Anzac Day classic movie review: Gallipoli (1981)

(image via IMP Awards)
(image via IMP Awards)

 

“Anzac Day goes beyond the anniversary of the landing on Gallipoli in 1915. It is the day on which we remember Australians who served and died in all wars, conflicts, and peacekeeping operations. The spirit of Anzac, with its human qualities of courage, mateship, and sacrifice, continues to have meaning and relevance for our sense of national identity.” (courtesy and (c) Australian War Memorial)

Uncle Jack: What are your legs?
Archy Hamilton: Springs. Steel springs.
Uncle Jack: What are they going to do?
Archy Hamilton: Hurl me down the track.
Uncle Jack: How fast can you run?
Archy Hamilton: As fast as a leopard.
Uncle Jack: How fast are you going to run?
Archy Hamilton: As fast as a leopard!
Jack: Then let’s see you do it!

Gallipoli, arguably one of director Peter Weir’s finest, most moving films, is a moving testament to both the very best and the very worst of the human spirit.

In the story of 18 year old stockman and sprinting sensation Archie Hamilton (Mark Lee) and roguishly charming ex-railway labourer and fellow sprinter Frank Dunne (Mel Gibson), we are witness to the way in which two very different men, one gung-ho for war, the other older and far more circumspect, come together as friends, compatriots and ultimately fellow soldiers in the Australian Light Horse Brigade.

Capturing the spirit of the age, in which a newly christened nation – Australia as a country has only been in existence for 14 years at the time – saw fighting in the far off fields of World War One against the German/Ottoman axis as a noble endeavour, even an adventure of sorts, Weir beautifully conveys how the brash, enthusiastic innocence of the 1910s slowly, and then brutally, gave way to the horrifying realities of war.

Enduringly upbeat, Archie is the most excitable of the two, bursting with excitement at the idea of lying about his age – you had to be 21 to enlist but many young men fabricated their ages so they wouldn’t miss out on what was perceived as a grand adventure – and going off to see far lands and do his best for God, family ( who know nothing of his intentions save for his Uncle Frank, played by Bill Kerr, with whom he is close) and country.

In contrast, Frank, of Irish extraction and understandably dubious about the merits of the British Empire, resists enlisting, even when his friends Bill (Robert Grubb), Barney (Tim McKenzie), and Snowy (David Argue) urge him to, only conceding to the ever present pressure to “be in it” when Archie’s idealism and friendship proves too strong a lure.

 

 

Like many men of their day who enlisted with patriotic stars in their eyes, their initial experience of the war confirms the sense that this is once in a lifetime experience to be celebrated and treasured.

Training in Egypt passes in a blur of mock military manoeuvres, days on the town and nights in the brothels of Cairo, and impromptu running races to the pyramids upon which they join Napoleon in carving their names in the ancient stones.

Older, wiser heads like that of their commanding officer, Major Barton (Bill Hunter) know that the reality that will confront at Anzac Cove will be nothing like the almost-holiday like atmosphere out on the Egyptian dunes but stays quiet knowing he cannot compete with the allure of the war mythos so prevalent at the time.

Weir this does an impressive job of comparing the wide-eyed idealism of many of the newly-emlisted troops, eager to engage with the Turks in battle, and some of the calmer, more considered older commanding officers, many of whom are all too aware that this is no adventure, all initial evidence to the contrary.

There is an achingly sad sense throughout this period that, for all the laughter, jocularity and drinking, we are witnessing lambs being led to the slaughter, the clock ticking down to the death of many good men and with them, the spirited innocence of the age.

Here is where idealism died, though not bravery, mateship and innate desire to do your best come what may, and a dark cynicism and despair takes over, the spectre of being witness to bloody omnipresent death haunting the men who survived the crowded, muddy trenches of Gallipoli for the rest of their blighted lives.

 

 

Rather than a grim treatise on the bloody futility of war however, although it most certainly indicts armed conflict between men in the most damning terms simply by showing it happening, Gallipoli is a poignant, deeply moving portayal of the deep bonds of friendship between Archie and Frank.

They act as exemplars of the men who landed, fought and died at Gallipoli, now marking its 100th anniversary, men who, though understandably frightened when the full import of war was made graphically clear, went on to make their mark on the Australian nation and its character for generations to come.

That the film is desperately sad is without question – you can’t witness that kind of  bloodshed without mourning to the core of your being the loss of so many promising men – with its finale among the most moving and emblematic in the history of cinema.

Gallipoli is above all a celebration of a different set of ideals that emerged from this conflict – those of camaraderie, a fair go for all, a healthy disregard for authority and most importantly a self-sacrificial, noble friendship that saw otherwise taciturn men give their all for their fellow soldiers-at-arms.

A great deal was lost at Gallipoli but much was gained, and it is thanks to the men represented by Archie and Frank, men who didn’t see themselves as heroes but once the innocent scales were peeled away from their eyes, fought like them, that many of us can enjoy the freedom we have today.

Weir’s Gallipoli is a testament to these men, a moving tribute to friendship, bravery and the willingness to give everything you have for your fellow man, but one that tells it like it is so we never, ever forget the horrible lessons of this, or any, war.

Lest we forget.

 

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