One hundred and six years ago, more than 100,000 people died fighting in the dirt on a narrow strip of land almost entirely surrounded by ocean. This was the Gallipoli campaign of World War I, and the fact that this figure pales next to the truly grotesque figure of more than 8 million combatant deaths across the entirety of the war doesn’t do anything to diminish the devastation that these losses visited upon the survivors. For citizens of Australia and New Zealand, so many of whose sons and brothers had joined the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) to fight, Gallipoli was a baptism by fire into national identity. The yearlong slog on the embattled peninsula was a waste of a million untouched lives, with ships carrying home cargo that were labeled the remains of soldiers but were really just the bodies of children. Most of those whose last act was to fix bayonets and charge over a trench into the unknown were young adults who were so freshly out of their teen years that their experiences hadn’t even had time to age into memories, and more than a few found ways to skirt the softly enforced guidelines around the age of enlistment: one ANZAC soldier named Jim Martin was just 14 when he died at Gallipoli, born as one century turned into another and dead before the world had even moved on.
The milestone of this national reckoning is what Peter Weir manages to capture in 1981’s Gallipoli. The approach is clear from the opening credits, which doesn’t say “A Peter Weir film” before the title but rather “Peter Weir’s film of,” meaning, this isn’t just a fictional narrative but an attempt to reanimate on film something that had shaped the collective consciousness of generations: Peter Weir’s film of Gallipoli. Weir, an Australian, began working on the story (he receives a screen credit) in the 1970s before bringing in screenwriter David Williamson, and it took a few years for the money to turn up. The film’s producer, Patricia Lovell, was only able to finance it through the newly formed company founded by Rupert Murdoch and Robert Stigwood—the budget came to just under AUS $3 million, at the time the most expensive film the country had ever made. It’s easy to imagine the subject calling not only for scale but for respect, humility, some sense of awareness of the responsibility of chronicling one small view on something that had meant so much to so many.
Which is not to say the film is maudlin or po-faced: in fact, heartbreakingly, just the opposite. The story follows two young men who find their lives drawn together by the war—Archy Hamilton (Mark Lee), an amateur runner, and Frank Dunne (Mel Gibson), an unemployed day laborer—and gains so much of its tragedy because of the attention paid to the men’s humor, attitudes, and lightness. Much of the early part of the film is just about Archy and Frank becoming friends as they travel together across the country to enlist, including a misadventure when they hop a freight train in hopes of shortening their journey and instead wind up in the middle of nowhere, forced to hoof it through a desert salt flat to make their destination. There’s even a dark joke about the Australian explorers who died in their own crossing of the country.
Weir also devotes a meaningful portion of the film to Archy and Frank’s ANZAC experiences before they see combat, from the bonds they develop during training to the kind of chaotic boredom that the young men struggle to control as they wander around a foreign country and wait for someone to decide their fate. The troop’s train in Cairo, where one of the soldiers remarks that the pyramids were “man’s first attempt to beat death,” with the burial tombs loaded with treasures for the afterlife. This is, of course, what all these boys are trying to do themselves. Weir expertly captures their youthful naivete, especially Archy’s attitude that this is all in some ways a grand adventure, and it’s this sense of some greater ideal—duty, or maybe destiny—that drives Archy and so many others as much as any orders from their commanders.
Throughout the film, Weir lets the combat loom greater and greater: first as ill-defined speculation to boys on the other side of the world from the war, then as established fact in news accounts, then as overheard noise as the soldiers dig into the trenches on Gallipoli, and then as witnessed aftermath as the wounded and dead begin to pile up. The film’s final battle is itself only seen in snatched glimpses from behind cover, at once an economical way to stage a battle scene and an accurate way to evoke the soldiers’ feelings of isolation and helplessness in the face of near-certain death. And then, Weir builds to a crescendo in the battle and holds the viewer there, forever suspended. At first it feels too abrupt, almost too easy a way to end things, but Weir’s decision to make the film’s summary moments those of operatic grief, and not of the quiet meditation that can come after years of peace, is the perfect one. This inevitable and awful place we’ve arrived at feels truncated and wrong, but that’s of course the whole point: there is no grand lesson here, no honor or nobility, no long life of wise reflection from those who survived. There’s just this awful wasted youth, this sense of “adventure” burned into ash, all for—what?
The night before the film’s final conflict, a commanding officer sits in his tent and listens to a recording of a duet from The Pearl Fishers, an 1863 opera by Georges Bizet. In its original context, it’s a song of friendship between two men who will soon fall in love with the same woman, but here it’s transformed into an elegy for the lives these young people all too briefly share with each other before they are separated by fire. It’s a wordless moment that will find counterpoints in the following day’s battle, as soldiers lay hands on each other’s arms, scrawl letters home for someone else to deliver, and regard each other with the knowledge that they’ll never see each other again. At least, though, they made it this far.