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Historical Conscience and Consequences

Australian Film Industry Awards
Getty Images, Mel Gibson, Mark Lee, Peter Weir, Hulton Archive, Patrick Riviere



War is a compelling force to bring to the movie screen. It often uses a component of historical subject matter that translates past experiences into the present. The idea is to have themes of morality and inner self-conflict surface to an audience and propel deep-seeded discussion. Circumstances in a war film can be related to a specific battle or psychological factors correlating behind the scenes of the front lines. Production technology and cinema direction allows a way for gruesome, heartbreaking and tension-filled scenes to emerge. An audience is always drawn into a storyline when the characterization is portrayed in a vivid and relatable level. The characters represent pieces and words of humanity that draw out our fears and expectations whenever a tale of physical and societal danger emerges.

War can be outlined as a tragedy to the damage of human life just as it can elevate the human spirit composed as a strategy. History is enveloped with several different opinions and attitudes in regards to one specific event or many events mirroring that time period. The movie, streamlined with many fragments of action and suspense, allows a chance for a local audience as well as a wider audience to become familiar with what was taking place. War is also a subject for personal debate amongst the viewers. This particular moment is how people define and relay their value system, whether or not it is in favor of the details proceeding. Details in play stir the imagination as to the deepest fears and wishes people seek for themselves and the nation they are a part of. At the same time, a war-related timeline is an excellent feature to display as a backdrop in the midst of personal evolution in film comprised characters.

Gallipoli, released in 1981 to a predominantly Australian audience, is an example of how many layers of script-writing brought experiences of human nature and war in a memorable formula. Gallipoli was an important film in showing the roots of national pride. As a result, it became successful in the local arena but also recognition in a worldwide setting.

Gallipoli is the product of a small but dedicated cast. The budget, ranging just under three million, was the highest in Australia at that time. Majority of film scenes were featured in several parts of that country, but scenes of the story in Egypt were filmed directly in that area. The lead character is played by an actor named Mark Lee, who is a relatively unknown star outside his native country of Australia. His prior participation is spotty but noticeable in the 1969 film, Strange Holiday, an adaption of the Jules Verne penned novel of the same name. In 1987, he was in a television movie called Vietnam, and that was noted for being one of the first screen appearances by actress Nicole Kidman. The second lead in the film was actor Mel Gibson, who was on his seventh official film appearance. Prior to this movie, Gibson was recognized for the first and second Mad Max pictures. The director of Gallipoli was Peter Weir, and he was entering his seventh directorial release. This movie cemented a lifelong bond between Weir and Gibson and resulted in another collaboration just one year later: The Year of Living Dangerously. Weir would go on to direct several other famous films that were hits in American cinema: Witness (1985), Dead Poets Society (1989), Green Card (1990), The Truman Show (1998) along with Master and Commander (2003).

Gallipoli features a pivotal battle during the World War I era that holds significance not only for Australia but also New Zealand. The location of the city is a part of Turkey and they were considered allies of Germany at the time of the war. The conclusion was a heavy defeat of casualties on the allied side. The response was important for the formation of Turkey as the Ottoman Empire at the time was falling. Australia and New Zealand look back on this event as a form of national pride as they were able to participate with troops in the fight just as they were becoming recognized dominions of independence. The entire attack was orchestrated by the British. Weir was fascinated by the events and wanted to make a lasting tribute to what was a rarely recognized event by most Western nations.

Gallipoli takes place in the spring of 1915. The film opens with the location of Western Australia. Archy Hamilton (played with charm and passion by Lee) enters the first scene as a training runner. His uncle is his teacher and he insists he can handle many races due to speed equivalent of a leopard. Archy is eighteen and a stockman who is also driven to contribute in the armed forces as knowledge of the war activities breaks out. The uncle would prefer his nephew stay in town and pursue his talents.

Attention of the film next turns to an unemployed railroad operator named Frank Dunne (portrayed with energy, humor and realism by Gibson). Frank has run out of the money he has been living on and decides to participate in an athletics-related carnival contest due to his skills and interest in running. Here is the setting in which Archy and Frank come into contact for the first time. They race and Archy wins the prize due to his gifted speed and hyper-alert reflexes. Frank is annoyed at losing his opportunity and afterwards is cold to the friendly greeting by Archy.

Archy is being driven by two goals: to emulate the ability of a previous running champion in the country and have military experience. Frank shares a similar perspective with a love and dream for adventure. He greets his would-be rival the next day in a local café and apologizes for his impolite treatment. Archy is at first reserved but receptive to the gestures. Frank proposes the suggestion of traveling to the distant city of Perth to enlist to fight. Archy is excited and agrees to accompany him on the journey. In an abrupt but emotional scene, the young runner goes to his uncle and hands over the prize money with the grim news that he is leaving home. The uncle is disappointed and unnerved, but is understanding and accepting to these turn of events.

The film starts to take on its first format of action as the two men sneak aboard a train headed directly for Perth. As the time unfolds, Archy and Frank form a light-hearted but authentic friendship based on respect and admiration of the other. Lee and Gibson demonstrate a sense of camaraderie and chemistry as they laugh together and share personal stories. Upon arrival in the city, the Irish immigrant father of Frank greets the boys and lets them stay with him. Because of his heritage, Frank is resistant to the idea of joining the armed forces because he does not want to be helping out the British side. Archy is persistent and persuasive about encouraging his friend to consider more reasons and opportunity that a military uniform brings. Frank decides the call is too great and enters side-by-side with his friend. However, Archy is more prepared to tackle horse-back riding and as a result the two friends are separated and put into different units. As a result, Frank reunites with three former workers at the railroad: Bill, Barney and Snowy.

Gallipoli reaches a high point of cinema quality as each unit heads out for Cairo, Egypt. In several lush and awe-inspiring sequences, the troops become acquainted with the local territory of shops, brothels as the Sphinx looms in the background of many moments. Director Weir allows the activities to unfold with ease and substance with the electronic moog music of French composer Jean Michel Jarre. ‘Adagio in G Minor,’ by Baroque composer Tomaso Albinoni, repeats in the moments and camera shots of slow pacing.

The troops are enrolled in rigorous training along the desert landscape. Their commanders order them to take part in exercises that require hand-to-hand combat as well as gun usage. It is at this moment that Archy and Frank each notice a familiar face in each other. They rush into each other’s arms in an overwhelmed embrace of appreciation as they realize the previous circumstances did not keep them away from permanent contact. Afterward, the two approach their leaders and ask for a chance to serve together. Citing their quick-paced skills as runners, Frank and Archy are seeking to participate in an infantry division known as the Light Horse. The bosses are skeptical at first but relent when they hear the reasoning and enthusiasm of their officers. The boys are overjoyed at the prospect of going directly to Gallipoli to fight. Each sees this as a chance to define, test and utilize courage in their lives. The stark difference is that Archy is devoted to the fight for the sake of Australia and ultimately Allied pride against Germany while Frank is seeking a bonding connection with a potential to remain devoid of personal danger. Before leaving, the two runners engage in a rematch of the carnival race by dashing towards the Pyramids. In the aftermath of assignment shift changes, the three ex-railway employees and friends of Frank condemn and disown their friend for abandoning their unit. He is shocked and hurt but shrugs it off.

Gallipoli nears the latter half of the storyline as the combination of Australian and New Zealand troops arrive on the same island of Gallipoli in a place called Anzac Cove. In one of the most chilling and ominous scenes of the movie, Archy and Frank are huddled close together on a boat and watch the lights of warfare unfold in the dark upon the territory. Archy smiles with a glimpse of pride and satisfaction while Frank sits silent with a hint of a somber expression. The three friends of Frank take part in a battle known as the Battle of Lone Pine and the consequences are that Barney is killed and Snowy is seriously injured. Frank has a sad but tense conversation with Bill about all that happened. Frank can already see that what transpires from war is harsh and complicated. He recognizes his relationship to others and himself will never be quite the same again.

The next armed mission to take place is at a small place of the Anzac known as Nek. Here is where the British are already engaged in taking on Turkish forces. Major Barton, the leader of the outfit, recommends that the infamous Archy become the runner to deliver messages between the trenches and the commanders, which will avoid him facing front-line combat. Archy is moved and flattered by the prospect, but his heart is calling him to be in the midst of the conflict as well as remain loyal to his friend. Instead, Archy recommends that Frank be given the role because of his fast speed. Frank is caught off guard in shock, but is appreciative of the opportunity and takes it on with focus. This moment demonstrates how the importance of sprint skills, a personal link between the two men, foreshadows how their choices define their outcomes.

Gallipoli inches into its climax with pulsating action and suspense. Turkish gunmen are positioned in their own trench directly across from where the Light Horse is working. Two waves of Allied forces advance to take on their adversaries and are killed within seconds of exiting their area. One partial culprit besides the strength of the enemy was all the watches of the Light Horse team being incorrectly set from the present time of where they actually are. Major Barton is alarmed and discouraged but his superior, Colonel Robinson, insists that the troops fight the mission until they can fight no more. The Colonel believes some elements of the surrounding Allied forces have been successful in making strides against the Turkish side. The Major is skeptical and considering holding off the next attack. After the communication line is cut from battle interference, Frank is selected to bring a message to the brigade headquarters. This sets the stage for the ultimate conclusion of the mission and the film.

Frank and the Colonel engage in a heated discussion when the runner arrives. The younger officer insists the crew is outmatched and outnumbered. The boss determines that pushing ahead will propel the tide to victory in favor of the British. Desperate to protect Archy as well as the rest of the comrades, Frank rushes over to the nearby location of General Gardner in an effort to overrule Colonel Robinson. The General is disturbed by the shocking turn of events and concludes it is best to rethink the next move. Elated, Frank dashes out of the region and heads back prepared with a true reprieve.

Meanwhile, Major Barton is stunned to find the communication line repaired and an angry Colonel Robinson facing him on the other side. Robinson insists his point man not falter and forge ahead with a new wave of attack. Barton is devastated knowing that imminent death is sure to follow for his men. As a consequence, he decides to not only order the attack but join the men firsthand. Weir creates an almost split-screen effect as one focus is on an incensed Frank running back to the trench while a terrified and somber Archy prepares to accept the fate of his life. Frank nearly makes it in time as he approaches his destination. Archy vows to utilize his leopard speed at the moment where it is most needed.

The fight begins and the gunfire follows. One by one the men go down by enemy bullets. Frank can hear the noise and is convinced he is still not too late to protect Archy and pushes himself even harder. Archy is out on the middle of the field and sprints ahead as he drops his weapon. He is aiming to just survive and cuts away from all who are around him. Suddenly, fast bullets enter and strike Archy in the back. Gallipoli ends in a frozen, silent screen shot as a fatally wounded Archy Hamilton grimaces toward the sky.

When released, Gallipoli was considered a major hit with the Australian audience. Viewers resonated with the stark storytelling and bleak content of a grueling battle that has significance for many countries. In the American market, Gallipoli achieved only a moderate success, but managed to unearth a Best Foreign Film nomination for the Golden Globes. However, the film industry in Australia generated notice and promise for the future following this movie. Mel Gibson, already gaining a respectful foothold with Mad Max and its successor, managed to gain international recognition for his portrayal of a conflicted but independent-minded young soldier. Mark Lee evoked sympathy and interest for a role of one ambitious to see war but unprepared for the dangerous risks it entails. Peter Weir guided a fast-paced picture led by vivid scenery. Gallipoli poses a challenge for modern audiences to witness a politically-charged film devoid of any direct political motivation.

Movie: Gallipoli
Director: Peter Weir
Cast: Mel Gibson, Mark Lee
Studio: Australian Film Distribution Company
Rating: PG
Running Time: 111 Minutes
Brian's Rating: 5-of-5 stars

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