As an Australian, I almost feel like it’s unpatriotic for me to have lived this long without seeing this movie. Things don’t get more Aussie than this. It’s the most well known and renowned story in our country’s military history. It was directed by Peter Weir, possibly our most prestigious film maker. And it stars Mel Gibson, who until he was revealed as a racist, misogynistic asshole, was Australia’s brightest shining star in Hollywood. I don’t know how or why it’s taken this long, but I’ve finally seen Gallipoli.
I don’t want to talk this movie up too much or over sell it, but I think Gallipoli might be as close to a perfect film as you’re ever gonna see. Now that I’ve put that out there, let’s see if I can justify such a big call.
Opening in the Western Australia desert of 1915, Archy Hamilton (Mark Lee) is training as a sprinter with his uncle. He works on his father’s cattle station, but has two dreams. To be the fastest runner in Australia, and to join the army to do his part during WWI. At his first race meet, he takes on, and beats, Frank Dunne (Mel Gibson), a cocky and arrogant ex-railway worker. Archy uses this time away from the family farm to run away and enlist, and he convinces Frank to come with him.
Lying about his age and impressing with his horsemanship, Archy joins the fabled Light Horse, the hoity toity of the Australian army. While Frank has to accept his role at the bottom, as an infantryman. Soon, both are off to Egypt where the Australian troops are training for the real battle, Gallipoli.
Here’s something that might surprise you about a movie called Gallipoli, the first hour all takes place in Australia. Then, there’s half an hour or so of Egypt shenanigans. They don’t even get to Gallipoli until about the last 20 minutes. That’s not a criticism, it was just unexpected. Actually, if anything, it made the movie even better, because it went against every preconception I had before watching and surprised me the whole way.
But I’m actually glad the Gallipoli sequence takes up such a small part of the movie, because I don’t know if I could have handled much more. You know that bit in Forest Gump when he arrives to fight in the Vietnam War and it’s just a big party, then it turns into the horrors of war? Well, in Gallipoli, when Archy and Frank get to the titular beach, it’s both happening at once. Soldiers casually swim in the ocean, happily take bets on who’ll get injured and basically just hang out with their mates, while artillery constantly lands at their feet. It all makes for a really effective intensity that makes the last parts of this movie hard to watch in the best possible, most compelling way.
Peter Weir has a great visual style, a shot of silhouetted soldiers climbing the pyramids at sunset is amazing. And the introduction to the Egyptian sequence is even better, Australian soldiers playing Aussie Rules footy at the base of the great pyramids. I don’t know how historically accurate it is that they trained under the shadow of the Sphinx, but it makes for a great looking movie.
Above, I said that Gallipoli is close to a perfect movie. For me, there are only two instances that make it lose marks, and they both involve the same piece of musical score. Amongst this period perfect and accurate looking, sounding, feeling movie, there are two occurrences when Weir decides to use the worst, most clichéd, cheap sounding 80s synth music you have ever heard. It sounds like a rejected score from a John Carpenter movie. And both times, it really took me out of the story.
Obviously, it probably gets an advantage by being so fresh in my mind, but right now, I can’t think of a better Australian movie than Gallipoli. Mark Lee and Mel Gibson both nail it, and Bill Hunter pops up towards the end to be awesome too. Even if I’m wrong about this being the best Australian movie ever made, I have to assume whatever the best one is, Bill Hunter is in it.