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OZ CINEMA
Your guide to Australian film.
By Joshua Smith

Film Review: Gallipoli (1981)

Author: Joshua Smith
Published on: November 4, 1997

Leading Players: Mark Lee (Archy), Mel Gibson (Frank Dunne), Bill Kerr (Jack), Ronnie Graham (Wallace Hamilton), Harold Hopkins (Les McCann), Charles Yunupingu (Zac), Heath Harris (Stockman), Gerda Nicolson (Rosa Hamilton), Robert Grubb (Billy), Tim McKenzie (Barney).

Main Crew: prod, Robert Stigwood, Patricia Lovell; dir, Peter Weir; writ, David Williamson (based on a story by Weir); dop, Russell Boyd; ed, William Anderson; mus, Brian May; prod d, Wendy Weir; art d, Herbert Pinter.

Acclaimed as one of Australia's finest cinematic achievements, Peter Weir's Gallipoli is an extraordinarily moving anti-war film that, while shot at an epic proportion, is a personal, endearing portrait of two young Australians. Archy (Mark Lee) and Frank (Mel Gibson) come from opposite ends of the social spectrum. Still, they, like 300,000 other Australians, find unity in their compulsion to seek out adventure and competition in a foreign land. Not essentially a "war film," it is a film about war. Weir has been careful to avoid dismissing the tragic tale of Australia's ill-fated attempt to gain control of the Dardanelles as a mere action film. Instead, he emphasises the journey (both physical and mental) of the two main characters. Through this journey motif, a number of issues arise that help to explain Australia's blind, but determined, involvement in the First World War. The first of these is the feeling of loyalty towards the Empire.

Still trying to define itself as a nation that is able to stand alone, the Australia of 1915 was a country that felt compulsive links towards its mother country. The mixed attitudes that Australians felt regarding the British are exploited effectively by Weir and Williamson. The most obvious contrast comes from Archy's ignorant patriotism and Frank's cynical pragmatism towards the English. This contrast alludes to another of Gallipoli's powerful themes — competition.

The traditional concept of the Australian sporting spirit is realised in Gallipoli on numerous occasions. It is brought to our attention most obviously through the running motif, the anti-British sentiment and occasions of gambling. This part of the Australian ethos contributes strongly up to Frank's determination to sign up for the war effort. Sport, an integral part of the Australian persona, is effectively linked to war by Weir, indicating that our soldiers are merely playing a man's game — but this time, there will be no winners.

Another aspect of the national myth brought to the fore is the concept of mateship. The mysterious force that bonds Australians together in times of need is ever-present in the incessant peer pressure exerted by Frank's friends. Visually, it is best summarised in the arduous journey in which Archy and Frank embark across a desert stretch. Using the 2.35:1 aspect ratio to his full advantage, Weir created a sense of isolation between Frank, the city-slicker, and Archy, the country-boy. While capturing the vast, desolate expanse of desert in a magnificent homage to nature, Weir positioned Archy and Frank at extreme opposite ends of the frame. Over time, though, as social barriers are broken down, and the urgency of the situation escalates, the gap between the two closes.

Archy, in particular, is also driven by the desire to prove that he is indeed a man. Knowing that his metamorphosis would be complete only after he's accepted into the military force, Archy sets his mind on doing just that. This theme forms a motif throughout the picture that is seen clearly when Frank attempts to give Archy a fake beard. His uncle, too, helps shape Archy's destiny in regards to his decision to enlist since he himself joined the army and experienced adventure in foreign lands while officially under-age. The motif is continued in the uncle's reading of Kipling's The Jungle Book in which he describes Mowgli's transformation into a man.

The promise of adventure in far-off, exotic lands is also indicated throughout the film. Perhaps the most memorable image of this is the wheeling in of a giant wooden horse in order to lure people into enlisting in the light horse brigade. Like the Trojan horse from Greek mythology, this "gift" is seen as a sign of adventure, wealth (of spirit) and the grand nature of war. Behind its confident fašade, however, is a trap. Just as the city of Troy was destroyed after its citizens embraced the Trojan horse, its reappearance in Western Australia can be seen as powerful foreshadow of the tragic fate that will meet these men. Interestingly, though, the men are still entranced by the glory of war as their boats slowly drifted in towards a hillside of Gallipoli, lit up like a Christmas tree.

In spending the greater part of the film exploring the relationships between Archy, Frank and Frank's friends, Weir has created an intimate and personal essay that deals with the concept of war and what drives men towards war, while remaining a powerful testament against war. Through his lengthy lead-in to the final conflict, a deep sense of connection and mateship is forged between the major characters and the audience, making the film's tragic conclusion all the more affecting.

In contrasting the isolated and personal elements of Australia with the hard-edged reality of war in Gallipoli, Weir utilised a number of cinematic techniques. Most notably, the majority of the Australian scenes are shot with a tighter lens than those in Gallipoli, indicating that once the men found their way to war, they became little more than numbers — human ammunition. He also draws visual comparisons between the sparse, lifeless deserts of Australia and those of Egypt and, in doing so, suggests that these men's struggle is thoughtless and insignificant in the greater scheme of things. The pyramids, "man's first attempt to beat death," have witnessed men coming and going. They stood through the Napoleonic wars and will stand through the "war to end all wars." This theme, and the overbearing nature of their immortal structure, can be linked to Weir's earlier work on Picnic At Hanging Rock (1975).

Brian May's musical score is used to good effect in heightening the emotions of the audience, while avoiding the powerful, patriotic tunes traditionally associated with this genre. The use of Albioni's "Adagio in G Minor" also enhances the splendid production by creating a haunting, adventurous background to the visual action.

Weir patiently constructed Gallipoli in such a fashion as to enable his audience to become emotionally attached to Archy and Frank. Their spirited youthfulness, enthusiasm, joy of living, competitive nature and the mateship that they share is used to great effect in highlighting the awful betrayal of war. In doing so, and in the chilling frozen framed conclusion, Weir has shown how quickly and pointlessly young lives can be destroyed. His visual masterwork carries a deep anti-war message that strikes home powerfully in its examination of the futility and tragedy of war.

 
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