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Silver Screen Streak List #25: 01. Gallipoli (1981)

Silver Screen Streak List #25: 01. Gallipoli (1981)

Directed by Peter Weir
Written by dorrk
27 April 2024

Watching Gallipoli (1981) as a non-Australian is a disadvantage, as the titular subject is a battle that, despite occurring 10,000 miles from their own country, is credited with the dawning of a sense of Australian national identity. It's one thing to know this context from reading about it on Wikipedia, as I did directly after watching Peter Weir's movie. It's another thing to feel this symbolic profundity communicated through the movie, and I can't say that, as a non-Australian, I did. Without the added weight of its context, Gallipoli is a decent but too familiar war movie and also a useful reminder that Peter Weir was once a solid director and Mel Gibson was once an undeniable movie star.

Gallipoli follows two young men from the Australian Outback to the frontline of an infamous World War One battlefield in 1915. Archy (Mark Lee) is too young to enlist in the Australian army but is intoxicated by the exotic promise of a European military campaign and is desperate to escape his dull rural life despite showing promise as a world-class runner. Frank (Mel Gibson) reluctantly follows Archy's lead even though he is dubious about the war's relevance to their remote nation and has a far more sober view of the risks inherent in the macho adventurism that is seemingly de rigueur for young Australian men.

Gallipoli contrasts the romance of male bonding with the horror of war, as the long build-up to the Battle of the Nek is filled with hijinks and the robust rivalries of bronzed young men full of testosterone. When the fighting starts, however, the romance of "war" quickly fades. Weir and screenwriter David Williamson lean into Frank's isolationist viewpoint by making villains out of the British Army, fabricating British culpability for callously using Australian soldiers as cannon fodder in a botched and unwinnable confrontation. It doesn't help Gallipoli that this plot is so similar to Stanley Kubrick's WWI masterpiece Paths of Glory (1957), which handles it with greater depth and cinematic power. Gallipoli has a far more common, shallow anti-war take that avoids more challenging questions for the sake of easy sentiment. Weir, during this early period of his career, was an interesting director capable of enigmatic ideas and intoxicating imagery, and Gallipoli looks great, but there's not much to chew on beyond "war bad." You can see more hints of the maudlin sentimentality that Weir would later indulge in Dead Poets Society (1989) than the mysterious, questioning distance of A Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975), and I vastly prefer the latter.

Of the film's two stars, Lee is, like the movie, direct and easy to read. Gibson, however, is on the cusp of major stardom and all of his qualities are in evidence here. He's got a great presence, mixing his unavoidable looks with suppressed emotional and psychological complexity. Then there's the music, which complements Brian May's good original score with anachronistic electronic beep-boops from Jean Michel Jarre. It probably sounded pretty cool in 1981, but I'm not sure it adds anything beyond its distracting otherness. It certainly doesn't align with the fairly unadventurous material.

Silver Screen Streak List #25: 01. Gallipoli (1981)


Gallipoli (1981), Ranked

The first entry in Josh Haysom's list, AACTA 'Best Film' Winners, Gallipoli (1981) manages a decent but unspectacular rank of #2542 (59.05%) on my Flickchart. This is not enough to earn a FREE PASS for the Second Round, so it puts a lot of pressure on the next movie, which I'm honestly dreading: Hacksaw Ridge (2016), directed by Mel Gibson.