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Film / Gallipoli

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"Gallipoli was the birth of a nation. It was the shattering of a dream for Australia. They had banded together to fight the Hun and died by the thousands in a dirty little trench war."
Mel Gibson

Gallipoli is a 1981 Australian film directed by Peter Weir, set during World War I and focuses on the failure that was the Gallipoli landings. Well, there's a bit more to it than that. The film completely avoids glorifying war by showing how boring it can be - from slow moving training, to months at sea, to the endless waiting before battle.

The movie follows a young man, Archy (Mark Lee) with an incredible talent for running who lives in the outback. He dreams of going off to the city or joining the army to fight in a far off country. But he's too young and his parents and running coach say no. Archy heads off to an athletics carnival where he beats another man - Frank Dunne (Mel Gibson) - and they become friends. After a bit of dilly-dallying and good old fashioned Aussie fun, they decide to go down to the city where no one knows them, and enlist in the army. They hop a freight train but get kicked off and have to walk across the desert, which nearly kills them.

Archy and Frank get accepted into the army, but Archy is accepted into the Light Horse Brigade (due to his bitching riding skills) and Frank becomes an infantry man. They are sent to Egypt on separate troopships but meet up again in Cairo. They spend a few months training, having sex education classes, frequenting brothels and stealing from market stalls.

Frank transfers into the Light Horse Brigade, as they're being sent to Gallipoli in Turkey, where they don't need horses. They arrive at Anzac Cove and for the next few days experience the boredom that is trench warfare. They hear about other injured infantrymen who are slaughtered at the Battle of Lone Pine and work as runners for the higher-ups, carrying messages from the British generals to the Australian leaders when the phone lines are down. Which is often.

Archy and Frank's platoon is ordered to take part in the Charge of the Nek, which is to distract the Turks from the British landing at nearby Suvla Bay. However, Archy is asked to run a message for their commander, but he asks Frank to do it. And off Frank runs, along the many miles to the British command.

The plan is that the 8th and 10th Light Horse Brigades will charge in three waves, over land held by Turkish Machine Gunners, Archy being in the last wave of men. The first wave will be at 4.30 AM, after the Brits bombard the Turks to give the Australians the best possible chance of making it across. The Commanders watches are unsynchronized and the bombardment ends far too early. The first wave is ordered to go over the top with the Turk gunners ready and waiting for them. They're cut down and the second wave goes over the top, barely making it 10 metres. Meanwhile, Frank is told that they've rethought the attack, but the phone lines are down and there is no way for them to tell the Australians to stop. So he must run all the way back to the trenches and stop the third wave.

The Australian commander is also rethinking the attack but has his previous orders to push on. Archy and his friends pin their medals, photos, letters and diaries to the trench wall, gather their rifles and prepare to run to their death. The order comes and they go over the top, Frank arriving just after they run out into No Mans Land, where he lets out a scream of anguish.

The film ends with Archy losing his rifle and running as hard as he can toward the Turkish trenches, until he is shot in the chest. Roll credits.

This film provides examples of:

  • Alas, Poor Villain: Les McCann proved to be a thorn in Archy's side in the first act, forcing Archy to run barefoot in a bet and blowing Archy's cover the moment he was initially accepted into the army following the race. When Archy happens to see him in the trenches, Les is a panicked mess and shocked in seeing Archy there before becoming a statistic for the Turks.
  • Artistic License – History:
    • Archy got into the Light Horse without having any horses. In fact you had to bring your own.
    • The movie's treatment of the British contingent as lazy and incompetent. This accurately reflects the animosity between British and ANZAC forces during the First World War, of which the Gallipoli Campaign is the most notorious example. In reality, however, the British did more than their share of fighting in the campaign, including the battles depicted during the film:
      • The attack on the Nek was a diversion for the Kiwi landing at Sair Bair, not the British landing at Suvla.
      • Thus, the British were not drinking tea on the beach whilst the Australians died for them - in fact, the British sent two companies of Royal Welsh Fusiliers (whom they could ill-afford to lose) to help when they heard the attack had stalled. These Welshmen suffered very heavy losses trying to support the Aussie attack. During the whole campaign, the British 29th Division ("the Incomparables") suffered 34,000 casualties (dead,wounded,missing), the highest of any single unit at Gallipoli, and earned 12 Victoria Crosses. Although this was the belief in Australia at the time. And at least the British are depicted, albeit unflatteringly; the large French contingent serving with the Dardanelles expedition isn't even mentioned.
      • There was very little British command and control at the Nek - it was primarily the incompetence of two Australian officers, Brigadier Hughes and Colonel Antill, that caused the heavy losses.
      • The latter at least was probably not an intentional distortion. The fictional Colonel Robinson (played by Aussie actor John Morris) wears an ANZAC uniform and has an upper class Anglo-Australian accent, both of which are probably recognizable to Australian viewers.note  On the other hand, viewers outside of Australia probably wouldn't pick up on these nuances and assume Robinson is British.
  • The Bet: Archy and Les race back to the Hamilton household, barefoot and bareback respectively. Despite being at a disadvantage and finishing with wounded soles, Archy made it back first.
  • Big Heroic Run: During the assault at Nek, Frank is assigned to act as message runner for Major Barton. First he makes a dash under enemy fire to General Gardener's HQ to tell how the Australian forces are being cut down. The general tells Frank that he is reconsidering the attack. Frank sprints back to convey this news, but the phone lines are repaired and Colonel Robinson orders the attack to continue. Frank arrives seconds too late and lets out a scream of anguish and despair.
  • Big "NO!": Frank, realizing he's too late to stop Archy.
  • Bookend: The film opens and finishes with Archy Hamilton running.
  • Cannon Fodder: The Australian soldiers are slaughtered almost to the last man, within fifteen yards of going over the top of their trench.
  • Child Soldiers: At eighteen years Archy is legally underage (twenty-one was the drinking and voting age in 1915), and there were many boys at Gallipoli all signing up for the "glory" of it. One was 14 and died a week after he arrived.
  • City Mouse: Frank is from Perth and thus hopeless on a horse. He is rejected by the Australian Light Horse recruiter when he can't even get his to move, but he later gets to join at Gallipoli after the Light Horse leaves their horses behind.
  • Creator Cameo: Screenwriter David Williamson is tackled during the Aussie Rules Football game the soldiers play in Egypt.
  • Defeat Means Friendship: After Frank loses a 100-yard-dash to Archy, as well as the twenty quid he bet on himself, they become friends.
  • Doomed by Canon: For Australians. American audiences were reportedly surprised Archy didn't survive.
  • Downer Ending: Frank howls in anguish after realizing he's too late. The film ends on a freeze frame of Archy being cut down by machine gun fire.
  • Establishing Character Moment: Archy winning a cross-country race against a horse, while barefoot, and then winning a race against Frank shortly afterwards despite his blistered feet showcases what a Determinator he is, as well as his athletic prowess.
  • Fanservice: Naked young Mel Gibson! Ruined by an artillery bombardment, but still.
  • Fatal Family Photo: Soldiers are pulling out photos of their loved ones before the final attack. Subverted in that they all know perfectly well that they're going to die.
  • A Father to His Men: Major Barton. When he is forced into ordering the charge, he chooses to accompany the men he's sending to their deaths.
  • For Want Of A Nail: Because two watches were a few minutes apart, Archy and hundreds of young men just like him are shot.
  • Freeze-Frame Ending: Perhaps the most famous and powerful freeze frame since The 400 Blows. Famously ended on Archie's senseless death.
  • The Hero Dies: Archy runs towards the Turkish trenches but soon gets mowed down in the chest by their machine gun fire.
  • Heroic Sacrifice: Archy's death may seem like one, but it's more a A Tale of Two Cities sacrifice, dying in a friend's place. He does this because he blames himself for Frank's involvement in the war, remembering that Frank had dreamed of owning a bike shop, and chooses to sacrifice himself rather than send Frank to certain death. It's tragically Subverted by the implication that, being a faster runner than Frank, if Archy had been the runner he might have made it back in time to prevent the fatal and pointless charge that Frank was mere seconds too slow to stop.
  • High-Class Glass: A British officer on horseback wears one. The Australians mock him.
  • Impeded Messenger: Major plot point. Just as the soldiers are about to go over the top to attack the Turks in a futile attempt to gain ground, the order is rescinded. Frank can't quite make it back in time to save his friends from annihilation.
  • Ironic Echo: Archy repeats Jack's words to him before he was about to sprint one last time.
    Archy: "What are you legs? Springs... steel springs... What are they going to do? They're going to hurl me down the track... How fast can you run? As fast as a leopard... How fast are you going to run? As fast as a leopard! Then let's see you do it!"
  • Kilroy Was Here: The Diggers carve their names into the stones of the Pyramids during their training in Egypt.
  • Mood Whiplash: A Smash Cut from the bright lights and cheerful music of an officers' dance in Cairo, to pitch black darkness as landing craft carry the Australians to the beach at ANZAC Cove.
  • One Last Smoke: The soldiers about to go over the top start lighting up.
  • Only Sane Man: Frank, who doesn't buy into the Patriotic Fervor and only enlists after a little cajoling, and due to a lack of prospects after betting his savings on the foot-race he lost to Archy.
  • One Sided Battle: Once the Turks return to their trenches, due to the mis-timed bombardment, the whole attack is doomed. Three waves of Australians are each cut down as soon as they go over the top.
  • Patriotic Fervor: As happens all too often, used to convince young men to go off and die in war.
    • One scene lampshades this, with Frank chuckling about how because Britain is at war with Germany the Australians have to go fight in Turkey.
  • Ragtag Bunch of Misfits: The soldiers.
  • Reasonable Authority Figure: Major Barton, who delays ordering the charge as long as he can, and General Gardner, who cancels it (although not in time).
  • Senseless Sacrifice: The movie portrays war as a one, huge example of this trope.
  • Shoot the Shaggy Dog: The whole story. In real life, the whole mission. There really was no point, tactically or to 'win hearts and minds.'
  • Spoiler Cover: Some posters and home releases featured the final freeze frame as its cover art.
  • Thirsty Desert: Frank and Archy cross fifty miles of Australian desert in order to make it to a town.
  • Unusual Euphemism: An officer warns the men about diseases they might catch from "horizontal refreshment" when they are on liberty in Cairo.
  • Vitriolic Best Buds: Frank, with Snowy, Billy and Barney.
  • War Is Hell: With a large helping of War Is Boring, too.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: We never find out if Snowy survived his chest wound, or if Billy survives the subsequent offensives. note 
  • What You Are in the Dark: Archy has a chance to be a message runner, which would save him from the big push on the front lines, but instead requests that Frank be given the job.
  • Wide-Eyed Idealist: Archy takes a double serving of Patriotic Fervor with every meal, yet also cares deeply for his friends.
  • Zerg Rush: Not a lot of strategy in the charges that end the film.