Rated PG. Running time: 1 hour min. 50 min.
Our content ratings: Violence 6; Language 2; Sex/Nudity 3.
Our star rating (0-5): 5
No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.
This early Peter World War 1 epic made the director famous far beyond his native Australia. Based on the story of a disastrous campaign in Turkey, then an ally of Germany and Austria, the film follows the usual war movie plot of young soldiers starting out with great enthusiasm that is soon dissolved by the acid of battlefield horror. The battle at Gallipoli means as much to Australia, it has been said, as the Battle of the Alamo does to Texans. Both were military defeats that were interpreted as moral victories due to the courage of the defeated. In this film it is the lives of two young soldiers that we follow, one so young that he had to lie in order to join up.
Archy Hamilton (Mark Lee) and Frank (Mel Gibson) are from very different backgrounds: the first is a rising track star, son of a well off rancher, whereas Frank is a laborer on the railroad, who also can run fast. The two first meet at a bar and then at a track meet at which Frank loses all of his money when he bets on himself against Archy. They meet again when Archy, unable to join the Light Horse troops at home, accepts Frank’s suggestion and heads for Perth where no one knows him. They trek together across a desert, arguing about the war all the time. Frank, being of Irish descent, feels that the war is a British, not an Australian affair.
At the last moment Frank decides to go with Archy, but is rejected because of poor horsemanship, and so joins another unit along with three of his railroad mates. They come across each other at their training camp in Egypt and manage to convince their superiors in getting Frank transferred to Archy’s unit where they both serve as sprinters due to their speed and skill at running. During this period their friendship grows all the stronger, making the decision of one of them later on all the more understandable and moving.
The actual battle sequence take up less than a third of the movie’s length, but are very wrenching, In April 1915 the Australians and New Zealand troops, known as ANZAC and some 35,000 strong, join other Allied troops in a drive intended to capture Istanbul and thus gain control of the crucial Dardanelles waterway leading to the Black Sea. The Allies have been contained to a small strip of the coast, with the Turkish troops dug in above them. The two friends sprint back and forth with messages, this at times requiring them to run across a ravine where at the end Turkish soldiers try to pick them off. Frank meets up with one of his friends, shell shocked now, who reports that one has been killed and the other severely wounded. Visiting the dying man in the hospital, Frank agrees to take the friend’s diary back to his parents in Australia so they will have some knowledge of his part in the war.
The plan of battle is to have the British Royal Navy and Australian artillery to bombard the enemy trenches at 4:30 A.M., knocking out their machine guns and allowing the ANZACs to advance and capture them. The local commander Major Barton (Bill Hunter) has appointed one of the friends to be the runner, but he refuses, insisting his friend is faster—his real motive being to save his friend from being part of what he believes will be a suicidal charge against the withering blast of the Turks’ machine guns. (I will let you discover the identities of the two.)
Apparently someone forgot to synchronize their watches, Major Barton’s time piece was defective, because the huge bombardment stops seven minutes ahead of time. The surprised Major, thinking more salvos are coming to “finish them off,” does not order the attack. By the time he manages to get confirmation that the bombardment has indeed ended, the Turks have scrambled back into their trench. Major Barton’s superior Colonel Robinson tells him to send the troops over the top anyway. The first wave of 150 soldiers are cut down within 30 seconds.
The Major argues with the Colonel about the wisdom of sacrificing more lives, but the latter, acting on false information about this attack being needed to protect another operation, insists on following the plan. The second wave is also cut down, not more than 10 yards from their trench. The phone lines are disrupted, so the Major sends one of the two friends to sprint to the HR to let General Gardner know of their predicament. He has heard that the British troops are enjoying cups of tea and thus the assault is not needed, so he tells the runner he is reconsidering the situation, thus effectively canceling the charge. Meanwhile the phone line is repaired and the arrogant Colonel Robinson, nice and safe in his bunker far behind the lines, orders Major Barton to send the next wave over the top. Knowing this is suicidal, the Major, deciding to personally lead his men in the charge, gives them a few minutes to get their personal effects in order. They bravely go over the top, everyone of them knowing they will not survive. Our sprinter hero, even though he has lost his rifle, is shown almost reaching the enemy as he is hit by bullets. The film ends with a freeze-frame that pays homage to a scene from a later war, the Spanish Civil War, that captured by photographer Robert Capa’s iconic 1936 photograph of a still erect soldier at the moment of death, “The Falling Soldier.”
- Why do you think the filmmakers spend so much time on the civilian lives of the two friends?
- Why do you think the filmmakers include the scene of Uncle Jack’s reading from Kipling’s The Jungle Book the episode of Mowgli reaching manhood and leaving the family of wolves that raised him to join his own kind? What does this have to do with Archy?
- What were some of the reasons that motivated Archy to want to join in the War against the enemy? How did the governments back then use propaganda, often laced with false reports of terrible atrocities committed by the foe, to whip up support for the war? Why would Frank’s Irish ancestry lead him to be skeptical of the war? What is it that leads him to change his mind? How is this bond of comradeship often more important to soldiers than patriotic motives?
- What do you think of Colonel Robinson, who insists that there be no deviation from orders? How is he the product of training that strips inductees of their minds and values so that they will become cogs in the military machine? Is this kind of soldier really “a good soldier”?
- What do you think of the rationalization that Gallipoli is a glorious moment of courage? How does such a view require acceptance of the Col. Robinsons and their blindness to changed circumstances requiring flexible thinking? On the other hand, what choice did the common soldiers have? (What was the real purpose of the revolvers carried by officers back then?) For what happened when soldiers refused stupid orders, see Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory, for which we are planning a review and guide later this year.
- What do you think of the decision that one of our two friends make to change places during the coming attack? How is this a good example of the passage from the gospel of John? What do you think of Major Barton’s decision: do you think he is the kind of man who could have lived with himself after sending so many men to their deaths?
- How does this film demonstrate that war is a combination of evil and good? What are its good, or maybe better, noble, elements? What can you say to other people of faith who argue that we should refuse to participate in an war? Both sides of the debate refer to the Bible for support: what passages are most persuasive for you? If you join those who support the “just war” viewpoint, what do you do with the teachings of Christ, especially in the Sermon on the Mount?
Reprinted from the June 2014 issue of Visual Parables.