Written by David Williamson & Peter Weir
Directed by Peter Weir
Set around a decade after Picnic at Hanging Rock, Peter Weir’s Gallipoli continues his interest in looking at the so-called “wonder of civilized society.” He does it this time by making a war film that spends a large chunk of its time looking at the characters on their way to the war. His purpose is to examine ideas closely related to white Australian culture that might not be immediately familiar to people outside of the continent. One of these is the idea of ANZAC, the belief that Australians and their cousins in New Zealand possess unique traits that set them apart from their ancestral lands. In many ways, this is the myth of American exceptionalism Down Under. Weir also knows that you cannot talk about war in this era without addressing male friendship and how profound that love can be and how easily it is abused.
Gallipoli follows two men: Archy Hamilton (Mark Lee), an 18-year-old farm boy and award-winning sprinter & Frank Dunne (Mel Gibson), an unemployed laborer who has run out of money. They meet at a church athletics carnival race and strike it off quite quickly. Archy opts to head to Perth instead of returning to his family to join the Light Horse cavalry to fight in World War I, and Frank, despite not knowing how to ride, chooses to join him. The film follows the duo as they head into the blasted desert and through the outback, eventually joining up. Circumstance separates the two only for a reunion in Cairo, where the Australian troops prepare to be deployed to the Gallipoli peninsula in Turkey. When finally confronted with the realities of war, the two men find it is much more devastating than imagined, yet they cannot escape their fates.
There is a refrain throughout the first half of Gallipoli that is vitally important to understanding what Weir is doing and adds that much more of an impact to the heartbreaking final shot. As Archy and Frank encounter Australians and discuss the war between each other, they are forced to explain how it all started. If you have read even a little about World War I, you understand it was one of the most senseless conflicts of that scope as it began with a very localized matter in Europe. One old Australian longtimer living on the edges of the desert remarks when he hears the Germans are the enemy of the British in this conflict that he knew a British person once, and they were a good chap. Even Frank, with his Irish ancestry, recoils at the idea of serving British commanders who treated his people so brutally.
The Battle of the Nek, which serves as the film’s climatic setting, is famous for being the site of an utterly futile attack against the Ottoman soldiers. In the movie, we watch as the Australian commander, given orders from his British higher-ups, sends his men up over the trenches, fully knowing they will be gunned down by the Turkish machine guns, something the Aussies wielding bayonets have no chance against. It’s this bleak wave of bodies getting mowed down that drives the drama of the third act. Frank is given Archy’s runner job, and ferries commands back and forth between those in charge. The irony here is that Archy has already been shown to be the superior runner, but he wants to keep his dear friend out of combat, so they switch. Archy is given a rifle and waits to leap over the trenches and rush into death.
The question that all of us must ask in the wake of yet another bloody war is, was this sacrifice of life on both sides worth it? For this particular battle, I think the answer is a loud NO. By spending so much time developing our two main characters and their close friendship, we are also hit with the weight of loss. They are bright young people with dreams & aspirations. They are enjoying life, and Weir showcases the sweet beauty of Australian nature as he so often does. It might be seen as “what they are fighting for,” but that consistent emphasis on not understanding why there is a war cut that down.
Frank is much more hesitant than Archy about joining up. The unemployed man only tags along because he has nothing else going on, and you can tell he treasures Archy’s friendship. They have a confrontation in the middle of the desert, a setting that serves as a metaphorical transition for the two men. They are moving from one world: the pastoral beauty of farmlands and church carnivals to the brutal realities of war. Frank voices his displeasure in this exchange:
Frank: Why me of all people?
Archy: Because you’re an athlete.
Frank: Haha! What’s that got to do with it?
Archy: I’ve got mates who’d be lucky to run the 100 in 12, and they’re gonna do their bit. So why shouldn’t you?
Frank: Because it’s not our bloody war!
Archy: What do you mean, not our war?
Frank: It’s an English war. It’s got nothing to do with us.
Archy: You know what you are? You’re a bloody coward.
Frank: There’s only one reason why I haven’t knocked you down, mate.
Frank: Because I don’t feel like carrying you to the next bloody waterhole. Now shut up, and don’t open your yap about the war again.
Frank reminds the audience that to sacrifice so much life, it has to be about something worth it or be connected to your home somehow. This war takes place on the other side of the world between parties who have never harmed these men. As the older man tells them, all he knows of Germans is that he was friends with a nice one once. This should be the thought all of us have when our governments begin to ring the alarm bells and talk of war. What has a Chinese person ever done to harm me? Why should I take up arms to harm the Iranian people? The people who have been the worst and most malicious to me are my fellow countrymen. In all honesty, civil wars make more sense than significant global conflicts at this point. When you fight World Wars, you often do so at the behest of big corporate interests. It’s only during the ginning up when propaganda flows and afterward when they romanticize the battles in the history books that we are convinced that anything about the awful affair is noble.
Gallipoli is a nuanced critique of war. It never shows its hand, but if you are paying attention to the characters and their journey through the film, there’s no other conclusion you can walk away with. The people we see on screen represent the hundreds of Australians needlessly killed fighting in an alien land against an enemy they had never seen before. What a tragic waste of so many lives.