Gallipoli is not as much a war movie as it is a road picture with the Battle of Gallipoli as the destination. The story only gets down to the business of war within the last 30 minutes of the film.
This battle is to Australians in many ways what Pickett’s Charge was to American South in our Civil War, a moment of definition for the national character. The fact that it was a folly that ended tragically is part of the point. For those who see battle as the ultimate test of manhood, to advance in the face of the certain death is the unquestionable display of your commitment to duty. The second and later waves of Australian soldiers to go over the edge of the trenchline during the Battle of the Nek were as certain of their fate as any man in Pickett’s divisions.
Peter Weir‘s film starts in Western Australia in May of 1915, just as the Battle of Gallipoli is beginning. Australia is a relatively young nation, only having gained its independence in 1901. Young men, egged on by stories of heroism from the Turkish front and appeals to patriotism at home, clamor to enlist.
One of these young men is Archy Hamilton (Mike Lee), an 18-year-old rancher’s son and a sprinter training for a big race under the eye of his Uncle Jack (Bill Kerr). Archy wants to enlist but his is too young by three years and his parents won’t allow it. Frank Dunne (Mel Gibson) is a railroad worker whose three mates Billy (Robert Grubb), Barney (Tim McKenzie) and Snowy (David Argue), are all hot to enlist as well. Frank, an Irishman whose grandfather died at British hands, has no interest in fighting what he sees as an English war.
Frank is also a sprinter who happens to enter the same race that Archy was training for. After the race, Archy tells his uncle that he’s not returning home but staying to enlist in the Light Horse Brigade. He is rejected for being too young but Frank takes him home to Perth where no one knows him. Archy and Frank become fast friends and Archy slowly convinces Frank to join as well. Unable to ride a horse, Frank is rejected as a Light Horsemen but later, after re-uniting with his mates from the railroad, he joins them in the infantry.
The story then follows them to Cairo for their training as well as general carousing before being shipped off to Gallipoli. There they endure the combination of tedium and terror that is trench warfare before the ill-fated attack on the well-defended Turkish position known as the Nek.
The end of Gallipoli parallels the beginning of another World War I film, the classic Paths of Glory by Stanley Kubrick. Both passages deal with the results when callous generals, isolated from the reality of the war, order suicidal charges on impregnable enemy positions. Rather than showing the callousness and cynicism of the commanders in the aftermath, like Paths, Gallipoli chooses to show how a generation of innocent young men can be duped by proganda, appeals to patriotism and peer pressure to throw themselves into the meat grinder of warfare, thinking it will be a grand adventure. It that way, it offers a modern interpretation of the theme of the 1930 classic All Quiet on the Western Front.
Gallipoli manages to tell its tale on a relatively small, spartan scale. The Battle of Lone Pine, which preceded the attack at the Nek, is portrayed only by camera shakes, sound and a look of mounting horror on the faces of Archy and Frank. Its intimate focus on the two characters allows director Weir to tell a much larger tale without restaging the entire campaign (something the early drafts of the script initially tried to do).
I only have one minor quibble with the film but it’s a common symptom of movies from the early eighties. There is something not quite right about a period film with modern electronic music. Chariots of Fire got away with it, but in my opinion, Gallipoli does not. It’s not as jarring as the Alan Parsons-produced score on Ladyhawke but it still jerks you out of the movie.