I tried to like Gallipoli, but found it shallow, trite and perverse. Everybody disagrees with me, of course, and it will make millions. Let me explain what I mean by perverse
It I were to write a film called The Battle of Britain in which two wacky Geordies rowed a kayak south to enlist in the RAF, you’d say I’d missed the point of the title; or a film called The Battle of Stalingrad, in which two wacky Kossaks drove a rusty tractor west to enlist in the Red Army, you’d say I’d used a trivialising road-film approach to a subject of national catharsis. You’d say I was perverse.
Gallipoli is about two wacky Aussies jumping rattlers and crossing in the Simpson Desert (in ever-diminishing circles) to enlist in the AIF in Perth. It’s well made, beautifully photographed, handsomely mounted, well performed (two actors in it, David Argue and John Morris, are wonderful, and two, Bill Hunter and Bill Kerr, nudge greatness in the roles of a vagabond uncle and a guilt-wrenched officer), badly miscast, lovingly edited, very perverse and fundamentally untrue. Let me say what I mean by untrue.
The young Australian men who volunteered for service in World War I came, as a rule, from families, from communities, from churches and fixed moral universes. They, as a rule, believed in the hereafter, in country, in Empire and were not unaware that war involves the risk of getting killed. Fathers and uncles of theirs fought and died in the Sudan and the Transvaal.
They were a highly literate and verbal generation, too. They knew long ballad poems off by heart. They wrote short stories and poetry, in the snow on Gallipoli beach in The Anzac Book, which is full of admiration of the Turk. ‘But I say, in your own way/ You’ve played the gentleman.’ And they were aware too of their place in world history, and in legend. ‘Across the straits to Soldier Bill/Great Agamemnon lifts his hand.’ They, as a rule, disliked Aborigines. They, as a rule, left girls behind, or dreams of girls.
The film shows little of this. Archy, the central character (Mark Lee), takes a trunk of books with him, but we never see him read any, and his conversation (‘I don’t know all the details exactly, but it’s all the Germans’ fault’) shows him clearly as a drip. He hangs around with Aborigines (‘White men’s company not good enough for you?’) and runs a hundred yards in less than ten seconds (‘Girls run. Men box.’), and forgoes Olympic success to enlist under-age, and under a false name, in the Fifth Light Horse and ruin his sorrowing parents’ lives with his fruitless death in a pointless war. He is, in short, the typical Peter Weir loner, as in Michael, Cars and Wave, suicidally inclined, at odds with his society and worried about himself. What he is doing in a national legend, one said in a fool voice-over to be ‘larger than life’, beats me.
It mightn’t have been too bad if the other characters had been any different. But they are all rather much the same: loners, wayfarers, detached from their communities, without families, without girlfriends, functional atheists, rowdy tourists (they bust up an Egyptian marketplace) and are absolutely astonished by death. They didn’t come from anywhere. They aren’t going anywhere. They resemble closely the usual American road-film heroes, a pair of exuberant kids on an innocent bender, seeing new sights, doing their thing, far out, right on. In so far as it is history at all, it is history adapted to the American teenage market. (Good luck to it, I suppose; that’s the way the world is. I just wish it had been called something else, that’s all.)
Witness the storyline. The two lads are both Olympic material, but Archy, the faster, beats Frank (Mel Gibson) in a country race, on which Frank has bet his life-savings, so he can buy a bike shop. Frank responds to this trauma by forming a deep attachment for the smirking, rose-lipped, beardless devastator of his hopes, and resolves to follow him anywhere in spite of the fact that they disagree on war. Archy wants to go to it, Frank does not, seeing no point in getting killed. None the less he drops everything to help Archy, who’s under-age, to enlist.
They jump a rattler, and on arriving by mistake in Woop Woop attempt to cross the Simpson Desert without supplies. On the point of death they are rescued by an Australian camel-driver (‘Jeez, it must be you blokes’ lucky day’), who rides shimmering out of the desert in a shot stolen from Lawrence of Arabia. When asked by the deeply ignorant camel-driver what the war is all about, Archy says, ‘If we don’t stop them there, they’ll soon be here.’
This logic, and the scorn of passing strangers, the enthusiasm of old mates and his curious affection for Archy convince Frank to enlist, like Archy, in the Fifth Light Horse. It is then revealed in a richly comic sequence that he can’t ride a horse. He has to enlist elsewhere. They race one another to a pyramid and sit atop it together, in the twilight, all but holding hands.
Much moved by this, Frank transfers to Archy’s regiment, on the grounds of the possible military use of his flying feet. They then gatecrash a grand ball, dance with each with an aristocratic female, and sail off refreshed to war. On Gallipoli beach they laughingly greet old friends while shells erupt all round them, killing thousands, and they’re all so pleased to see each other they all go naked swimming together, amid more shellfire, and the camera looks at their bums for a while and the band plays The Pearl Fishers by Bizet.
Meanwhile, the fiendish Poms are planning to put an end to the lads’ good time. We will sacrifice the Australians here, they say, to give the English an easier time over there. On receipt of the news, Bill Hunter, alone in his tent, sings an aria from Grand Opera, to what amounts to a hi-fi set with a horn on it, and sobs into his imported champagne.
Comes the dawn. Slaughter piles on slaughter. Frank, appointed message-runner because of his cowardice and flying feet, fails by a split second to arrive in time to prevent the death of Archy in another fruitless heroic charge. Archy, the faster runner, would have got there, we know, in time. We are invited to mourn, in three romantic freeze frames, the appalling loss of this finest flower of his generation, a great Olympic runner who never existed, and a good mate.
To add to these troubles Mark Lee’s performance is barely amateur. He honks and guffaws and grins like a loon, and in all of Mel Gibson’s bewildered good humour and wary comradeship there is not a glimmer of why they are friends at all.
The problem, I think, lies squarely with the writer and the director. Weir is a director of tremendous isolated sequences rather than good films. He is terrible at casting, bad as a writer, short on narrative logic, good at landscapes and superb at eerie atmospheres. His forte is the lone stranger unsure of himself in a menacing setting. He’s not very good at relationships, and in extroverted mateship, like here, distinctly uneasy. The net result is we don’t care very much what happens to Frank or Archy, champion runners though they be, and it takes the death of literally thousands around them to move us. In Breaker Morant we were much more moved by the deaths of two correctly convicted murderers sitting down with dignity on two chairs.
So the film fails on the human level. This is partly (but not greatly) to do with David Williamson, who as a comedy writer of great ability has a certain contempt for some of his characters. He is not particularly fond, I think, of anyone in Gallipoli. History, moreover, is not his long suit; nor is tragedy, as was shown in his version of King Lear (‘You bastard of a wind!’); nor is continuity of style, as was shown in Eliza Fraser, a rollicking bedroom farce with a deathly serious insert about cannibalism. He seems unaware of any generation but his own, which is why he has given to a raw youth at the pyramids in 1915 a line like ‘This is man’s first attempt to defeat death.’
Gallipoli should, in brief, have been written by John Dingwell, or Ray Lawler, or Peter Kenna, and directed by Fred Schepisi. Then it might have got to the meat of a nation at war, as did Yanks, and Destiny of a Man, and Ballad of a Soldier and Apocalypse Now. Just mentioning these names in comparison with it, I think, defines it. For such a historic event, the Butch Cassidy approach is not enough.
Many people, including the film’s main publicist, Rupert Murdoch, will disagree with this assessment and loudly suggest the emperor has clothes, but I don’t believe it. I find it sad that Australians are so readily sucked in, so eagerly grateful for anything that touches even slightly on their myths. Two slouch hats is a million dollars in the bank. It should take more than that.
I myself am considering a screenplay called Phuoc Thuy, in which the young hero is on the point of selection for the Australian Test side when he decides to volunteer instead for the Vietnam War. He motors north with a close friend, a marihuana-smoking draft-dodger, via Byron Bay and Surfers, to Canungra.
Music is by Sherbert and Mozart. I think it will make a lot of money.