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Gallipoli (1981)

Reviewed by Tom Ender

"From a place you've never heard of, comes a story you'll never forget."

The Gallipoli peninsula in Turkey was the site of one of the most appalling slaughters of what was known for many years as The Great War, but is now known more widely as World War One (WW1). When most Americans think of WW1 they think of Western Europe since that was where the American “doughboys” were deployed. However, WW1 truly was a world war. Turkey (The Ottoman Empire) was a participant in WW1 allied with Germany. Turkey’s defeat along with Germany and the subsequent parceling of the territory of the Ottoman Empire is one of the major factors that led to the current crises in the Middle East. Another film which gives different background on this subject is David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia. However, this movie covers the events which happened at Gallipoli from the point of view of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) who were deployed there.

The movie begins in May of 1915 in Western Australia with Archy Hamilton (Mark Lee) and his running coach Uncle Jack (Bill Kerr) practicing sprints for an upcoming race. Archy lives with his family on a cattle ranch, but he is anxious to see the world as his uncle did when he was younger. Archy views the war as potential for adventure and wants to enlist even though he is several years underage. Uncle Jack is ardently opposed to this as he knows the true nature of war so seldom grasped by the young until it is too late.

Frank Dunne (Mel Gibson) is another runner. He is introduced with his “mates”: Billy (Robert Grubb), Barney (Tim McKenzie) and Snowy (David Argue). They are also discussing the war with Frank being the only holdout against signing up. They attempt to use intimidation to convince Frank to join also, but he doesn’t change his mind at this point. Frank also heads to the same race for which Archy and Uncle Jack were training. Frank is a late entry, but manages to qualify and bets most of his money on his own win, even though he has been warned that the local champion, Archy Hamilton, is favored. Archy wins the race and Frank loses his bet, which leaves him with few assets.

After the race, recruiters for the “Light Horse” come to the track and start their pitch to the athletes and spectators to sign up. Archy attempts to join but is identified as underage by another ranch hand. Later he and Frank meet at a local eatery and Frank suggests trying with different recruiters in Perth. They hop a train, but end up in the middle of nowhere. Rather than wait two weeks they start a 50 mile trek across a “salt lake” basin. When it looks as though they might not make it out of the area, Archy sees a camel driver in the desert haze and they run to catch up with him. The Camel man gives them food and water and as with most dialog in this film their talk turns to the war. Archy and Frank’s conversation with this isolated individual is one of the most insightful in the film.

Archy and Frank both join the ANZAC and eventually end up at Gallipoli with Frank’s mates Billy, Barney and Snowy, but relating all the details here wouldn’t add that much to this review.

This is one of director Peter Weir’s (The Truman Show) best films. It is also one of Mel Gibson’s (Mad Max) best early films. With grim determination it shows the horrible history of WW1, the ghastly nature of war, how and why it attracts the young, the often numbingly stupid methods used by the military command and the special part played by Australians in that war. World War One was a particularly terrible war which might have been avoided. That it wasn’t avoided signaled the end of dominance for the classical liberal ideology which had emphasized peace and commerce throughout the world for most of the 19th century. World War One began the world spanning blood bath that characterized most of the 20th century.

All Quiet on the Western Front gives a similar WW1 story but from the point of view of a young German soldier. Paths of Glory also shows the corruption and horror that WW1 bred, only in the French military hierarchy. Legends of the Fall, although it is about more than WW1, gives insight on how that catastrophe touched the lives of many Americans. Breaker Morant is also about Australians at war in conflict with a corrupt British military hierarchy, but that movie is set at the time of the slightly earlier Boer war, which although fought on a smaller scale had many characteristics of the modern total war.

All of these other movies are antiwar or antimilitarist classics, and Gallipoli ranks right up there with them in showing the terrible waste of young lives for no reason which occurs with every war. Both All Quiet on the Western Front and Gallipoli also show how a false “patriotism” works to support wars which spread death and misfortune. Films like these should get a broader viewing audience. If they do, perhaps a better and broader understanding about the true nature of war might highlight that there are other options in human relations.

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