Monday, June 20, 2005

The Human Side of a "Forgotten" Battle in an "Ignored" War:
A Billy Goat Review of:

Gallipoli, directed by Peter Weir. Starring Mel Gibson and Mark Lee. Paramount Pictures (1981)

Robert E. Lee is reported to have said, “It is a good thing war is so terrible lest we become overly fond of it.” If the American Civil War was terrible, and it was, the “forgotten” or “ignored” war we call World War I was even more so. And as much as any battle in that “forgotten” and “ignored” war; Gallipoli is probably one of the most ignored and forgotten except in Australia, where this film was made, and New Zealand.

I have read several accounts of Gallipoli including Winston Churchill’s. (He lost his Admiralty job as a result of the Gallipoli debacle.) I did not see Gallipoli when the movie first came out in 1981, but recently bought the DVD out of historical interest and a curiosity regarding the acting skills of a much younger Mel Gibson. Gallipoli is not a “kids” movie, and though rated PG, (rough language & minimal posterior nudity), there is an intense emotional level to the last part of the film that parents should also be aware of.

This movie does an excellent job of showing the human side of war. That human side takes up a good part of the 111 minutes on the DVD version, and at times the pace of the story gets a little slow. You see the Australian “home front”, far from the trenches of Europe. The newspaper gives accounts of the latest news of the ANZAC movements and battles. Two young men, (Mel Gibson and Mark Lee), met and become friends. They try to enlist together but end up in separate units. Other comrades enlist also. Both units end up in Egypt and in the course of training the two friends become reunited. Eventually one is able to transfer to the other’s unit.

The actual battle scenes come into the movie rather abruptly. One moment you’re at a ballroom scene in Egypt, and the next you’re in a boat heading to the shores at Gallipoli. The encampment on the shore is lit up with strings of light bulbs, reminiscent of a crowded carnival midway. Grim “carnival” indeed as occasional enemy shells come screeching into the encampment area, and you see the wounded on litters or shuffling around with their assorted array of bandages. You don’t see the dead, though in one trench scene a soldier shakes the protruding hand of a dead man and says, “Glad to met you.”

I am not so sure that the British and ANZAC troops lost at Gallipoli due to superior Turkish arms and troops. The Turks did have the advantage of the high ground, but Allied failure was due as much to an inept higher command as anything else. The most glaring omission of command illustrated in the movie was the failure to synchronize the watches of the commanding officers responsible for an attack against a fortified Turkish position. The plan, as conceived would have worked, but a several minute discrepancy between the watches of the two officers becomes deadly. There was also the failure of the immediate superior officer to recognize the quickly changing face of the situation and his over riding the inferior officer actually on the scene.

As the decimated troops prepare for one last charge, they know it is to their death. The camera flashes from one man to another as they quickly scrawl that last note home to loved ones, strip off valued personal possessions to leave in the trench with those notes; and we see on their faces the resignation and foreboding realization that this was it. They would go over the top and not return. They were to be fed as cannon fodder to the scourge of war. The commanding officer on the scene swears he will not ask his men to do something he himself would not do, and he makes his preparations to go with them.

I will not tell you the ending. You will have to see it for yourself. It was one of the most abrupt and saddest endings I have ever seen in a lifetime of movies. The emotional shock packed into the way this movie ends brought me to tears.

General William T Sherman, USA, said, “War is hell.”(#) That is a true objective statement that has nothing to do with being “pro” or “anti” war. The truth of Sherman’s observation was glaringly and vividly portrayed in the trenches of WWI, and Gallipoli was a prime example. Peter Weir did an effective job in bringing that to the screen, and a young Mel Gibson turned in one of his best performances ever.

PS: Duh... Where's Gallipoli? For the geographically challenged, look up Gallipoli's location in your atlas. You don't have an atlas? That's your problem, not mine.

(#) In Biblical Theology, war, just and unjust, is in this life the most stark refection of the reality of what Hell will be like. As a reflection it falls far short of Hell's actual reality, but is nonetheless a reflection of the horror of that reality. It is in that sense I am affirming the truth of Sherman's comment on war's nature. ~ The Billy Goat ~


Bairuide said...

Maybe God was on the side of the Turks ?

~ The Billy Goat ~ said...

I don't pretend to know whose "side" God was on in that war. It was certianly a humbling of the pride of the British Empire.

You look at how WW-I started and you just have to shake your head at how Europe bungled it's way into that war.