Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Australian Audient: Gallipoli

This is the final installment of my 2014 series, Australian Audient.

By watching Gallipoli, I'm not only trying to end this series on a distinctive note, but also trying to correct a decades-old mistake in my movie lists.

You see, I have been giving myself credit for having watched the movie version of Australia's most tragic military engagement, when in fact I only saw about the last 20 minutes of it. And unlike other movies where I can't remember how much of it I saw, I knew full well that I had not watched the whole thing when I was over at my friend's house that time sometime around 1990, when his dad was watching it. Nonetheless, I credited myself with a full watch and have never gone back to set the record straight.

I can now do that. And to make the occasion more ceremonious, I actually watched the movie about Australia's darkest military moment on the 73rd anniversary of America's darkest military moment -- December 7th, otherwise known as the day Japan attacked Pearl Harbor.

Gallipoli (1981), Peter Weir's sixth film, commemorates the tragic World War I battle in which a volunteer army of soldiers from Australia and New Zealand were offered up as cannon fodder to the Turkish army, to distract them from a surprise attack by British soldiers on another front -- an attack that itself was totally bungled. Archy (Mark Lee) and Frank (Mel Gibson) are promising young runners who both hail from Western Australia. Initially rivals, the two become friends, but develop opposite perspectives on the efforts of British recruitment contingents trying to get Australian young men to sign up for the war effort in Europe. Mark is eager to serve queen and country, going so far as to lie about his age in order to be accepted into active combat. Frank wants nothing to do with a war that doesn't involve him. However, shortly after Archy ships out, Frank decides to enlist with another small group of mates who are heading to training grounds in Cairo. There Frank and Archy are reunited, continuing to test each other's speed while preparing to fight the enemy. Little do they know that they are part of a regiment that is being sent to fight a futile campaign on a peninsula in the Ottoman Empire (modern-day Turkey), where mismanagement and deliberate bad will led to numerous soldiers losing their lives while others (particularly British) were nearby brewing tea on the beach.

Gallipoli is, no doubt, a powerful film, especially those final 20 minutes or so that I saw when I was a late teenager. However, the lead-up to that unforgettable ending is where the film is slightly problematic. It's the task of any film that depicts a famous historical event, but only for a small portion of its running time, to fill the rest of the running time with an engaging and relevant story. Gallipoli is not totally masterful in this regard. Although the bonds between Archy and Frank are effectively established and the two actors have a very winning rapport, the film gives off the sense of having to pursue a number of lengthy episodes that don't really point toward that famous climax. They begin to feel a bit like filler, particularly the scene where Archy must race a jerk on horseback who challenges him to run a great distance in his bare feet, and the scene where Archy and Frank must walk 50 miles through the desert to reach Perth in order to enlist. While both scenes are reasonably effective in and of themselves, they don't contribute much to the overall thrust of the film. In the first scene, for example, Archy emerges from the test of his machismo with feet that are nearly ruined. It seems like this should have consequences for either his running career or his ability to enlist in the war, but in fact, it has no consequences whatsoever. When the movie was already an hour and 20 minutes old, I turned to my wife and told her it felt like it was still in its first act.

Still, I did say that these guys have a good rapport, and they certainly do. I should probably spend a moment on the charisma of the young Mel Gibson, who already has that whip-smart, sly-devil attitude that would soon make him an international star. You can allow yourself to forget, for a moment, that the man is currently laden with personal baggage, and just enjoy what the young and comparatively innocent version of Gibson had to offer. Lee is his more baby-faced foil, and the two give you an awful lot to care about when it's clear that their lives will be ruthlessly dangled for slaughter by an uncaring British military establishment.

Whatever treading of water the movie has to do to deliver you that final act, it's worth it, since the madness of military intelligence is so effectively communicated by the film's ending. Although I would normally not like to tell you how a movie ends, this one is historical fact, and you probably already know that wave after wave of soldiers were sent up over a ridge -- sometimes without even loaded weapons -- to run at an entrenched line of Turkish machine gunners that just mowed them down. They had exactly zero chance of surviving ... and yet they ran out there anyway. It's a moving testament to their sense of patriotism, and one can understand why this battle represented an awakening of the Australian consciousness vis-a-vis how the country's citizens were used and abused by the British (a theme that was also explored in Breaker Morant, a film I watched back in May). The callousness of the military commanders as they stick to their woefully failing strategies is shocking and angering, and represents the worst in how human beings can be sacrificed like chess pieces in order to win a battle.

Although I spoke ill of the film's first hour-plus and how it seems to merely amiably pass the time, I would like to highlight one moment, especially since it works as a funny kind of wrap-up moment in this series, and speaks to something essential about the jovial self-disparagement of the Australian character. As Archy and Frank are on their way through the desert to Perth, they encounter some kind of wayfarer/drifter who doesn't even know about the war. As the three of them offer uninformed theories about why we're fighting, one of the two younger fellows proposes that the Germans want to take over Australia. What follows is the absolute perfect line delivery by the drifter, who casts his eyes over the barren desert before him and sardonically mumbles "And they're welcome to it."

I said this was a wrap-up moment, but later in this month I'm going to return for one final wrap-up piece on the Australian Audient series, which will include a preview to my monthly series in 2015.

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