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Gallipoli (Peter Weir) 1981

    Peter Weir's films manage to meld commercial concepts with an art house vibe better than nearly any other director. His movies, as a result, tend to feel like they are somewhat at odds with themselves, and possibly none of his works  feels more conflicted than his Gallipoli. In Gallipoli, Mel Gibson and  Mark Lee portray two young Australians that join the ill-fated ANZAC expedition to Turkey in 1915. A great deal of time is spent establishing the lives of these two characters before they join the armed forces. The men don't enlist until the film's halfway mark. Only about a quarter of the film finds the men actually on the site of the battle. He's attempting to show that these men had lives before the slaughter at the end of the film cut them short, an attempt to bring art-house characterizations to the war film, but it also shortchanges the battle sequence's power and the historical context in which it took place. The film chooses to show us scenes out of a road movie as the two leads, who are naturally opposites, travel across the picaresque country. There's a noticeable lack of substantial development for any of the characters beyond Lee's, and even his character's background feels contrived. If this is an attempt to tell one soldier's story, perhaps Weir should have focused on a more interesting individual. The film's visual and textual simplicity, which feels as if it was intentional (presumably to make the tale universal), begins to work against it. Gibson's character resists the idea of joining the Army, while Lee's breaks rules in order to be allowed. Most of the soldiers seem motivated only by the media's propaganda, and the film's performances do little to help. When the film's antiwar message kicks in, you wish you knew something more about the soldiers. You're uncertain if you've just witnessed bravery, brainwashing, or both. You wished you had something more to mourn, and it's odd that you don't considering how much running time is spent trying to establish the characters.

    Despite the personality that would allow the film to reach a higher level of emotional resonance, the film's message does come across clearly. War has rarely felt more nonsensical in film than it does here. The battle scenes, without much gore or even much action, manage to convey a disturbing sense that combat is a confusing horror, and that's an achievement, since we don't really understand the context of the attack. This achievement seems largely accountable to the excellent cinematography and the solid direction. The new-age synth-heavy score, however, is jarring and inappropriate. One does leave the film wishing there was a bit more explanation of  the tactical objective of the skirmish, so the loss of life could be justified somehow. The film doesn't allow us that, though, steadfastly damning everyone involved except for its protagonist. It railroads us into a response, and, despite, or maybe because of the obvious craft at work, left me feeling a bit used.

* * *

October, 2001

Jeremy Heilman