Maybe because visually trench warfare isn't the most visually interesting thing to watch there have not been many movies made about World War I. The ones that are out there are typically very good, including 1981's Gallipoli. It's hard to peg this one as a war movie though because it does not focus exclusively on the fighting that took place. It is a patient movie that takes its time introducing two characters before getting them into the army. But once director Peter Weir gets where he wants to, the movie really picks up steam as it leads to one of the more memorable finales I've come across in a war movie, especially a striking last shot that catches you off guard in its execution.
It's 1915 in western Australia and young Archy Hamilton (Mark Lee) is training as a sprinter and quickly making a name for himself as he climbs up the ranks, winning race after race. But the constant news of the war in Europe has made an impact on Archy, and after a win at a highly touted regional race, he travels to Perth with another young runner, Frank Dunne (Mel Gibson), and joins the army, the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC). The two friends are assigned different units, but after weeks of training their destination will be the same, the Gallipoli peninsula, where the fighting has bogged down into costly trench warfare. The British, Australians, and New Zealanders have been cornered though against the defending Turkish forces, and both Archy and Frank know what could await them across the battlefield.
Directing less than 20 movies, Weir has nonetheless developed a reputation for making high quality, professional movies that typically deliver a message without hitting viewers over the head with that message. That's why Gallipoli can be considered an anti-war movie, but not an obvious one. For almost an hour, the war is mentioned and never seen, more of an idea than anything else. Weir wants us to get to know these two main characters, and the story flows along at its best when they're together. When separated, the movie bogs down a bit, including a long, unnecessary scene where Gibson's Dunne and his fellow soldiers explore Cairo that doesn't go anywhere. The pacing can be frustrating at times because Weir clearly knows where he wants his story to end up, but not always how to get there.
Where Weir wants to end up is the Gallipoli campaign (a condensed version obviously) where thousands of lives were pointless wasted in suicidal charges that produced no tangible results. Over the movie's last 20 minutes, Archy and Frank's unit is assigned one of these charges but thanks to some miscommunication end up having to go over the top of the trenches without artillery support directly into a line of waiting Turkish soldiers. Assigned duties as a runner, Frank has orders that could halt the charge but only has seconds to do it in. Watch the ending HERE with obvious spoilers. The race against time should have you on the edge of your seat, and that coupled with the images of soldiers preparing to die, leaving their prized possessions behind, writing a last letter is a striking contrast. It builds to a final shot that stuck with me long after the movie was over, a tribute to Weir's ability behind the camera.
Two years removed from the first Mad Max movie, Gibson was on his way to becoming a huge star, but he wasn't quite there yet. Besides that he looks like he's about 10 years old (he was 25 at the time), the part is a sign of things to come concerning his acting ability. He's got a presence you just can't teach, and a charisma that has you on his side from his first introduction. I wish I could say the same for Mark Lee, his onscreen counterpart. It isn't a particularly good or bad performance, instead it's just there. Lee never gives us a reason to have any interest in this character. Translate that into any scene where he shares time with Gibson, and he's overmatched. If they're together, you're watching Gibson and not Lee. Other worthwhile supporting parts include Robert Grubb, Tim McKenzie and David Argue as three of Frank's friends who also enlist, and Bill Hunter as Major Barton, an Anzac officer caught in between what he owes his men and the orders he's been given from above.
One other thing particularly jumped out at me, the music. It's an odd 1980s mix of electro synthesizers and classical opera, some of which you could hear in the ending clip provided before. The odd combination really shouldn't work because it's just too different, but somehow it does. It can sound out of place, but the music still somehow sets the mood and tone as needed. Who woulda thunk it? Not this guy, but it's another positive in an underrated WWI movie.
Gallipoli <---trailer (1981): ***/****