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!