Gallipoli is arguably the feature that catapulted both Mel Gibson and Peter Weir onto the international stage. Though both the actor and the director had found success in the years prior – Weir with The Cars That Ate Paris, Picnic at Hanging Rock and The Last Wave and Gibson with Mad Max – their first collaboration would prove to bring out the best in both of them. Gallipoli spawned plenty of war films and series that would attempt to ride that wave of popularity, but to this day it still remains one of the greatest WWI films out there.
Gibson stars alongside Mark Lee, the latter of whom actually has the larger role despite Gibson’s mug being the only one plastered across the U.S. marketing materials. Lee is Archy Hamilton, hopeful young sprinter from Western Australia who continually hears of the efforts of the Australian Imperial Force on the peninsula of Gallipoli. He first crosses paths with Gibson’s Frank Dunne during a footrace, after which both men travel together to Perth in order to enlist. Their journey is long and full of joy and laughter, but it eventually takes them to the front lines at Gallipoli. Here they confront the reality of war, attempting to hold onto whatever remnants of home they can in the face of such horror.
To be sure, there are no shortage of “loss of innocence” war films. You could even argue that all war films address this in one way or another, even if it’s tangentially through a supporting character or two as in the likes of The Hurt Locker. Not only does Gallipoli get credit for being a precursor to some of the best WWI films of our era, but it’s also worth paying attention to the structuring of the film as a kind of growing, building framework on which we can hang this theme as the credits roll. First off, the focus is very much on Archy and Frank for the entirety of the movie – we only see the battlefield when they see the battlefield, and any notions we have of the war are stemmed from the opinions of the people they meet and the newspapers they read. In this sense, the war is almost a backdrop for a tale about two friends, and Gibson himself expressed as much in an interview (according to the almighty Wikipedia [so it’s gotta be true!]).
I’ll argue that this is only true in the most superficial sense. Gallipoli is a war film through and through, and it’s a startlingly accurate one too. Sure, dramatic license was taken for certain scenes (it’s a movie, after all), but the general depiction of war from this youngster’s perspective is where the accuracy I’m referring to resides. Archy and Frank and their friends gallivant and globetrot their way to Gallipoli, engaging in hijinks and reminiscing of home. Explosions occur in the far distance as they kick sand up in a footrace to the pyramids. The first “real” taste we (and Archy and Frank) get of battle doesn’t come around until the final scene, and the real tragedy of this scene is only possible because we’ve spent so much time living with the boys.
That the characters are so well drawn and juxtaposed against each other are what makes Gallipoli a lasting achievement. Archy is the blonde boyish dreamer, too young to legally join up but full of pride at the mere prospect of doing so. Frank is the older and more rebellious one, not necessarily more disillusioned as much as indifferent toward the war effort. The tragedy they face in the last scene is ultimately the same: Archy meets death running full-force into an enemy firing squad, Frank watching with the concrete knowledge (in the form of an order negating the need for Archy’s charge) that the death of his friend is pointless. Part of the message may be that the futility of war meets all men, regardless of their differences, with the same faceless impartiality.
Weir’s directing and storytelling also come into sharper focus here, and while his first three ventures are all laudable in their own right it’s very clearly Gallipoli and his next Gibson collaboration The Year of Living Dangerously that mark the arrival of a world-class film director. The achingly beautiful way that Frank and Archy’s first race (where Frank isn’t fast enough to beat Archy) comes full circle in the final battle (where Frank isn’t fast enough to save Archy’s life) shows superb control over the long term, and Weir’s directing is noticeably matured since his debut feature. Overall, Gallipoli is still one of the most affecting portraits of war ever filmed, and it remains atop that category by focusing not on the fighting itself but on the young men forced to endure the impossible futility of war.