Our memories of large-scale world conflicts have always centered on World War II. Quite naturally, many movies have been produced about this war, chronicling the many famous battles that were fought on various fronts, in what can easily be termed as the bloodiest conflict in recorded history. However, just a generation before World War II occurred, another major conflict was fought in Europe in what was then known as the Great War or the War To End All Wars (it was only after World War II broke out that this previous world war, fought between 1914 and 1919, was relabeled as World War I). What most of us know about World War I could be practically summed up by the History Channel's programming schedule, with our limited knowledge supplemented only by grainy black and white images of tired soldiers stuck in trenches for months on end. Lesser known but no less deadly, World War I had its share of battles and campaigns that extol the bravery and nationalistic pride of the men who fought in them. At the same time, history also notes the abject futility and the utter madness of wartime destruction and the meaningless deaths that accompany such endeavors. One example is the Battle of the Nek, a small but ultimately tragic and futile offensive, fought during the battle for the Turkish Gallipoli peninsula in 1915 between soldiers from two regiments of the Australian 3rd Light Horse Brigade and the entrenched Turkish army. Australian director Peter Weir ("Dead Poets Society", "Witness", "Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World") recounts this little-known battle in devastatingly vivid detail in his 1981 film "Gallipoli".
Unless one grew up in Australia, one would know next to nothing about that country's involvement in World War I. At the turn of the last century, Australia was just a young country seeking a credible national identity in the eyes of the world. The Great War was taking place in lands far away from Down Under. Sold to the general public as a "great adventure" and tapping into the country's burgeoning sense of patriotism, many young men eagerly signed up to go fight halfway around the world on behalf of the British Empire. These volunteer soldiers from Australia and New Zealand were shipped to Cairo, Egypt for training and were officially called the Australia and New Zealand Army Corps, usually better known by its acronym ANZAC. The attack on Turkey started with an Anglo-French naval bombardment on Turkish artillery positions on the Dardanelles coastline, a narrow strait along the Gallipoli peninsula. However, a number of battleships were subsequently sunk by mines, which prompted the fateful decision to commence a treacherous ground war, which started the involvement of ANZAC troops in World War I.
As I mentioned before, this Peter Weir film focuses on the events that led up to the Battle of the Nek, following the fates of two fictional characters, as they travel from the vast plains of the Australian outback to the cramped trenches of Gallipoli. Archy Hamilton (Mark Lee) is a simple yet idealistic country boy who has a promising future as a sprinter. Trained by his proud grandfather, Jack (Bill Kerr), Archy is capable of rising to become the best sprinter in the world. However, Archy has other things on his mind, like the dream of traveling around world, which he hopes to achieve by signing up for the ongoing war effort. Even though he does not meet the age requirement, the lure of experiencing a "great adventure" was too much for this optimistic volunteer to pass up. Quite the opposite is cynical wanderer Frank Dunne (a young Mel Gibson), who travels around the country with three of his mates, working odd jobs and just having fun. The lives of these two young men, who couldn't be more different from one another, intersects at the most unlikely place--a running competition. Frank, who fancies himself a fast runner as well, enters himself in a race against Archy at a regional competition.
The two of them soon become good friends as they travel together to Perth to enlist in the army. Well, actually Archy is the one who looks forward to signing up, as the street-smart Frank is inherently more skeptical about the war. However, in the end, Frank enlists as well, after watching Archy become a member of the Light Horse Brigade and his three friends become infantrymen. Moreover, a man in uniform cuts a dashing figure, which attracts female attention. The film then proceeds to Cairo where the men begin their training and as expected, get into juvenile high jinks.
"Gallipoli" is really a tale of two highly contrasting circumstances--one the idyllic life in peaceful Australia and the other, the hellish conditions of trench warfare along the cliffs of Gallipoli. As the troops finally ship out to Turkey, the terrible realities of war finally sink in when the soldiers of ANZAC land on an unnamed beach (now known as Anzac Cove). Confronted by treacherous cliffs and ravines in front of them, the soldiers find themselves pinned down by the Turkish troops who command the more advantageous high ground. For maybe the first time since their "adventure" started, the men finally realize that the reality of warfare is not what they had previously envisioned. With their idealistic innocence shattered, the ANZAC soldiers dig themselves in for the long haul ahead.
One of the most startling images you would see in this film is the utilization of trench warfare in combat, in which the opposing sides have parallel and static lines of fortified trenches dug into the ground facing one other. This form of warfare was extensively used during the American Civil War and at the turn of the last century during World War I. However, with the development of new firearms technology like the machine gun, this tactic became increasingly dangerous. Bullets can now travel a longer distance and with greater frequency, which made the practice of charging out of trenches almost a suicidal act. This was the unfortunate case in the Battle of the Nek. In "Gallipoli", Weir is able to recreate the heart-wrenching climatic scene that shows not only the futility of wartime deaths but also begs the all-important question, why would sane men follow illogical orders knowing that certain death awaited them just a few feet away. The answer was plain and simple; they did not want to be seen as letting their fellow soldiers down. These brave men were Australia's own band of brothers.
"Gallipoli" is as much an anti-war film as "Platoon" or for that matter, any other war movie was. Horrific and grisly images of war and the unnecessary deaths of hopeful young men would never deter politicians from forgoing diplomacy and declaring war but filmmakers like Peter Weir or Oliver Stone could sure try. War is definitely hell and no amount of glossing over the facts could paint it as anything but. The contrasting nature of the two halves in "Gallipoli" certainly helps to highlight the gung-ho attitude before fighting begins and the eventual realization that one could actually die when bullets start whizzing by and shells explode barely ten feet away.
The Gallipoli campaign has always been a source of national pride for both Australians and New Zealanders, even though the lack of progress in the fighting forced the Allied forces to evacuate the peninsula by the end of 1915. ANZAC Day (April 25th) continues to be celebrated each year and is probably one of the most important national occasions memorializing the soldiers who lost their lives fighting in Gallipoli. Appropriately, this movie pays a fitting tribute to the gallant and brave men, who fought and died in the trenches of Gallipoli, leaving behind a powerful legacy that has helped shaped the national identity of both nations.
For a film that is almost a quarter of a century old, this Special Collector's Edition of "Gallipoli" exhibits a remarkably clean print, devoid of any scratches or dirt. Presented in its original aspect ratio of 2.35:1, the anamorphically enhanced video images contain beautifully reproduced colors that boast of deep blacks and natural skin tones. An acceptable amount of film grain is present but that is to be expected for a film of this age. Subtitle options available on this DVD include English and Spanish.
The English language Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track delivers a slightly muted experience that is not as "open" or as dynamic as I would have liked. Dialogue is clear without any distortion but the surround channels are used rather sparingly. One major faux pas that mars the overall aural experience is Peter Weir's use of horrible synthesizer-based music that seems so out of place in a film set in 1915. That's just so 80's! Other audio options include English Dolby Surround 2.0 and French Mono.
There are only two bonus features on this DVD. One is the theatrical trailer and the other is a 6-part documentary titled, "Entrenched: The Making of Gallipoli". This is quite a recent documentary (you can see that the actors have aged) that features interviews with most of the cast member including Gibson and Lee, together with director Peter Weir and the producers. They talk about how the idea for film came about, the casting, the location shooting and the lasting impact of the film.
"Gallipoli" comes in a regular keepcase without an insert.
Although top billing for this film goes to Mark Lee, it is Mel Gibson that stands out as the street-wise and smooth-talking Frank Dunne. Just emerging from his success in "Mad Max", Gibson's movie career really took off after "Gallipoli". Now, almost twenty-five years on, the subject matter explored in "Gallipoli" is still as relevant and as powerful as when the film first premiered in 1981. The emotional poignancy of the events at Gallipoli is still palpable and watching this film so many years later, the final scene still hits me hard in the guts. It's just so heartbreaking to see men cut down in their prime for no good reason at all. "Gallipoli" is a great movie and an even greater reminder of the resiliency of the human spirit.