US Release Date: 08-28-1981
Directed by: Peter Weir
- Mark Lee, as
- Archy Hamilton
- Bill Kerr, as
- Harold Hopkins, as
- Les McCann
- Charles Lathalu Yunipingu, as
- Heath Harris, as
- Ron Graham, as
- Wallace Hamilton
- Gerda Nicolson, as
- Rose Hamilton
- Mel Gibson, as
- Frank Dunne
- Robert Grubb, as
- Tim McKenzie, as
- David Argue, as
- Brian Anderson, as
- Railway Foreman
- Bill Hunter as
- Major Barton
Mel Gibson and Mark Lee in Gallipoli.
Gallipoli tells the tale of several young Australian men who go off to war during WWI. It was directed by Peter Weir and filmed on location in many scenic areas of Australia, and at the pyramids in Egypt. Gallipoli was released in 1981.
Mel Gibson and Mark Lee star as young men who meet at an athletics carnival, go off to war together, and form an intense bond of friendship. Lee plays Archy Hamilton, an 18-year-old sprinter living in Western Australia who longs to join the Australian Imperial Force. Gibson plays Frank Dunne, a former railroad worker attending the carnival. Archy and Frank participate in a footrace and then decide to head to Perth together to enlist.
What follows is another version of that age old story of honor and glory. History is filled with tales of men, brothers-in-arms, who march off proudly to fight an enemy together. Archy and Frank get temporarily separated when Archy is accepted into the cavalry while Frank, who can't ride a horse, is forced to join the infantry along with several of his mates. They all head off to Africa for basic training filled with thoughts of victory and valor.
Mel Gibson was still a relatively unknown actor at the time and this movie nudged him one step closer to stardom. Mark Lee has never enjoyed the success or fame of his costar but he acts circles around Gibson. But let's face it Mel has never been known for his acting talent. Yes he has improved with age but he will always be more of a movie star than a thespian.
The final section of the film deals with the brutality and futility of trench warfare as the Australian soldiers face-off against the Turks in the titular battle. I won't give away the ending but it is highly dramatic. Gallipoli follows a common arc in war movies. It begins with eager young men who think of war as a glorious lark only to come face to face with the dirty truth. The final scene puts an end to any such pipe dreams as it shows quite clearly that war is hell.
Mark Lee as Archy experiencing the moment of truth in Gallipoli
I have imagined that with war films becoming more graphic in their depictions of death, that young men would no longer seek a military career. It seems I imagined wrong. In the war in Afghanistan there have been 2,010 U.S. service members killed in action by hostile forces since 2001. 1,688 of them occurred, so far, under the watch of a Nobel Peace Prize winning President, Barack Obama.
I know, Patrick has already thumbed me down for this review, but I bring up current events to make a point that war has always been the same. The people in power send other parent’s children and spouses into harm’s way and then do not allow them any decision making ability. Gallipoli has one of the most frustrating endings of any war film. A decision is made by men who are not in a dangerous place to put other men into a suicide situation. We have all heard such tactical lines as the sacrifice of the few for the many when the truth is often that soldiers die because the men in charge could not come up with a better solution.
Gallipoli approaches war first through sport. Is that not how we so often see a war, two (or more) opposing sides trying to best each other? Archy and Frank are competitors on a race track. Like war, there can only be one winner, right? Well, in a foot race there is no such thing as collateral damage, or dying for a higher purpose. Even if one nation claims victory when the fighting ends, at what cost was that armistice reached?
The nine month Gallipoli campaign had an allied casualty total of 56,707. This does not include the over 7,000 unaccounted for. The United States did not participate in this battle and if it were not for this film, I doubt I would have ever heard of it. After the casualties mounted and reports made their way back to England, that depicted incompetent leadership, Gallipoli was evacuated. It was a huge loss for the British lead allied forces.
Peter Weir shows us here that war is not a competition. He shows that soldiers in war are more often than not treated as nothing more than a life support system that can man a gun. The skinny dipping scene is another good piece of symbolism. When the shooting starts, the men all dive under water, where Frank finds an old gun on the bottom. The men are all defenseless and strategically useless at that point, just like a rusty old gun.
The story and point of Gallipoli is not unique. Vietnam had Hamburger Hill where U.S. soldiers were ordered to make an uphill frontal assault on a well-entrenched enemy. The hill had no strategic value and after it was captured it was quickly abandoned. World War II had Omaha Beach, the bloodiest fighting on D-Day. Where was the reconnaissance?
The image of Mark Lee racing across that field is one of utter futility. It is a poster for war at its most frustrating. It is an image that will not soon leave me. Young men do not do most of the fighting in war because they are the most able to; they do it because they are the most gullible and easier to command than older men. Thanks for trying Peter Weir. This film may leave you thinking but like so many other films, the anti-war message has fallen on the deaf ears of men who still fight wars and the men who still send those men to their death.
Mel Gibson in Gallipoli.
As Eric, and even the tagline on the poster point out, the battle of Gallipoli is virtually unknown in America apart from history buffs. Although, to be honest, I'll wager that if you stopped a random person on the street today they'd have a hard time naming any World War I battle. I was only aware of it myself through my knowledge of Winston Churchill. He was the First Lord of the Admiralty at the time and one of the originators of the planned naval attack on Gallipoli, which was supposed to soften the Turkish up so much that the land invasion would be a cakewalk. Following the failure of the invasion, he resigned from the cabinet and spent the rest of the war along the front lines in France. In Australia however, the battle of Gallipoli is commemorated on ANZAC day. ANZAC being an acronym for Australia and New Zealand Army Corps. Both countries had only recently left the British Empire and many sociologists attribute the reaction to the battle of Gallipoli as the beginnings of their independent national identities, as important to those countries as the Alamo is to Texas.
The story is, as both my brothers pointed out, an old one. How many thousands of times has the beginning of war been greeted with cheers and treated as a glorious adventure, only to end with tears and the question, "Whatever were we fighting for?" But although we've seen this story before, it is told exceptionally well here. Peter Weir and writer David Williamson focus the story on a small group of ordinary soldiers rather than on the higher-ups or larger questions of strategy. This keeps the story on a very human level.
Although Patrick dismisses Mel Gibson's performance, I think he does an equally good job as Mark Lee does. His fear and frustration in the final scenes are palpable. He also demonstrates charm and carries a twinkle in his eye. It's easy to see why he went on to stardom. Whatever "It" is, Mel had it for many years and you can see the beginnings of it in his early movies like this one. He and Mark Lee also share a nice brotherly chemistry together. It's easy to believe they would sacrifice themselves for each other.
Despite the impending sense of doom that looms over the story, there's a surprising amount of humor. These are young guys on their way to battle, but that doesn't stop them from having fun beforehand, providing some levity and mild comic relief, such as their adventures in Egypt.
Some have criticized the historical accuracy of some of the details of the film. Mainly in the way that the British are treated. They are shown as being uptight, posh and the cause of much of the failure of the battle. Peter Weir has since acknowledged that the British made just as valiant a contribution to the campaign as the Australians did. But to quibble over too many of the details is to miss the point of this story, which is to humanize an event that has become part of a legend and to show the futility and consequences of war.
Photos © Copyright Australian Film Commission, (1981)