Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Review – Gallipoli

September 15, 2010

Gallipoli – Australia, 1981

There can be no denying the power and tragedy of the final thirty minutes of Peter Weir’s 1981 film, Gallipoli. Anyone with a knowledge of the events of World War I will watch as the film reaches its inevitable conclusion with a certain amount of dread. And because of how strong the ending is, I suspect many people will walk away convinced that the rest of the film was equally powerful and proclaim the entire film to have been either excellent or even – as many say about Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter - a masterpiece. It is here that we should pause and reflect a bit upon the events that preceded Gallipoli’s final sequence.

Gallipoli is essentially the story of two young men – both runners – who meet just moments before the start of a track competition somewhere in Australia. The first runner, Archy Hamilton (Mark Lee), is said to be the fastest runner around; the other, Frank Dunne (Mel Gibson), is no slouch on the track either and bets on himself to pull off an upset. He loses that bet, but just by a fraction of a second. Despite Archy’s prosperous future as a track star, he has his heart set on joining the Lighthorse brigade and joining his fellow countrymen on the shores of Gallipoli. Frank, on the other hand, wants no part of the war, believing it to be not Australia’s fight, yet he soon finds himself leading Archy across Australia in the hopes of finding a recruitment station that will either overlook or simply never know that Archy is not yet the right age to enlist. Along the way, the two become close friends, even though they appear to have little in common besides the fact that they can both run the 100-yard dash in under ten seconds. No matter though - their friendship seems genuine enough.

For Archy, the war is a personal calling despite the fact that he knows little about the actual reasons for the conflict. When asked how the conflict began, Archy responds, “Don’t know exactly, but it was the German’s fault.” He even repeats the time-honored cliché of needing to fight over “there” so as to prevent the enemy from coming “here.” Frank has a different opinion. “It’s not our war,” he tells Archy while the two of them are trekking through the rather punishing Australian desert. It’s fair to say that Frank never backs down from that assessment. Rather, he begins to see the war as a means to an end – go off, fight, come back an officer.

Despite the film’s rather serious subject matter, Gallipoli is filled with its share of humorous moments. Most of these involve Frank and his mates having a grand time in Egypt as perhaps only young men can. This involves engaging in behavior that may be fun for them, but probably does nothing for Egyptian’s perception of Australian troops. At one point, we see a military drill that no one takes seriously and which may have been a precursor to both laser tag and professional wrestling. There are also some nice moments of quiet introspection. One of them involves one of Frank’s friends, a starry-eyed young man who in one scene sits in awe of the pyramid standing majestically behind him. The scene reminded me that for some of these men, the war was their first, and potentially their last, opportunity to see the world.

Gallipoli does a good job of explaining the various reasons that the characters have for taking part in the war. For characters like Archy, it is a matter of either patriotism or duty, although at times I wondered what country some of the wealthier citizens were truly patriotic to. For people like Frank, it was a chance to obtain a better future. Neither of these groups can possibly know the betrayal that ultimately awaits them.

Both Mark Lee and Mel Gibson give impressive performances as two young men who grow to be the best of friends despite their competing visions of the war confronting them. Gibson in particular, in just his eighth film, shows an uncanny ability to portray both humor and emotional distress. It may be that few actors can do it better. Writer-director Peter Weir finds a way to blend what is essentially a buddy film for most of the film with powerful themes of war and sacrifice. While the first part of the film felt a bit too light-hearted to me at times, I found the story of these two unlikely friends to be quite involving. Sure, there are a few odd moments here and there, the strangest coming when an aborigine character begins laughing as he predicts that neither Archy nor Frank will survive the fifty-mile desert walk to Perth. For the life of me, I couldn’t see what was funny about the prospects of two young men dying. However, for the most part, Gallipoli fascinates and informs, which is what a film about history and war should do. By the end of the film, viewers will understand just why the events of Gallipoli have never been forgotten. The film is certainly worth seeing. Does it rise to the level of a four-star film? In my opinion, it doesn’t, but it comes pretty close. (on DVD)

3 and a half stars

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