It's 1915, and eighteen-year-old Archy Hamilton (Mark Lee) is the fastest sprinter in Western Australia. Frank Dunne (Mel Gibson), a few years older, is about as fast. They meet at a race, which Archy narrowly wins, and soon become firm friends. However, war is underway in Europe. At first Archy is turned down by the army for being under-age, but with Frank's help he treks to Perth and signs up under a false name.
To Australians, Gallipoli (in Turkey) is a key event in their history, when thousands of young Australian men were needlessly slaughtered. Perhaps inevitably it took Australians to make the film version. Robert Stigwood and Rupert Murdoch's names feature prominently in the credits: whatever their crimes against culture, they can be forgiven for this film. However, Gallipoli is less a war film than a film about male friendship, or "mateship" as the Australians put it. It's a perennial Aussie theme, here given depth by the wartime setting. (With both stars' considerable good looks, and scenes where they carve their names in stone, it's not surprising that some people have read Gallipoli as a coded gay love story.) David Williamson's script is firmly structured into three acts: the first three-quarters of an hour in Australia, a middle act in Egypt and the final half-hour at the front in Gallipoli. There's a considerable amount of larkish humour in the early and middle stages, where the war seems far away, but Williamson and Weir expertly darken the tone to an ending that packs a considerable punch. The final shot is hard to forget.
Of the two lead actors, needless to say one became a major star and the other didn't. It's hard to see why that would be, as both Gibson and Lee's characters are given equal weight – if anything, as the film begins and ends with Archy, Lee is on screen a little more than Gibson. Lee has played leads in a few other films (Emma's War (1986) and The Everlasting Secret Family (1988) had British cinema releases, both brief) but seems to have worked mostly for TV in the last decade. There's solid support from a reliable cast.
Another major film about World War I is Stanley Kubrick's Paths of Glory. Gallipoli is a different, much warmer film. We're certainly meant to feel the injustice of the officers ordering young men to their death, but it's their idealism and patriotism that comes over much more strongly. Like Newsfront, but in a different way, this is a film is specifically about Australia rather than just simply made and set there: notice the number of times in the dialogue that Archy and Frank are dressed as if they were the country. Again like Newsfront, it's a film that makes Aussies feel good about themselves. The only commander we see much of is Bill Hunter's kindly Major. By contrast, Kubrick is far more interested in his monstrous commanding officers than he is in the men.
Looking back, Gallipoli, along with its successor The Year of Living Dangerously started a second phase in Weir's career. If you take his debut, The Cars That Ate Paris as an interesting, flawed and somewhat anomalous first effort, then the first phase (Australian-made and financed) consists of Picnic at Hanging Rock and The Last Wave. These films have a sense of nature being larger and more mysterious than we can comprehend; they are films that suggest more than they explain. Weir has kept his sense of the atmosphere of place, but has only really returned to such themes with his underrated 1993 film Fearless. With Witness he has worked in America, but Gallipoli and Living Dangerously are Australian films made with major-studio funding. They are stories on a larger scale (apart from Cars, they are the only Weir films shot in Scope), and deal more with socio-political subject matter than the mystical, inward-looking themes of their predecessors. Much of this is due to David Williamson, who wrote or co-wrote the screenplays for both films. A playwright as well as a screenwriter, Williamson is a master of sharply-edged dialogue, as anyone who has seen Don's Party will know. As a result, parents of young children may wish to know that the language in the script doesn't test the bounds of a PG certificate in terms of strength, but it certainly does in quantity.
Gallipoli was shot in a ratio of 2.35:1. I saw the film on its original release in late 1981, aged seventeen. It was one of the earliest times that I remember noticing firstly that some films were wider than others and secondly that such width wouldn't fit properly on TV. Russell Boyd's photography is magnificent, making much of the strong light of Australia, to the dustier colours of Egypt and Turkey. This DVD has an anamorphic transfer, which is in pretty good shape. There is some minor artefacting, and occasional print damage, but nothing too distracting.
The sound has been remixed from the original mono to Dolby Digital 5.1. Occasionally the dialogue is a little flatly recorded and lacking in dynamic range, but much use has been made of left and right and the surrounds, with a lot of directional sound effects. The subwoofer comes into play with some loud explosions in the final half-hour. Unfortunately, the score's four extracts from Jean-Michel Jarre's Oxygene have been mixed very loud: always anachronistic, now dated, their use is a major miscalculation. The rest of the score is by Brian May (a prolific Australian composer, not to be mistaken for the Queen guitarist) is much more in keeping. It makes notable use of Albinoni's Adagio in G Minor, which has become clichéd over the last two decades, but is still effective here.
The theatrical trailer runs 1:42 and is in non-anamorphic 1.85:1. It contains one shot that, in context, is a major spoiler. However, if you don't know its context, maybe it isn't, as it was used for the poster, though not the DVD packaging. However, Paramount's DVD still retains the unfortunate tagline, "From a place you've never heard of, comes a story you'll never forget". The other extra is an interview with Weir. He describes how a written account of a soldier running across the battlefield solved his and Williamson's difficulties in telling this story: from that point on, Archy and Frank became runners. He also tells how he went to the scene of the battlefield, which is still much as it was left. The problem with this interview is its brevity (7:31); in the absence of any commentary, there is certainly more that could be said. There are fifteen chapter stops, not really enough for a film of this length.
Gallipoli, seen again after twenty years, stands up remarkably well: it's as entertaining, funny, engrossing and ultimately poignant as I remembered. This makes the DVD well worth having, though like many of Paramount's releases, it's light on extras.