Our Australian and New Zealand readership will not need a primer on ANZAC Day, which will once again roll around on Monday, 25 April. However, if you reside outside of the antipodes and are unfamiliar with the acronym, it stands for Australian and New Zealand Army Corps, and the day commemorates the beginning of the battle of Gallipoli in Turkey during WWI. Over time, ANZAC Day has evolved to commemorate and honor all members from the Australian and New Zealand militaries who died in service to their respective countries.
Peter Weir, who during the 1970s was at the forefront of an emerging Australian cinematic movement (with Nicolas Roeg), commemorated the events at Gallipoli with his appropriately title film, Gallipoli (1981). Weir has had an interesting career as a director, and is probably best known for efforts such as Dead Poets Society (1989), The Truman Show (1998), and Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003). However, I have found his earlier works such as Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975), The Last Wave (1977), and Gallipoli more amenable to my tastes. And, honestly, his Australian films seem to have aged better than his more Americanized ones.
Made in 1981, Gallipoli appears to be Weir’s last film in which he truly tackles issues concerning Australian national identity and consciousness. Despite the film’s title, the vast majority of the film takes place within Australia. At the hear the story are two young men, both competitive sprinters: Archy Hamilton (Mark Lee) and Frank Dunne, played by a young and charismatic Mel Gibson. Archy is desperate to “join the fight” as it were and prove his mettle in battle. Dunne, on the other hand, is a rather unsuccessful con-man who could care less about the world around him.
Gibson’s performance as Frank Dunne merits particular notice. The contemporary image of Gibson that has not only been forged through his own tabloid behaviors, including abusive relationships and anti-semitic comments, but through a series of stock roles of men who use their own physical pain and punishment to exhibit and unleash a rather vile form of masculinity. From Braveheart (1995) through Edge of Darkness (2010), almost all of Gibson’s characters attempt to claim the title of hero by having been victimized, often through brutal physical assaults, and then, in return, committing brutal physical assaults. I find this rather odious. Yet Frank Dunne shares nothing in common with these characters. His handsome smile makes one remember why Gibson was a heart-throb. While Frank can be a con-man, his cons are never successful enough nor sinister enough to make us hate him. In short, Gibson’s Dunne is charming and likeable.
After a sprint in which Archy narrowly defeats Frank, Frank tags along with Archy in Archy’s quest to join the cavalry and ship off to Europe to engage the enemies, whomever they may be. The irony of Archy and Frank’s journey is that it is an anti-walkabout. If the traditional Aboriginal Australian notion of the walkabout consists of wandering in the wilderness to discover who one is and how one fits into the world, past, present, and future, then Archy and Frankie’s “walkabout” consisted of them already knowing exactly how they fit into the world and simply trying to figure out how to navigate Australia to get their appointed places. Their certainty of purpose is met with the confusion of the Australian landscape, which throws them off course and nearly kills the two young men.
Their meanderings only demonstrate that they did not know how the world operated or where they fit into the cosmological and international order. Archy firmly believes that he knows how the world operates, and he has fully internalized the logic of “if we don’t fight them over there, they will come us here.” When he explains this to an old loner who wanders the barren Australian outback with his camel, the gritty old man disdainfully surveys the bleak landscape and surmises, “They are welcome to it.” This is one of my favorite movie lines of all time: a brilliant and biting critique of hawkish military philosophy.
When Archy and Frank finally arrive at Gallipoli, they become horrifically awakened to the reality of trench warfare. These penultimate scenes of trench warfare are some of the best I can recall. Weir does not slow down or speed up the action. He simply attempts to document the stupidity, pointlessness, and wastefulness of war and warfare. As viewers, we know that the second the soldiers show themselves above the trench line they will be mowed down, yet we still wish for the officer to refuse to blow the whistle to signal the attack and are terribly saddened when he does not. As the bodies of soldiers fall back into the trench, Weir makes us ask ourselves “What they hell were they thinking?”
Make no mistake, this is an anti-war film. The final scenes in the trenches in Gallipoli are full of condemnation for those who orchestrated the battles. The death and violence are brutal, unfair, and, according to the logic of Gallipoli, absolutely unnecessary. Furthermore, within an Australian cultural context, it asks the question of why it was necessary for Australians (and New Zealanders) to fight in the Gallipoli campaign. Ironically, while military implications had little if any impact on the security and safety and the antipodean nations, the cultural impact of the battle helped mold a national identity for the twentieth century.
While the film is anti-war, it succeeds in honoring those who served. Like Archy, many of them had internalized the logic of war, and like Archy, they were illogically shot down by Turkish soldiers who had probably internalized the same logic. At the end of the film there is a great sadness due to what is lost, and the soldiers are honored through the film wishing that their lives could be reclaimed and not tragically end near a beach in Gallipoli.
(Finally, on a much different note, I wanted to thank all of the volunteers and members of the James River Film Society who worked so hard and tirelessly to put on an amazing event. I did not see everything I wanted to see, but that was only because everyone at the JRFF scheduled an enormous, sumptuous cinematic feast.)