Gallipoli is an iconic film that encapsulates a lot of things Australians like to believe about ourselves. The notions of mateship, larrikinism and of course the ANZAC legend are intrinsic to the idealised version of ‘Australian’, but you don’t need to know about WWI to appreciate the film. The history of European occupation here is short and often brutal, and Gallipoli also raises questions about national identity and our tie to England. The use by Britain of Australian and New Zealand troops in the front lines and as cannon fodder is part of the legend, and the tension between loyalty and resentment is always present in the film.
Running is a constant theme through the movie, and Peter Weir made a really unusual decision to use a piece of music that resolutely does not fit the era. Oxygene by Jean Michel Jarre became a hit here after the film was released. While the electronic sound was at first startling, it helps boost the sense of urgency and propulsion in those scenes. It’s not a war film as such, although if you saw the dreadfully cheesed up trailer for the US market you might think so.
Peter Weir tells a story about friendship, and loss of trust in the powers that be.
Archy (Mark Lee) is a golden boy; blond, blue eyed, athletic, a capable stockman, a good kid. He is idealistic, naïf and likeable. He just wants to join up and defend his country. Archy struck me as a Boy’s Own type of hero, always doing the right thing and looking out for his mates. The film opens with him training for an upcoming sprint race, and talking to his Uncle Jack (Bill Kerr). Their dialogue gives me a lump in the throat every time, because I know how this story ends.
There is a lovely scene of Uncle Jack reading to the spellbound younger kids and he is reading the bit from Kipling’s Jungle Book when Mowgli has to leave his pack and start life as a young man. And that’s what Archy thinks is his duty – leave home and be a man. Mark Lee gives Archy an angelic face and a sense of quiet determination. When he makes one decision that will reduce his personal safety, he looks to be hiding his fear as well as happiness and these subtleties really make the character.
Frank (Mel Gibson) is a more cynical character. Initially refusing to join up and fight for something he doesn’t believe in, he decides there may be more opportunities for a returned serviceman after the war. Frank is the more modern character in some respects. He doesn’t buy all the rhetoric, nor does he trust the people in charge. He is a charmer and a chancer, and as different from Archy as you could imagine. Being Irish, he sees the war as England’s war and doesn’t feel the patriotic fervour that leads young men in these country towns to sign up en masse. It’s so sad to see how many men and boys from one region are listed as war dead on country memorials. Mel Gibson has become a bad joke in recent years, and clearly has demons of his own to deal with. It’s refreshing to see him back when he was just a nice looking guy who could really act. His is the strongest performance in the cast as he shows the most change in his personality and is the instigator for many memorable moments.
Archy and Frank are amateur sprinters and they meet in competition. They bond through what I will say is a typically male enterprise – taking a shortcut without really knowing the directions.
There is another myth I think a lot of Australians like to believe about ourselves, which is that we are at one with the land and can survive in the great outdoors. The reality is, of course, that if you drop most of us in the outback we’d be goners.
The boys cross paths again at a training exercise where they are supposed to pretend to kill each other, and Archy manages to get Frank transferred into the Light Horse. They have great chemistry and their friendship is really fun.
The ensemble of backing actors is fantastic. Many are better known for work on stage and TV, but Australia has such a small performing arts sector that actors do tend to work in multiple media. Robert Grubb, David Argue, and Tim McKenzie as Frank’s mates, and Bill Hunter as Major Barton are brilliant and get some of the best lines.
There is a scene where the troops were playing Aussie Rules near the Pyramids – it’s so Aussie! I loved it.
The boys also represent a gamut of views, with reasons for signing up ranging from patriotism to racism to hoping the girls fancy a man in uniform. They are the average blokes and their stories are shown in glimpses, not always articulated, but not neglected.
The cinematography by Russell Boyd is just sublime. A lot of the location shoot took place in South Australia, which also doubles for some of the Egyptian coast, and it is beautiful.
John Seale was among the crew who captured both the wide expanses of the outback and small intimate moments and made it all look beautiful. So much is told through imagery and juxtaposition of scenes that no words are required.
When I first saw Gallipoli, it was Archy that I felt for. He was just so … nice. When I’ve had occasion to watch it again, I relate more to Frank. He is imperfect, a bit full of himself, but he tries so hard to do the right thing when it matters. I think Frank is the modern viewpoint, questioning why he should be involved in someone else’s problems. While the characters are representations of the central argument, each of them is distinct and believable.
The brilliant screenplay by David Williamson contains the sweetness of bromance, comedy and also some bite. He doesn’t let the sentiment gloss over the less appealing behaviours that can spring from a sense of moral superiority or entitlement. Witty one-liners undercut the tension of the war and there are constant reminders that war is not an abstract concept, it is people fighting for their lives. He allows even the most unpleasant character to have some humanity so I can relate to all of them, like them or not. There are a couple of historical inaccuracies but as I am not a war historian, I don’t think it matters in terms of how the story plays out.
So back to my original thought. If you haven’t seen much or any Australian cinema, this might be a great place to start. I do love this film, and the themes really resonate for me. Leaving aside the ANZAC connection, I would still say see it as Gallipoli has an engaging story and a witty and moving screenplay. It’s also a ‘Who’s Who’ of Australian film making. But mostly – it’s a great story beautifully rendered. 4 stars!
Oh – I can’t believe I haven’t seen this, given the ANZAC connection. Looks wonderful, will seek it out. (Btw I think it’s kind of funny that everything you say the Australians like to believe about themselves pretty much holds true for Kiwis too…we’re not so different, LOL).
Hi Ness – You know, I had a bet with myself that you would be the only person who might read this and who would have seen the film. It’s a movie that made an impression on me back in the day, and it has stood up over the years so I say give it a go. It’s easily found online. There’s even an Italian dub if watching a film in English is just too weird for you 🙂 Temple
You and I have talked before about some of your recommendations for Australian film – maybe we can all convince you to write some up here for all to enjoy? I don’t think I’d even heard of this one and am reticent to add it to my queue because 1) there is probably a reasonable corollary from my self-imposed “Beth is not allowed to watch WWII films” (I haven’t even seen Schindler’s List) that includes WWI films as well and 2) I generally find other culture’s war movies even harder to watch than my own, since at least in American ones, no matter how ridiculous and bombastic, I have solid context to analyze them with and have a good sense of why they’re doing what they’re doing. HOWEVER, you are a top trusted adviser on the question of Australian film, so I will file this title away in my head and perhaps get to it when I am feeling emotionally stable and unlikely to be devastated.
Somewhat related, are there any films that are set in the years leading up to WWI or WWII? I do a lot better with that kind of discussion. I had a lot of fun screeching at the people in Downton Abbey and the new Upstairs Downstairs about how they had NO IDEA what was coming and they HAD BETTER LOOK OUT.
Thanks Beth 🙂 I will write up more of my favourite non-Indian films in due course. Sometimes even I need a break from the snakes and the lycra.
Re Gallipoli. I agree there is a lot to be said for avoiding war films across the board. But I would encourage you to consider this one because it is more character focussed, and also a low-tech effects film about a low-tech war so it isn’t full of explosions and people being shredded by bullets. The war is happening, but sort of in the background for most of the film. Peter Weir navigated a nice line in that he didn’t glorify war nor did he denigrate the sacrifice of the people involved. So it didn’t outrage me on those counts, but it does make me sad to see such loss. In terms of the context, the first section of the story gives that context, and a lovely and accurate glimpse of rural life, and so it’s all pretty clear. In many Australian films the ideals of mateship and ANZAC spirit are mentioned or implied, and there’s a whole Australian/un-Australian thing that gets trotted out, so this actually spells it out and , like the FSSFG, you can apply those concepts to other materials. And Gallipoli is often very funny, and is a good example of the dry, sarcastic humour I think is typically Australian.
I actually dislike a lot of Australian historical or period films as often they are just hours of beautifully filmed and costumed misery featuring rum, sodomy and the lash and our murky convict origins. Or they’re about Ned Kelly. It gets tedious as it’s well worn material (for me). And I won’t even start on the representation of indigenous and non-European settlers. As with any film making country, there is a clear divide between films that portray the way we would like to believe we were, and ones that tell it like it was. But there are some for the time periods you request I can probably recommend. I’ll have a look through some lists and let you know.
Hi Temple. I think Gallipoli is a classic and it’s one of my favourite Australian films too even though it makes me cry. In my mind it’s kind of like the Aussie Lagaan but without the cricket or the taxes.
yes…more death and less dancing than Lagaan though.
Now I’m wondering what the American Lagaan is. Maybe Rudy, which I’ve never seen, or Field of Dreams?
What a beautifully insightful review of one of my favorite films. You are a very talented reviewer Cousin!
oh Temple, I wish I could have helped you win your bet with yourself! Review more Aussie flicks! I’m sure to have seen…something…sooner or later, though the last Aussie film I saw was probably the most depressing film I have ever seen in my entire life and may have put me off for a while: Samson and Delilah. Woah.
We’re linking to your article for Peter Weir Friday at SeminalCinemaOutfit.com
Keep up the good work!
Thanks that’s very kind of you. I’ve just been reading your site – nicely eclectic! Cheers, Temple
Pingback: Peter Weir Friday – Watch: ‘Gallipoli’ (1981) | Seminal Cinema Outfit