Saturday 2 September 2023

Gallipoli (1981)


Ærens vej til Gallipoli

If you know just a little about Peter Weir and his movies, you will know not to expect something as trivial as a straight war drama from him. Gallipoli is a big thing in Australia and in his hands “Gallipoli”, the movie, is really about two things: The coming of age of Australia as a nation and the idiocy or World War I.

The movie takes place in 1915, only a decade and a half after the formation of the Australian federation. In the outback of Western Australia, Archy (Mark Lee) dreams of going to war. Archy is the son of a ranch owner, or whatever it is called in Australia, and practicing to be a sprinter. At a local town fair race, he races a railway worker, Frank (Mel Gibson), who just quit his job. Both are excellent sprinters and end up bonding. Archy wants to join the light cavalry but is too young and Frank just wants to get to Perth. They ride a freight train but end up in the middle of nowhere and must cross a large saltpan in the desert to get a train out. Through Archie’s bush skills they manage and Frank helps Archie look older so he can enlist. Frank has no wish to enlist, but somehow gets involved anyway. As he does not know how to ride, he joins the infantry.

They end up in Egypt where the Australian and New Zealandic units are being formed in the what is known as the ANZAC. We see them practice and deal with being mates in a foreign country and eventually Archie and Frank reunite. As they are supposed to leave their horses behind, Frank asks and is permitted to join Archies unit. Then they are off to Gallipoli in Turkey. The ANZAC only controls a small strip of land along the shore with a steep slope up. Any attack is pretty much doomed as the Turks can, at leisure, move the attackers down with machinegun fire. The ANZAC must attack to draw fire from a British attack on another beach, but the attack is total disaster with everybody cut to pieces.

So, as I mentioned above, this is a lot about the formation, or coming of age, of Australia as a nation. The Australians are presented as naïve children who are living a comfortable and protected life, in sync with their environment, even one as hostile as the Western Australian outback. They are heading blindly into a war that really has nothing to do with them, but the adversity is fusing the country together and is giving them both a national trauma, but also a national myth about being Australians that is celebrated to this day as ANZAC day. Through my travels in Australia, I can testify that this is still a big thing there.

Having said that, this is an odd movie to watch. It is very pretty, as Weir’s movies always are, but it is also incredibly slow with the things happening seeming of little relevance to the overall story. My guess is that it tries to describe the idea of being mates and bonding Australian style, of the things that would form a young Australian at the time. Frankly, I found it borderline boring, if it had not been also very pretty to look at.

The war part is surprisingly short. We see them based on the beach of Gallipoli in a very relaxed atmosphere, until the moment of attack. This attack is presented as extremely moronic, with stupid errors from all levels of management, but it has to be done because management orders it so, and so everybody dies. The End.

I am not very familiar with the Gallipoli operation, but what I have learned is that practically everything that could go wrong did go wrong, largely do to poor planning and a lack of contact with reality. This could be said of most of that war, but at Gallipoli it all came together as a massive clusterfuck. The soldiers landed on the wrong beaches, the massive naval support was useless due to bad communication, the top brass who planned the thing had little understanding of the place, but worst of all, they thought they were fighting the previous war and had developed no tactic or technology to face the war they actually got and at no point did they face that fact and reconsidered their operation. If the spirit is right, you can face anything, even machinegun fire and to hell with losing a few (thousand) young men in the process.  “Path of Glory” is a good window into that world and Weir was known to have been heavily inspired by that movie.

An interesting detail is that while the score is often somber and classic, it changes into an electronic score by Jarre when Archie or Frank are running. First time I heard “Oxygene” being played I sat up wondering what was going on. It is nice music but a very odd choice for a 1915 setting.

I am not completely sold by “Gallipoli”. I understand what it is trying to do, but I have a feeling it would work better if I was Australian. As it is, it was just a bit too slow for me.  

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