small boys. At least they'll have something to think about when being bombarded by modern enlistment advertisements that characterize service as a Rock 'n Roll beach party, or show a 'typical' Navy recruit skiing across a glacier like James Bond. 2
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Supplements: Making of Docu broken into six parts; trailer
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: December 13, 2005
1. A much angrier picture is Bruce Bereford's Breaker Morant, in which several Australian soldiers in the Boer war are put on trial as scapegoats for so-called 'atrocities' in what is essentially a guerilla war. The trial is conceived to draw attention away from the greater brutality of the English Army. The men to be convicted in a sham courts-martial are clearly chosen because they are Australian.
2. I collect these atrocious recruitment PR brochures - they started coming to my door the moment my boys were fifteen years old. I'm not exaggerating their content.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson