In the mid 1970s and 1980s in Australia there was a huge flowering of home-grown cinema.
In the mid 1970s and 1980s in Australia there was a huge flowering of home-grown cinema and director Peter Weir was very much a part of this renaissance. Starting with The Cars That Ate Paris (1974) and Picnic at Hanging Rock in the following year, then The Last Wave (1977) and The Plumber two years later, in 1981 he directed and shared writing honours with David Williamson on Gallipoli.
An intensely complex narrative, covering so much ground and, literally, country, in less than two hours, it defies categorising by the conventional genres. There’s something for everybody and that’s perhaps why it’s variously described as an adventure, historical account or drama. Even Mel Gibson referred to it as not so much a war film as a story of two young men set against the background of war. And this is why Gallipoli is so significant in the Australian film landscape.
The two young men whose short lives are chronicled are Archy Hamilton (Mark Lee) and Frank Dunne (Gibson). This movie propelled Gibson onto the international stage and a life in the US, but in Gallipoli it takes him and his mates plus Archy to the other side of the known world. Archy is an 18 year old stockman but his passion in life is to be a successful sprinter. The opening scenes clearly establish his character and contrast it with Frank, the unemployed railway labourer.
The Great War is raging in Europe and all the Dominions, including Australia, are being urged to send troops to the aid of the mother country. In this historical context, the recruiting officer at the WA country sports carnival, appeals to his young, impressionable audience with 'war is the greatest game of them all'. With the benefit of hindsight, our hearts sink, recognising the dishonesty inherent in this statement whilst glimpsing why such a sales pitch would appeal to a young idealist like Archy and hundreds of thousands of his contemporaries.
The other phrase that has stayed with me over the 30 years is Archy’s uncle and trainer, Jack’s (Bill Kerr) exhortation, remember, your legs are like steel springs. This phrase assumes huge significance when, in the closing scene of the disastrous attack on the entrenched Turks at the Nek, Archy is last seen running, unarmed, as fast as possible forwards... toward the enemy! The final frame is frozen, with his head thrown back as his body is riddled by the machinegun fire. It’s been likened to the iconic image of the soldier in the Spanish Civil War.
At the personal level, Gallipoli follows Archy and Frank from rural WA, via Perth and the Indian Ocean and Egypt to ANZAC Cove. It beautifully captures the strong bond of mateship between all these young soldiers, but particularly between the two leads who are from such different backgrounds and, consequently, at least initially, have such different beliefs. They personify the divergent attitudes to Britain and 'her war' in a nation which had only existed for 14 years.
Gallipoli deserves to be in my top five because it succeeds at so many levels. It’s a great yarn about a couple of young blokes off to see the world. Contemporary audiences can still relate to this. It accurately and faithfully recreated a bygone Australia and reminds us all of the vastly different society in which our grandparents lived. A world which was both simpler and tougher; more self-reliant and physical. And, finally, the bumbling, bone-headed stupidity of trench warfare and infantry charges is vividly recreated in all its gore.
All of which can be summed-up as a tale of lost innocence. Gallipoli powerfully portrays both the coming of age of the protagonists (at ANZAC Cove) and a very young Australia. The outside world was calling but it could be dangerous, ugly and, even, fatal.
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