Oftentimes a war film it is not so much about the battle as it is about the transformative experience of the war on individuals. Such a process is often glimpsed by viewers in one of two ways: a film such as Saving Private Ryan throws viewers squarely into the horrors of war from frame one, but there are other films that take a more contemplative approach to the conflict. Films like Full Metal Jacket and Tigerland give a glimpse into the soldier's psyche in boot camp before transitioning to battle; Gallipoli belongs pretty firmly in latter category. Like many other war films, Gallipoli does eventually put the audience in the trenches along with soldiers, but not before viewers witness the characters searching their souls, looking for something greater than themselves; and as it was with many men around the time of World War I that destiny lay somewhere on the frontlines.
Gallipoli is a 1981 film directed by Peter Weir, starring Mel Gibson, Mark Lee, Bill Hunter and Bill Kerr. Gallipoli was nominated for (and won) the Australian Cinematographers Society Award for 1982. Gallipoli was also nominated for twelve Australian Film Institute Awards (two of which were dual nominations in the lead and supporting actor category; Mel Gibson and Bill Hunter respectively captured these prizes for the film). The two awards it failed to garner were costume and production design, but it won best film, director, sound, editing, cinematography, screenplay, and lead and supporting actor. The film also received a Golden Globe nomination in the U.S. in 1982 for Best Foreign Film.
The story begins with Archy Hamilton practicing his sprints with his coach and uncle, Jack, on a dirt road. Archy sets a new speed record and in the next scene he engages a ranch hand in a friendly race: a barefoot man versus a man on bareback horse. The race ends with a riderless horse and Archy and his bloody, battered, and torn feet arriving on Jack's property. Jack proceeds to chastise Archy for wasting his God-given talents and jeopardizing an upcoming race. Archy mentions to Uncle Jack a friend who has enlisted in the army and expresses his desire to enlist as well. Jack quickly closes the subject, based on Archy's age.
Meanwhile, a quartet of friends including Frank (Mel Gibson) read about the looming Gallipoli campaign of WWI in the paper; three of them resolve to join immediately to do their part, but Frank is the lone holdout. Meanwhile, Jack and Archy depart for the big race at which Frank, a gifted runner in his own right, shows up to compete. The men in charge of registration offer Frank a warning that he's up against Archy, the recognized front runner in Western Australia. Despite being out of practice, Frank barely loses the race and makes an admirer out of Archy. After the army recruiters show up at the race, Archy leaves his uncle to try out for the cavalry, but his attempts are thwarted due to being underage and Archy hops a train to Perth, along with new buddy Frank, to enlist in the infantry. Due to problems on the train, Frank and Archy are forced to proceed across the desert on foot. On their journey, Frank and Archy talk, and differ, about a patriotic duty to join the war effort which in turn leads to tension filled stretches of silence. Frank and Archy meet a man in the barren, unpopulated desert, a man who feeds them and listens straight faced while Archy waxes philosophic about the obligation to enlist and the need to stop Germans from invading Australia! When Frank and Archy rejoin civilization, Frank agrees to join the army if he can learn to ride a horse and be part of the cavalry. Archy and Frank successfully enlist, but in different divisions: Archy wins a place in cavalry while Frank winds up in infantry. Months later, the Australian soldiers land in Gallipoli on a chaotic night and ensuing days of constant gunfire and explosions. Yet, amidst all the chaos there are strange moments of outright serenity while the war looms in the background. A British officer informs an Australian officer that their outpost and coming battle is merely a distraction meant to fool the Turks so that incoming British troops can land on nearby Suvla Bay. Archy is recruited to be a runner during this battle, but he trades the task to Frank. At the start of the battle, the Australians are ambushed coming out of the trenches, suffering heavy casualties, but the British commanders insist that the assault must continue. It becomes clear that the Australians are being sacrificed while the British are meeting little resistance at their landing.
As the Australian struggle takes up only the final twenty minutes of the film, the viewer may want to examine some of the real life consequences and figures of the Gallipoli Campaign. The climax of Gallipoli portrays the Battle of Nek as an immediate distraction for the landings at Suvla Bay, but the two events actually occurred about nine days apart. However, there are a few pertinent issues that are interesting: for example, the landscape and climate at Suvla and what influence it had in the Gallipoli campaign; how and why Winston Churchill was unfairly made to shoulder the burden of Gallipoli's failures and the consequences he paid subsequently; why a greater shadow loomed over the ultimate failures of Gallipoli: a disunity on every level that burdened the operation as a whole through a lack of support, a lack of strong leadership, and a lack of precise planning.
Winston Churchill originally had two plans to relieve pressure on the Western Front, the more lauded plan being the one the British Cabinet ultimately adopted: the Gallipoli campaign. The plan, which proved easier said than done was to take Turkey out of the war. Knocking Turkey out the war would keep valuable naval resources free from the perceived Turkish threat. Initially, the plan of attack did not include troops on the ground for support as the Royal Navy pounded the Turkish fortifications. However, after briefly engaging in combat with the Turks, the British ships were lured into mines. Shortly thereafter, a land campaign commenced and that went disastrously as well. Britain, not having seriously conducted campaigns in Europe since the Crimean War, was at the mercy of outdated techniques while the naval high Command in charge at Gallipoli had grossly underestimated the strength of the Turks. Churchill took the blame for the mistakes of Gallipoli because his plan had failed so spectacularly even though it had been approved by governmental decision. Eventually Churchill's public humiliation and diminishing power in the government culminated in his re-enlistment at over age forty into the army in November 1915 when he went to fight on the Western Front.
The Gallipoli Campaign, which stemmed from a plan to move through Turkey quickly and ultimately face off against Constantinople failed for numerous reasons. Chief among them: the initial failure of the British navy to do any significant damage to targets on land. In turn, the army command did not know anything about the Gallipoli Peninsula. Ironically, most of the primary information the troops used to try to understand the terrain was by means of guidebooks bought in gift shops.
There were four landing places that could be considered to achieve the objectives of land battles: northern Gallipoli near Bulair, Gaba Tepe, Cape Heles, and the Aegean coast of Anatolia. Sir Ian Hamilton, the British commander, considered a landing site at Suvla Bay, but it was deemed to be too far away to be of any real value. Hamilton was said to be a fearless and intelligent man but he possessed a timidity that could have contributed to the Suvla Bay being overlooked for as long as it was. Hamilton left the running of day to day operations to his generals and was simply too nice for the job, which required one to be unapologetic in the issuance of orders. He believed that making a suggestion to his subordinates was just as effective in getting the job done as giving explicit orders, which proved not to be the case. Instead of the Suvla Bay being considered a viable option, in April 1915 an attempt to capture the Kilid Bahr plateau in Heles was undertaken. The Suvla Bay landing suggested by Hamilton finally took place in August 1915. This action was meant to lead to the taking of Anafarta and Karakol ridges but the troops did not have the importance of taking the high ground impressed upon them despite the fact that they could have easily taken the territory. This would have been an ideal time to attack as the Turks were few in number. By the time troops finally got the opportunity to try to take the high ground, the Turks already held it and were deployed in force; this confrontation ultimately led to the British decision to withdraw from the area. It is also noted that the trenches in the Suvla Bay were constructed far too early, before additional ground had been seized. The Gallipoli Campaign was ultimately doomed to failure because the plan lacked proper military backing from the Allied High Command; there were other failings such as too little man power, too few munitions, and indecisive planning as well as poor communications that broke everything about the operation down into trivia and needless confusion. Research suggests that a serious consideration of the Suvla Bay as a landing site earlier in the battle would have allowed for better planning and possibly changed the face of the war for the better, giving troops control of the Dardanelles, and knocking Turkey out of the war.
The film Gallipoli has found itself caught on both ends of the critical spectrum. Janet Maslin of The New York Times hailed the film but added that the film had "the ring of a chronicle of boyish exploits, albeit an unusually good-looking and sweet one" but Richard Schickel of Time magazine had some decidedly unkind things to say about the film: "Certainly one cannot traverse this banal movie territory and arrive at the essence of the campaign that supplies this film with its title." Schickel also wrote that Weir was probably too ill-equipped to handle a project of this size and scope. Between the two critics, it seems that everything Maslin found to admire about the film, its beauty, pacing, and characters, was something that Schickel took the film to task for portraying. In actuality, Weir's film is gorgeously shot and the leisurely, contemplative character of the film's pacing is something to admire. The first few moments the film spends in Gallipoli with the soldiers chatting in the foreground while explosions and gunfire ring out in the distance (the war is eerily close yet distant all at once), make the war seem like a working vacation. The second shot of note involves soldiers swimming in pristine blue water while shards of rock and gunfire slowly begin to rain down on them. It is also in this moment that the tenor of the film finally, fully, changes.
The scenery in the film has a way of evoking character discontent, the big empty expanses of Australian countryside reflect the probing nature of the main characters who are looking for a grander sense of purpose; something that doesn't make them feel quite as empty as their Australian home. The deserts themselves with a vastly more open landscape remind viewers that while the Outback teases at hints of something greater, the emptiness of the deserts just causes the nagging emptiness to grow. Gallipoli, while also comprised much desert area, has an initial sense of beauty to it. The early scenes in Gallipoli allow the joy of ocean frolicking and the distant thunderous echoes of explosive ordinance to exist side by side. The film finally puts innocence and potential destruction side by side before allowing the lines between them to be blurred. It appears as if the film is asking the question: is this what you're looking for? A place that briefly approximates paradise, but is not your home, a place where you will most likely die.
The performances it should be noted are uniformly excellent and the two lead performances are largely symbiotic. As Frank Dunne, Mel Gibson is boyishly handsome, funny, and mischievous. Despite having played Mad Max already, Gibson lacks the crazy man gleam in his eye that would define his later roles and looks like a couple of hard battles away from being his trademark unhinged, but lovable film persona. Mark Lee looks a little more innocent than Gibson, but is more gung-ho from the outset about his patriotic duty to enlist and fight. Frank, unlike Archy, feels no obligation to his country, for the simple reason that they have involved themselves in a British war. Frank's family's history is rooted in anti-British sentiment, but Frank rather touchingly decides that whatever his personal beliefs are he has friends that he would gladly fight beside and he uses it as the impetus to go to war. That's one of the great things about Gibson's character, the loyalty his friends feel to their country is a loyalty he feels towards each of them individually. It is a character trait that Gibson gets to display in lieu of big speeches about how much he cares for people; an effective way of showing big emotions without having to show big acting. Gibson gives the slightly better performance than Lee and certainly has more layers to his character. Unlike the others, Frank has deep resentments to bury in order to do his job, more emotions than just a romantic one about battle that he has to struggle to keep in check. In the end, Frank rises heroically to the occasion of being a hero as his friend's resolve begins to crumble. In the moment of truth Frank does a pretty good job of modulating his fear. Fear is still readable in his eyes, but his body operates on instinct and adrenaline.
Mark Lee is also tremendous in his role as Archy. Archy is so earnest and sincere in his desire to fight for his country that it is hard not to be moved by his devotion. It certainly does not hurt matters that Lee has a certain youthful naiveté that could potentially provoke someone to want to protect that innocence or yearn to see the world through those eyes. Given that Frank's time with Archy is what provokes him to finally enlist, it stands to reason that Archy could very well be the reason Frank has realized that some people are worth dying alongside regardless of one's own more cynical concepts.
If there is anything about Gallipoli to pick on it is that music chosen for the film's running scenes has a synthesized quality to it that seems to date it immediately as a product of the 1980s. However, while the score sometimes struggles with being discordant to the movie as a whole, it sometimes lends an eerily appropriate dreamlike feel to the proceedings; as it plays only during scenes of running one gets the impression that the characters are barreling towards an uncertain fate, at the very least. The music does make an appropriate evolution into heroic theme music during the film's finale.
Richard Schieckel of Time magazine notes that director Pete Weir is not equipped to handle a film of this scope. That opinion in and of itself is a perfectly valid one to entertain, but the truth is that the scope of the film is perfectly suited to the aims of the film. The purpose of the film is not to tell us how the campaign fell apart, but to celebrate the battle's warriors and to chart the mysterious journey that each undertakes when he finds himself in the orbit of a cause much bigger than himself. Schickel also goes on to call numerous moments in the film banal and mundane, but the film is something else entirely: the film is full of the necessary steps to a bigger and more purposeful journey. The journey is perfectly suited to the canvas that Weir has been given. Weir asks big questions with his film about why we fight and who we will fight alongside and uses a small number of characters to suggest answers to those questions. No question about the nature of war goes inadequately addressed in this approach and if the canvas feels a little empty it is because the questions are too big, vast and unknowable, and the people asking and answering them are appropriately small in proportion to the question.
Ultimately Weir's film stands as a testament that no matter how little or how much we want to go to war, it is only the pivotal second and nothing before or after that determines whether we die in a hole or die on our feet.