Recently, I've covered some really classic movies - The Magnificent Seven, The Wild Bunch and Platoon all spring immediately to mind - and Peter Weir's hypnotic crystallising of the doomed Anzac campaign to take a Turkish peninsula “you may never have heard of” during the First World War can certainly stand proudly right beside those time-honoured tales. But, since I first saw it on grainy, full-screen VHS - watching it only to see my then-hero Mel Gibson - until viewing it now on this splendid DVD transfer, I have often unjustly ignored the film, mistakenly believing that it was neither as powerful, nor as intelligent as many critics have continually insisted. Yet watching it again now - twice in quick succession, in fact, so enraptured by it I was - its true genius has slammed into me like a bullet I've been dodging since those halcyon Gibbo Is God days. I have always had a problem with the film's famously abrupt ending - and this is something that I will address later - to the point where it was probably this single element that clouded my appreciation of what is, without doubt, one of the greatest war movies ever made.
“He can run faster than you can ride!”
Peter (Witness) Weir's sweeping epic about the lemming-style extinction of the ill-fated Anzacs, as a generation's grand notion of adventure beyond its colonial outpost homeland of Australia were chopped to pieces in a hail of bullets, was a huge domestic hit at the time, and went on to became a major cult movie on home video the world over. It has continued to enjoy success over the years and is actually used as an educational tool in Australian schools, such is its marvellous attention to period detail and historical accuracy. The tale, of course, is quite simple. Two young men, both accomplished runners, but with different outlooks and aspirations, come together and find themselves going off to fight in the Great War. Archie (Mark Lee) is the baby-faced farmhand, who even lies about his age in order to sign up, whilst Frank Dunne (an electrifying Mel Gibson) is the rival sprinter, who only reluctantly pitches in with Archie's lofty post-imperialist quest for heroism beyond the vast, but stagnant, deserts of his peaceful home, when societal attitudes around him seem to favour the bold, rather than his own get-rich-quick scheming. The two have scrapes just crossing the expansive landscape on their way to Perth (even meeting an old wanderer who didn't even know there was a war going on ... “I knew a German once,” he mutters. “How'd that start, then?”) and, after being forced to enlist in different regiments, find their paths crossing once again in the Allied training camps of Egypt, where fate allows them some brief respite before their marching orders come through and a battlefield that they can hardly pronounce beckons. The fatalistic, and significant, linking of sport and war is brought to the fore many times throughout the story. When Archie and Frank first meet at a provincial race, the festivities are interrupted by a recruiting bandwagon. Even the harmless image of a starter pistol and a whistle before a race come to foreshadow the dreaded signal to go over the top, the race, itself, becoming synonymous with individuals trying to outrun death. The ultimate challenge of running towards the enemy looming ever closer - and the pride of a nation trained, in its prime, and eager to meet that challenge head-on in the delusion that this is what living is all about.
“You ran away from home when you were younger than me.”
“Not to a war!”
Weir's anti-war message is blatant and uncompromising, yet he pays total respect to the soldiers and the ethics that drove them on. The screenplay, by David Williamson, once tried to encapsulate the entire war, throwing in every story, every act of bravery or lunacy that he and Weir had read, but the results were unsurprisingly rambling and ungainly. Deciding to stick to the one campaign - and the one that ignites indignation and scorn for military indecision and top brass callousness to this day - they found that keeping the tale revolving around mainly just the two young runners, they attained a much deeper focus on the bigger picture. By giving identity and charisma to their two leads, they also managed to capture the magnitude of the glory and the wickedness that an entire army found itself in. The results are staggering. Most of the film plays out in lyrical fashion - the mantra that Archie's doting uncle has him recite before each race, the famous “Steel Springs” verse, providing both an inspiration and an resigned epitaph, the continual crossing of paths as friends reunite and cheerily go off to battle together, the magical use of the landscape to score the retina with heat hazes, sun-baked deserts under rich blue skies and the pivotal image of the Great Pyramids to sow the seeds of man's eternal obsession to beat the clock, in effect, to outrun death. Much of the film is happy-go-lucky. The fun that Frank and his buddies from the old country have in Egypt provide some terrific moments of hilarity - the goading of the foppish, monocle-wearing British officers by Gibson and his gang on mules is a classic. Likewise the ridiculous training exercises that the two rival regiments undergo - just an excuse to beat each other up, really - and the fabulous pep-talk that a sergeant delivers to the troops before they embark upon the joys to be found in Cairo - “I'm going to hand you over to Doc Morgan, who has had it all, and cured it all!” But all this is counterbalanced with an ominous sense of destiny that seeps into everything and everyone. Despite the witty and infectious humour and camaraderie between Archie and Frank, there is a painful subtext to their oft-used parting shots of “I'll see you when see you,” and “Not if I see you first.”
Again, that shining golden lie about war being something grand and noble is continually manipulated by Weir. Archie can't wait to sign up, like Luke Skywalker in a conflict far, far away, he has seen all his friends go off to do their bit, and even if it means throwing away his God-given talent for athletics, he yearns to do the same ... because not to do so means not only missing out, but also letting your mates down. Frank's mates long for action to take them away from the drudgery of working on the railways, although they have also heard that the women go crazy for a man in uniform. But the innocence of these misguided youths is the ticking time-bomb that will eventually carve a deep hole in their country's soul. The film's middle stretch is boys just playing at being soldiers. None of them has even seen a Turk, or fired a shot in anger. The Egyptian reunion for Frank and Archie - sealed with another prophetic race - is a cause for celebration. For them, Gallipoli can't come soon enough. But Weir still plays it straight, the eloquence and power of the film borne out of the things that go unsaid just as much as the things that are. The ghostly funfair image of the characters' first view of the Gallipoli beachhead as they arrive during an eerie, blue-lit landing is a fabulously surreal touch that masks the true horror of what they will ultimately face there. Weir's recreation of the trenches and the confusion that governs life within them is faultless. Having painstakingly copied old photographs and even the real remains of the actual battlefield, he assures us an authenticity that is as captivating as it is horrifying. Wisely keeping our sight of the enemy Turks to fleeting glimpses of hunched figures scurrying to reload their machineguns just a matter of a few dusty yards away he, nevertheless, conjures up an impression of ghastly, blood-hungry savages giggling to themselves as they await the next foolish charge to come their way. But, perhaps wisely, the film shies away from the raw, visceral Peckinpah approach, conveying the horror and pain of it all on the faces of those awaiting their turn, too ashamed to cower, yet paralysed with the inevitability of what they are about to undertake. Never have the pre-race jitters been so acute.
“What are your legs?”
“What are they going to do?”
“They're going to hurl me down the track.”
The two stars, Gibson and Mark Lee, are both excellent. Lee, especially, does a wonderful job considering that, at the time, he was virtually unknown and hardly had any acting experience. The curious thing is that he had actually appeared in the pre-production publicity brochure in the still image that actually ends the movie way before casting had even begun. As the thoughtful, idealistic young Archie, he brings out the true nobility of youthful innocence, unmarred by cynicism or regret, perfectly recreating the grace of a hero from yesteryear, epitomising the exuberance of someone who truly believes he has the world at his fingertips. His final moments with his uncle are heartbreaking, the old man's pleas falling on ears that can only hear the distant drumming of a call to arms. Gibson was already known by this time, having appeared in Tim, Summer City, Attack Force Z, alongside Sam Neill, and, essentially, Mad Max. His roguish charm, flares of gurning tempestuousness and genuine all-round affability were perfect for the role of the chancer Frank Dunne. Again, like Archie, Dunne has a real talent for running, but his more vital components revolve around simple day-to-day survival. Streetwise and blessed with the gift of the gab, he can duck and dive and dodge in and out of any situation with ease - skills that he will fall back on more than ever once he hurls himself along the blood-drenched trenches that stand between him and the fate of his unit, and his friends. Obviously the stand-out in the movie, Gibson truly shines here. His uncanny knack for twisting his natural humour into piques of intense emotion, often in the blink of an eye (check out his schizophrenic rage when he saves Captain Bligh's life in the vastly underrated The Bounty, or his crazed litany of “Shoot him! Shoot him!” before head-butting a man with gun to his temple in the first and greatest Lethal Weapon), but here he allows us to see something that has been effectively hidden ever since - fear. As each ill-fated wave goes over the top into lead-spewing oblivion, his eyes meet Archie's for a second and they are filled with such an awful comprehension and dread that I can almost forgive him for slumming around in the woeful Riggs and Murtaugh sequels. Almost.
“It's the thought that counts, Frank.”
“It would count a lot more if they could bloody well think!”
And the others in the cast are a credit too. Frank's trio of bumbling cohorts are a marvellous little ensemble headed up by Robert Grubb's erstwhile and partially more educated Billy (he also played Pig Killer in Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome) and aided and abetted by Tim McKenzie's quintessential Aussie, the slow-witted Barney. But, doubtlessly, it is the highly opinionated barrack-room lawyer of the mob, the diminutive Snowy (David Argue), that people most fondly recall. He's a salt-of-the-earth, calls-a-spade-a-spade type that seems unfazed even when fate eventually pounces on them. But my favourite has got to be the wonderful Bill Hunter as the heartfelt, and put-upon, Major Barton, a sensitive soul who has, sadly, seen the end coming long before being forced to blow the whistle for the final, futile push. He must be the kindest, gentlest frontline officer in the history of warfare but he has some tremendously touching moments of wistful reflection and an air of dignified, yet doomed, duty that haunts the movie long after the final, heart-stopping freeze-frame. Which, of course, brings me back to that climax. I'm afraid that I still think it is too abrupt. I fully appreciate what Weir was intending, and I can clearly see the resonance that it has on people, yet I feel that a moment or two - an aftermath with Frank - would have sealed the emotion more completely. And, as you will find out with the impressive Making Of documentary on this disc, there actually was just such a scene filmed. Only a few stills are offered but, I have to admit, they gave me goose-bumps to think of what might have been. Now, I know that I am very alone in this desire to have had more at the very end ... but it still kind of niggles me. But, rest assured, there is much else to savour.
“Those of you not designated to be dead ... on your feet now!”
Russell Boyd's cinematography is simply exquisite. He follows the action - the races, the battles both mocked-up and real - frames the majestic and/or awful tableaux, and brings the locations and the era to roaring, vivid life with a uniquely keen eye and a style that is sweeping, cinematic and, yet, wholly intimate. Some the events depicted are harrowing and tragic, but visually they sit just as beautifully in the film as the awe-inspiring and magical vistas of the great pyramids, or the vastness of the deserts of Western Australia. The scenes of Frank Dunne running through the trenches, or plummeting down the ravine and dodging snipers' bullets are breathtakingly captured, again the intimate amid the greater chaos. There is even some surreal underwater photography lensed by Ron (Jaws) Taylor when the young troops go skinny-dipping and have to dive down low to avoid the shrapnel of an enemy bombardment. But throughout the film at large there is a wonderful sense of scale and a depth that draws the viewer in, providing a visual experience that guarantees imagery that is indelible. The climactic charges over the top have a headlong and fatalistic fury that, despite the inevitable carnage, still feels exhilarating. Nowadays, this type of thing would be augmented by CG - the trenches and the frontline stretched beyond the limits of live action extras - but Weir and Boyd work wonders with the meagre resources they have, keeping the mass killing up close and personal. Where, in the nineties, it was necessary to show the graphic results of bullet/human interaction in the likes of Saving Private Ryan, Gallipoli refrains from being too gruesome, opting to emulate the ghastly real-life footage from the First War where soldiers would just appear to fall down, dropping almost casually to reveal, only afterwards, the despicable extent of a field of the dead and dying.
The use of classical music juxtaposed with wild electronica is something that Weir seems to specialise in. Jean Michel Jarre's Oxygene must have caused some perplexed shifting about in the seats when audiences first saw the movie. Yet the mesmerising power of the cue over the running sequences lends a spiritual resonance to these scenes, signifying the sporting ethic of men in their absolute prime that goes far, far beyond anything that mere words or narrative could convey. Weir understands this and, with such music punctuating a classically told - and, for the most part, classically scored - film, elevates the core element of the story - its soul - to another realm entirely. Archie's barefoot race, the pyramid challenge with Frank, and the final sprint out of the huge dried-up lake are all scenes that rise way up above the script by virtue of the ethereal, pulsing score. And then, of course, the total absence of music playing over Frank's final desperate race to save the troops from going over, set alongside Archie's ultimate death-or-glory race against destiny just carries an agonised, breathless accompaniment of its own.
In short, this is an excellent film, folks. Peter Weir's second best movie ... the first being Master And Commander: The Far Side Of The World. Very highly recommended indeed.