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GALLIPOLI, 1981
Movie Review

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GALLIPOLI MOVIE POSTER
GALLIPOLI, 1981
Movie Reviews

Directed by Peter Weir
Starring: Mark Lee, Mel Gibson, Bill Hunter, Robert Grubb
Review by Trevor Hogg



SYNOPSIS:

Gallipoli evolves around the growing relationship between two runners whose destiny with death takes them to the Turkish battlefield where thousands of Australian soldiers were slaughtered during WWI.

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REVIEW:

War has the power to shape a country’s psyche especially when the military engagement involves young soldiers senselessly dying. One such defining moment occurred when Australia was barely into its teenage years as a nation with the infamous WWI battle of Gallipoli; it inspired Peter Weir’s 1981 film of the same name.

“I went to Istanbul, hired a car and drove to the battlefield, an extraordinary experience.” recalled the well regarded Australian film director of his 1976 trip to Turkey. “I saw no one in two days of climbing up and down slopes and wandering through the trenches, finding all sorts of scraps left by the armies: buttons and bits of old leather, belts, bones of donkeys, even an unbroken Enos fruit salts bottle. I felt somehow I was really touching history, that’s really what it was, and it totally altered my perception of Gallipoli. I decided right then and there that I’d make the film.”

In trying to capture the enduring significance of Gallipoli for Australians, Weir struggled for years on how to bring the historical event to film. “I could never find the answers in any books…so we [he and writer David Williamson] put the legend to one side and simply made up a story about two young men, really got to know them, where they came from, what happened to them along the way, spent more time getting to the battle and less time on the battlefield.”

Why did Peter Weir select the still relative unknown Mel Gibson for the part of the cynical and free-spirited Frank Dunne? “He told me he wanted me for Gallipoli… because I wasn’t the archetypical Australian.” replied Gibson. “He had Mark Lee [Archy Hamilton], the angelic-looking, ideal Australian kid, and he wanted something of a modern sensibility. He thought the audience needed someone to relate to of their own time.”

Lee’s athletic and somewhat naive character of Archy was inspired by a description of Private Wilfred Harper of the 10th Light Horse in an Australian WWI history book. It read: “Wilfred… was last seen running forward like a schoolboy in a foot-race, with all the speed he could compass.”

The opening scene has Archy Hamilton being put through his running paces by a fatherly uncle armed with a stopwatch. Entering a sprinting competition at a local fair the runner encounters Frank Dunne, a wayward railway worker, and a friendship is born. There is also a more serious game prevalent amongst these carnival activities. Young men are being recruited with promises of fame and glory in foreign lands. The former British colony, in the name of King and country, had entered the international arena of WWI. They were in need of new blood for their next mission which would become the ill-fated Battle of Nek, otherwise known as Gallipoli. Seeing it as a great adventure, Hamilton enlists whereas, Frank joins the war effort more out of not wanting to be left behind by his friends.

On their way to meet the departing troops in Perth, Archy and Frank cross a stretch of the Australian Outback that has a surreal lunar quality. The dramatic power of the alien landscape was not lost upon Weir. “It had a fabulously abstract appeal to me, to hear them arguing about the war, and whether it’s right or wrong to go, in the middle of a blinding nothing.” But that was not the only ethereal imagery in the movie, he remarked. “There are moments of unreality in the film - the small boy blowing the trumpet on top of the giant enlistment horse, the night landing, the sequence of the men swimming underwater at Gallipoli beach with the shells exploding around them.”

Orchestrating the principal photography for Gallipoli in Australia and Egypt was a major military undertaking in itself as some of the battle scenes involved using 600 and 700 extras (overall 4,000 people). As the laborious filming progressed, Peter Weir became more and more sensitive to the relentless working conditions of the cast and crew. “I’ll never forget one night addressing the men from the boats,” recalled Weir. “Feeling a bit guilty because we kept them in the boats and wading in the surf for five hours while we filmed shells whizzing around them. I said: “I’m sorry its been five hours, you’re released now and you might go home and get a bit of sleep.” And one of the extras said indignantly: “Don’t be sorry. We only spent five hours, the real ANZACS had to go up the hills under fire, march an hour and a half, then try to sleep with only a thin blanket over them.”

“Gallipoli was the birth of a nation.” Mel Gibson answered when he was asked about the battle’s significance to his adopted countrymen. “It was the shattering of a dream for Australia. They had banded together to fight the Hun and died by the thousands in a dirty little trench war.”

The historical battle happens during the last moments of the film. That was intentional revealed Weir. “I think there’s a Chinese proverb – it’s not the arriving at one’s destiny but the journey that matters. The end of the film is really all about that appointment [with destiny] and how they coped with it.”

The final freeze frame shot of Archy Hamilton running into battle and getting shot echoes the famous picture taken by legendary war photographer Robert Capa during the Spanish Civil War.

As for Gallipoli answering the call of destiny, the movie won eight of twelve Australian Film Institute nominations including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actor (Gibson) at the nation’s equivalent of the Academy Awards.

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