When Australian film director Peter Weir, perhaps best known to American audiences for Witness and The Truman Show, was planning his next film after completing Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975), he wanted a story set in France depicting the big battles of 1916-1917. A friend suggested he make a film about the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) attack on Gallipoli. Unconvinced, he nevertheless traveled to Istanbul in 1976. After spending two days climbing the hills and wandering the trenches, Weir was struck by what he found: buttons, old leather belts and other items left behind by ANZAC forces. He decided then and there that he would indeed make a film about Gallipoli, saying, "I felt somehow I was really touching history."
His original idea was to tell a comprehensive story from enlistment in 1914 though the evacuation of Gallipoli near the end of 1915, but after several drafts, he was unhappy with the results. Instead, he decided to write a tale about two friends and their journey to war. The result is the outstanding anti-war film Gallipoli (1981).
Archy Hamilton (Mark Lee is his debut role) is one of the best sprinters in Australia, trained by his Uncle Jack (Bill Kerr). When he expresses a desire to join the army and fight against Turkey in World War I, his sage uncle protests vehemently:
Jack: No more of that. You're under age.
Archy: You ran away from home when you were younger than me.
Jack: Not to a war.
Archy: Been all around the world by the time you were eighteen: Barbary Coast, Spice Islands.
Jack: I made most of those stories up.
Archy: No you didn't. Dad said you nearly got yourself killed half a dozen times.
Jack: I judged the risks and took my chances. War's different.
Archy: How's it different.
Jack: IT'S JUST DIFFERENT!
Archy has been training for a big race and has a goal to beat the time of his hero Harry Lasalles, world-record holder in the 100-yard dash. He ties his idol and then turns his attention to an army recruiter for the Lighthorse, who appeals to the patriotism (and naïveté) of the young men assembled:
The empire needs you, your country needs you and your mates need you. Now come along and find out how to get into the greatest game of them all.
The idealistic Archy has already decided to join up, telling Jack that he won't be returning home with him. He lies about his age, but a rival blows his cover.
The next day, one of the runners to lose to Archy, Frank Dunne (Mel Gibson), suggests he try again in Perth. They hop a train, but realize the next morning that their boxcar has been left behind. Not willing to wait two weeks for the next train, Archy begins walking the 50 miles to the next town and Frank follows him through the desert. Under a dazzling starlit sky, they discuss the war:
Archy: What are you going to join, the infantry?
Frank: I'm not joining anything.
Archy: But you gotta be in it.
Frank: Don't have to if you don't want to.
Archy: You gotta be!
Frank: No I don't. Free country, haven't you heard?
Archy: You of all people should be going … because you're an athlete … so why shouldn't you?
Frank: Because it's not our bloody war.
Archy: What do you mean not our war?
Frank: It's an English war. It's got nothin' to do with us!
After a couple days of walking under the punishment of the unrelenting Australian desert sun, Archy spots camel tracks. The camel driver provides them much-needed food and water. As he talks to the boys, he reveals that he knows nothing of the war that Archy is so anxious to join. Of course, Archy knows next to nothing:
Camel Driver: Where you headed?
Camel Driver: You lookin' for work?
Archy: No, I'm off to the war.
Camel Driver: What war?
Archy: The war against Germany.
Camel Driver: I knew a German once. How did it start?
Archy: Don't know exactly, but it was the Germans' fault.
Camel Driver: The Australians fightin' already?
Archy: In Turkey.
Camel Driver: Turkey? Why's that?
Archy: Because Turkey's a German ally.
Camel Driver: Can't see what it's got to do with us.
Archy: We can't stop them there, they could end up here.
Camel Driver: (After surveying the desolate landscape) And they're welcome to it.
Archy and Frank eventually make it to a house, where a generous family welcomes them in. Over drinks, someone asks Archy why he is going to Perth. He replies that he is going to join the Lighthorse to fight the Turks. Everyone in the room wells up with pride. A beautiful young woman looks lovingly at him. When asked if he is joining as well, Frank sheepishly says he is pursuing business opportunities. The reaction of his hosts is quite different, bordering on derision. This contrast is not lost on Frank, and he decides shortly thereafter to join the Lighthorse with his mate.
Later, Frank is confronted by his father, whose house they are staying at the night before they enlist:
Father: What the hell do you wanna join up for? The English murdered your own grandfather. Hung him with his own belt at the crossroads five miles from Dublin.
Frank: Look Dad, I am not gonna fight for the British Empire. I'm gonna keep my head down, learn a trick or two and come back an officer.
His dad is not convinced, and even Frank doesn't seem to believe his own words.
Despite being born and raised in the city and having never been on a horse before, Frank tries to bluff his way into the Lighthorse. A very funny exchange ensues between Frank and Major Barton (Bill Hunter).
Barton: Any previous military experience, Dunne?
Frank: Yes sir. Five years in the Melbourne Horse Cadets.
Barton: Never heard of them.
Frank: Well, no sir. They never received as much recognition as they deserved.
They call his bluff and demand a riding test. When he is unable to even get the horse to move, he temporarily gives up on joining until he runs into three of his mates in the pub and decides to enlist in the infantry with them.
The scene shifts to Egypt where the ANZAC forces train for their mission. In a mock attack, the young men are jovial, taking great relish in the war games. They are still utterly delusional about the realties that await them in actual battle. They figure that they will kill a few Turks and resume their civilian lives. They go into town and barter with street vendors; they avail themselves of the services provided by a brothel. Time of your lives, eh kids?
Archy is surprised yet delighted to be reunited with his mate Frank. Still caught up in the excitement of their mission, they race to the pyramids. They climb to the top of one and discover the names of soldiers from previous conflicts carved into the walls.
Archy convinces Barton to let Frank into the Lighthorse, arguing that they will not be using horses but that his speed as a sprinter will be invaluable. When Frank shows off his new uniform to his infantry mates, they are not amused. Snowy (David Argue), his voice dripping with contempt, says to him, "Infantry not good enough for you … mate?"
Even upon landing on Gallipoli, Archy remains delusional about the battle that awaits him. With shells falling all around them on the beach, Archy has a smile on his face. Frank, rightly annoyed by this, says, "The thing I can't stand about you is that you're always so bloody cheerful."
Any delusions of grandeur that Frank might have held are quickly dashed when two of his mates, Barney and Snowy, die in the first day of fighting. The true nature of war – senseless death – hits him squarely in the jaw.
Archy still holds to his romantic illusions of the war as he writes a letter to his family just minutes before the major thrust of the attack is to begin:
We're getting ready to make an all-out assault on Johnny Turk, and we know we're going to give a good account of ourselves and our country. Everyone is terribly excited. There's a feeling that we're all involved in an adventure that's somehow larger than life.
Tactically speaking, the plan is for British artillery to pound the Turkish position until precisely 4:30 when the ANZAC forces would attack from their trenches. In what may be an indicative blunder that no one in the military would care to admit to, the respective commanders fail to synchronize their watches. The ANZAC commander, Major Barton, realizes that the bombardment has inexplicably ceased seven minutes too soon. The Turks have had time to return to their trenches. Amazingly, the English Colonel Robinson (John Morris) orders the attack to go forward.
In what seems a counterintuitive tactic, the soldiers are ordered to empty their rifles of all ammunition and charge with "bayonets only." The first wave is cut down by heavy machine gun fire. Most of the men don't make it but a few yards. A second wave meets an identical fate. With a key communication line cut, Frank, who has been chosen as a "runner," dashes to Robinson's bunker to inform him of the carnage:
Robinson: Tell Major Barton the attack must proceed.
Frank: Sir, I don't think you've got the picture. They are being cut down before they can get five yards.
Robinson: Our marker flags have been seen in the Turkish trenches. The attack must continue at all costs. I repeat: the attack must proceed!
Incredulous, Frank returns to the front line to deliver the order. Major Barton is in utter disbelief. When Frank suggests he go over Robinson's head, Barton orders him to "go like the wind" to General Gardner (Graham Dow), who grants a reprieve:
It does sound pointless to go on … tell Major Barton the attack is u2014 just tell him that I'm reconsidering the whole situation.
Meanwhile, with communications restored, Robinson reiterates his order:
Robinson: Those men should have gone, Barton. Marker flags have been seen.
Barton: Not by me, sir. I've asked for confirmation from General Gardner.
Robinson: Your orders are to attack and you'll do so immediately … you are to push on.
Barton: It's cold-blooded murder.
Robinson: I said push on!
As the men prepare for the next wave, they understand that it is nothing better than suicide, and they leave their letters, pictures, wedding rings and other valuables in the trenches. Archy leaves his race medal and the stopwatch his Uncle Jack gave him. As he prepares to die, he repeats the mantra that Jack used to motivate him before training sessions and races:
What are your legs? Springs, steel springs. What are they going to do? They're going to haul me down the track. How fast can you run? Fast as a leopard. How fast are you gonna run? Fast as a leopard. Then let's see you do it!
Frank, running faster than he ever has in his life, fails to reach Barton before he blows the whistle sending the third wave to their certain deaths.
In Gallipoli, Peter Weir has given us a compelling anti-war film. Instead of focusing mainly on the battle, he takes ample time to develop the characters and their friendship. He depicts the way the state glorifies war and hides its true nature from the young men who will wage it. By taking the time to develop the story, he makes the final scenes even more powerful.
Weir fudges a few of the facts: the Colonel who ordered thousands to their deaths was in fact an Aussie, not an Englishman. And despite an implication to the contrary, thousands of Brits died in the attack along with the ANZAC forces. Aside from the fact that it is not a documentary, and Weir has no duty to be completely faithful to all the details of history, he made these decisions in order to highlight the Australian resentment of British Imperialism.
Gallipoli vividly demonstrates the horrors of war and the politicians and generals who prosecute it. It exhibits their willingness, even fervor, to sacrifice thousands of men in ill-conceived, poorly planned and dubiously executed maneuvers. Any man who would order his boys, armed with nothing but bayonets, to charge a trench fortified by heavy machine gun fire is, as Major Barton avers, a cold-blooded murderer.
Should you rent this sparkling film, insist on the letterbox version. In the letterbox format, a film is presented in its Original Aspect Ratio (OAR). Most videos have been altered to fit the square box that is a standard television screen. In order for a wide screen film to be converted for TV screens, the film must be cropped, or a technique such as "pan and scan" must be employed. This is done for the masses, who don't like to see those "black bars" on their screen, which they perceive as the movie being smaller than it should. Of course, the opposite is the case: the film is not presented as the director, the artist, intended. This would be tantamount to the Art Institute of Chicago displaying their magnificent Claude Monet collection with all the paintings covered by black sheets on the left and right. Gallipoli's OAR is a gorgeous panoramic 2.35:1. To see it in pan and scan is to see only half of Weir's anti-war magnum opus.
The Great Anti-War Films:
October 30, 2001