Starring: Mel Gibson, Mark Lee, and Bill Kerr
Directed By: Peter Weir
Written By: David Williamson
Very few genres can strike a chord in us like the war movie. It doesn’t matter which war is the subject of the film. It can be a brilliant portrayal of a revolt in pre-Revolution Russia (Battleship Potemkin), a brutal take at the Allied invasion of France (Saving Private Ryan), or an uncompromising look at the life of a soldier during Vietnam (Full Metal Jacket), the war movie always evokes some sort of emotion. Gallipoli is no exception. Set during World War I, it tells a tragic story of unneeded sacrifice made by Australian troops during a battle against the Ottoman Turks.
The film opens in Western Australia with two runners. The first is an 18 year old named Archy (Lee), who seems to have a great talent for running and trains hard with his uncle Jack (Kerr). The other is a drifter named Frank (Gibson), who’s fast because he has to be. Archy wants to run off to join the Australian Army while Frank doesn’t want to get involved. The two begin a friendship after they meet after a race (Archy wins). After crossing a desert via train and (mostly) on foot, they end up in Perth where they both enlist, with Archy joining the cavalry and Frank going into the infantry.
This is where things get interesting. They end up in Egypt to train where life is a giant party. Their training is laughable at best, but the soldiers are allowed to just have a grand time. They play rugby and get to intermingle with the locals (which includes visiting brothels and acting like a bunch of hooligans). This continues even when they’re shipped off to Turkey. Most of the men don’t seem scared at all, until they’re told to go over the top into No Man’s Land. It is during this time where the tragedy is seen. A commander who can’t see the battlefield gives orders that could result in the death of countless men…and it’s up to Frank, made into a message runner, to make sure this doesn’t happen.
While watching this film, one can’t help but to draw parallels from the motivations of the two leads to arguments that are made today. Archy talks about duty to his country, how the Germans need to be stopped or they’ll end up on Australian soil. When he asked why they’re fighting the Turks, he simply shrugs and says that they’re the German allies. Frank, on the other hand, is much more cynical and thus looks cowardly. He doesn’t see it as “their” war (meaning Australia) and can’t explain why he ought to go fight people who never did him any harm. It’s an interesting dynamic, the wide-eyed optimist vs the realistic pessimist.
The other striking thing about the movie is how lackadaisical war is treated. As stated before, the training is a joke and even the audience could see how these tactics simply won’t work. It’s as if they are expected to be cannon fodder (which, of course, is what many of them become). Not only is the training terrible, but the men arrive to the battlefield as if it’s no big deal. It’s a warzone and they don’t act like a thing is wrong. They even go skinny dipping into the ocean as artillery is shot at them (wounding one man in the process). Again, it’s only when they’re faced with the reality of climbing out of the trenches into machine gun fire do they get scared as a whole.
Bottom Line: While it does take a long to get going (and the actual battle is only ten minutes long), Gallipoli is an interesting look at the shock of war as well as the bonds forged between men during military service. The use of watches is a constant reminder of how little time everyone in the film has (Archy in particular is impatient and is always looking for a faster way). In the end, they run out of time (quite literally) in an agonizing shot of Frank who doesn’t quite make it and an iconic but heartbreaking ending shot of Archy as he runs across No Man’s Land.