Monday 20 June 2011

Movie Review: Gallipoli (1981)

A fictional story set against one of Australia's earliest grim experiences in world warfare, Gallipoli is an engaging war drama that helped to establish the Australian movie industry, as well as the careers of Mel Gibson and director Peter Weir.

In the wide open and desolate landscape of Western Australia in 1915, young Archy Hamilton (Mark Lee) is being trained as a sprinter by his Uncle Jack (Bill Kerr). But Hamilton is more interested in joining the Light Horse mounted division of the Australian army, fighting for the British Empire in the first World War. Word of the heroic exploits of the Australian army in the Ottoman Empire's Gallipoli region is filtering back home, firing up young men to join the armed forces.

At his first major sprint race, Hamilton defeats the cocky Frank Dunne (Mel Gibson). The two soon become friends. Initially not interested in enlisting, Dunne helps Hamilton make it to Perth, a journey that includes a treacherous trek across a desert. Although under-age, Hamilton is admitted to the Light Horse. Dunne knows little about riding horses and settles for admittance to the infantry. Both are sent to Egypt for training and preparations to join the war. Eventually thrown onto the brutal front lines where trench warfare rages, Hamilton will be part of a fruitless charge across open terrain; Dunne is assigned the role of courier between the front lines and the commanding officers. Both will have to rely on their sprinting abilities to try and survive.

Prior to Gallipoli, Gibson was mostly known for the first two Mad Max movies. Gallipoli allowed him to project more humanity without losing his cool charm. The role of Frank Dunne required Gibson to combine bravado with repeated failure: he does not win his foot race against Hamilton; he does not get into the Light Horse; he does not participate in combat; and he is frustrated in his attempts to get the right messages to the front. Few other Gibson films have seen him defeated so often.

Mark Lee has the bigger role as Archy Hamillton, and his performance is solid but limited by Hamilton's lack of world experience. Lee remained mostly active in the Australian film industry.

Peter Weir did make the jump to Hollywood after Gallipoli, and went on to direct a series of high profile movies including The Year Of Living Dangerously (again with Gibson), Witness, and Dead Poets Society. He leads Gallipoli with a steady hand, making use of the scenery without succumbing to it in the barren deserts of Australia and the pyramid-dominated training camps of Egypt.

Gallipoli tilts quite far towards being a human-centered representation of Australia's coming of age, the resourcefulness, courage, charisma and can-do positive attitude of Hamilton and Dunne a metaphor for their country stepping out to the world stage without losing its unique identity. As a war film, it is remarkably short of war action until the bleak final 20 minutes. War's destructive futility resonates loudly when the necessary time is invested to expound on the potential of the devoured victims.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

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