GALLIPOLI (Peter Weir, 1981)

Young Mel Gibson is brilliant (best actor, Australian Film Institute)—clean, deft, quick, poignant—as sprinter Frank Dunne in Peter Weir’s antiwar historical fable, Gallipoli, an antidote now for any bad feelings that his public comments and private actions may have engendered some three decades hence. In the intervening time, Gibson has been one of the few players to invite comparison with earlier charismatic Hollywood stars such as Gable, Cooper, Cagney, Grant. Alas, his acting reflexes have slowed down over the years, seemingly at times to an indifferent standstill, and his alternate career as producer-director, while winning him Oscars, hasn’t generated worthwhile results—although in the case of Braveheart (1995) it did spark his lead performance, adding it to the roster of his very best work.
     Although Gibson gives (by far) the best performance in Gallipoli, Dunne isn’t the protagonist. This is Archy Hamilton, also a runner, only younger, more confident and more talented. (Mark Lee, whose continuing career has claimed a lower velocity than Gibson’s, is most appealing here.) Competitors in a race that Hamilton wins, the two become fast friends, with farmboy Archy convincing the cynical Dunne, against Dunne’s better instincts, to enlist along with him in the freshly created Australian and New Zealand Army Corps during World War I. Hamilton, pegged to be a runner, suggests Dunne instead and joins fellow combat soldiers in the trenches facing machine-gunning Ottoman Empire soldiers—Turks—whose massacre of them would owe a good deal to British military bungling, although Weir and scenarist David Williamson also stress unfortunate timing as Dunne speeds between his troop and the tented local command center in an effort to have the futile charge called off. Hamilton’s death while running towards the enemy, reminding us of the peacetime Olympic career that ought to have been his, accounts for one of cinema’s most piercing freeze frames: the culmination of a heart-walloping lament for slaughtered youth.
     Indeed, the power of this finish owes much to Weir’s thematic preparation. Perhaps the central relationship in Archy Hamilton’s life is with Jack, his dedicated coach and uncle. Early on, we see and hear their ritual for inspiring Archy to do his best—their collaborative “pumping up.” The ritual consists of a script by which Jack supplies prompts to each one of which Archy responds:

Jack: What are your legs?
Archy: Springs. Steel springs.
Jack: What are they going to do?
Archy: Hurl me down the track.
Jack: How fast can you run?
Archy: As fast as a leopard.
Jack: How fast are you going to run?
Archy: As fast as a leopard!
Jack: Then let’s see you do it!

We see this shared ritual performed again prior to a racing competition. It reappears near the end of the film, just prior to the charge that will take so many lives, including Archy’s. In its last incarnation, however, Archy assumes both roles, both voices. This assumption of Uncle Jack’s role in the ritual, besides intensifying our sense of his monstrous solitude and his disconnect from all manner of support, is a shattering indication of Archy’s premature growing up, his loss of innocence, as poet Alfred Tennyson’s speaker in Maud had put it with reference to the Crimean War, his acceptance of his fate: “I have felt with my native land, I am one with my kind,/ I embrace the purpose of God, and the doom assigned.” In effect, tragically, Archy’s maturity comes under the gun and only in the shadow of death. War has diverted—aborted—what would otherwise have been the normal course of a human life.
     The warm, burnished, haunting colors of much of Gallipoli can be credited to Russell Boyd (best cinematography, Australian Film Institute); the thing is lit with sorrow and melancholy. However, Weir’s film is not perfect. Bill Kerr’s performance as Uncle Jack, for instance, is sentimental, tortuously selfconscious, ham-fisted. A greater problem is the klutzy structure, in particular, stretched-thin middle; we are thus set up for the ending’s sobering reversal of the earlier (although outdoors) locker-room, adolescent frolicking. These are boys, you understand. Yes, I understood, and I didn’t need the manipulative emotional highlighting. And neither will you.

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