Director: Peter Weir
Screenplay: David Williamson (story by Peter Weir)
Stars: Mel Gibson (Frank Dunne), Mark Lee (Archy Hamilton), Bill Kerr (Jack), Robert Grubb (Billy), Tim McKenzie (Barney), David Argue (Snowy), Bill Hunter (Major Barton), Geoff Parry (Sgt. Sayers)
MPAA Rating: PG
Year of Release: 1981
Country: Australia
Gallipoli Criterion Collection DVD
GallipoliPeter Weir's Gallipoli is a sharp splinter in the eye of boyish enthusiasm for war as a grand adventure. With running as its central visual and thematic motif, it shows how the same kind of reckless excitement that causes its main character to engage in a barefoot cross-country footrace against someone on horseback leads him to rush headlong into the army, knowing that he will be sent to war. Director Peter Weir establishes early on a sense of innocence and optimism, unspoiled by the realities of the world, that is not so much corrupted as it is brutally killed. Gallipoli has one of the most justly famous and haunting final images in all of cinema, not because it is a freeze-frame of a character in the throes of death, but because it is an indelible portrait of an entire worldview being senselessly slaughtered in a hail of bullets.

In making Gallipoli, Weir had two primary objectives. The first was to give a human face to a historical event that was so well-known in Australia that it was commended every year on Anzac Day, yet for that very reason had become a rote part of the cultural mindset--remembered, but not really known. The second objective was to make a war film that genuinely conveyed the senselessness of war, and in that respect he couldn't have picked a better story than the Battle of Gallipoli in April 1915, in which British officers ordered volunteer Australian and New Zealand troops into a hail of Turkish machine gun fire in a futile attempt to secure the western end of the Turkish peninsula.

Although Weir and screenwriter David Williamson began crafting a vast historical epic that would trace every aspect of the failed campaign, they eventually made the wise decision to focus their story on a small group of memorable characters who would humanize the military tragedy. The two main characters are Archy (Mark Lee) and Frank (Mel Gibson), two young runners who become fast friends after meeting at a race. Archy, who is only 18 and has spent all of those years in the remote countryside, is determined to join the Australian Army's Light Horse cavalry because he wants to see the world. He literally sees the great European war as an opportunity for adventure. Frank, who is older and has spent time in the city, is more cynical and knowing. He resists joining the military ranks, not because he is a coward, but because he doesn't see the point--"It's not our war," he says.

However, because all of his friends are joining and he has little else to do, Frank eventually does join the army, although he ends up in the infantry because he can't ride. Along with several of his longtime mates, Billy (Robert Grubb), Barney (Tim McKenzie), and Snowy (David Argue), all of whom are as eager to join up as Archy, Frank travels to Egypt for training and eventually finds himself in the trenches on the Turkish peninsula, where he is one of thousands of young soldiers who might be asked to rush the Turkish trenches, all of which are manned by machine guns (a relatively new instrument of warfare).

Weir, who was part of the great Australian film renaissance of the 1970s, was known primarily for his mystical films Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975) and The Last Wave (1977), and he brings that sense of mystery and aura to Gallipoli without sacrificing the harsh reality that makes great war films sting. A perfect example is the scene in which many of the young soldiers go swimming in the bay, and Weir turns the idyllic underwater shots of them into a brutal reminder of war's intrusive nature once pieces of shrapnel start cutting through the water, hitting at least one soldier and turning the blue water red (Terence Malick would make this the central theme of his 1998 film The Thin Red Line).

Once the film's focus turns entirely to the battle in the trenches, with a good-hearted Australian officer (Bill Hunter) forced by his British superior to send his troops into certain death for absolutely no gain, Gallipoli takes on an air of tragic hopelessness that few films ever attain. Part of this is due to Weir's masterful command of the tension in the trenches, but it is also because of the film's first half, which established so well the friendship between Archy and Frank. They are polar opposites in many ways, yet there is a largely unspoken bond between them that suggests something spiritual. Thus, the real tragedy in Gallipoli is how the spiritual can be destroyed by the material, with bullets ripping through not just flesh and bone, but hopes and innocence, as well.

Gallipoli Special Edition DVD

Aspect Ratio2.35:1
  • English Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround
  • English Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround
  • French Dolby Digital 1.0 Monaural
  • SubtitlesEnglish, Spanish
  • Entrenched: The Making of Gallipoli six-part documentary
  • Theatrical trailer
  • DistributorParamount Home Entertainment
    Release DateDecember 13, 2005

    This is the second time Gallipoli has been made available on DVD, but this new release is light years ahead of the original 1998 release in terms of image quality. The brand-new anamorphic widescreen transfer is marvelous--much sharper, cleaner, and more detailed than the original DVD. Colors are bright and well-rendered, and contrast is spot-on.

    This DVD uses the same Dolby Digital 5.1 surround track as the original DVD release. It is a serviceable surround track that sometimes forces the surround effects too much (to the point of sounding a bit thin), but otherwise works quite well. If I had a complaint about the film, it is that its use of synthesizer music (so popular in films of the early 1980s) stands out too much and has aged very badly, although it is well replicated on the disc.

    Peter Weir's films on Paramount DVDs have been getting a good dose of attention lately, and Gallipoli benefits the same as The Truman Show and Witness with a first-rate six-part documentary on the making of the film. The documentary filmmakers have rounded up just about everyone who played a major role in making Gallipoli, including Weir, screenwriter David Williamson, producers Robert Stigwood and Patricia Lovell, and actors Mark Lee, Mel Gibson, Robert Grubb, Tim McKenzie, and David Argue. Most intriguing is the discussion of the actual Battle of Gallipoli, which is illustrated with numerous period photographs that show how well the production reproduced the event. The only other supplement on the disc is an original theatrical trailer.

    Copyright ©2005 James Kendrick

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    All images copyright © Paramount Home Entertainment

    Overall Rating: (3.5)

    James Kendrick

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