Two naive and adventurous young friends enlist in Australia’s military, just in time to be sent far from home into one of the many ill-fated and pointless bloodbaths of World War I. [Dir: Peter Weir/ Mark Lee, Mel Gibson, Bill Kerr/ 111 min/ Action-Adventure/ Australia/ Anti-War]
In 1915, Allied forces—made up of British, French, Australian, and New Zealander troops—attempted to invade Turkey, on the Gallipoli Peninsula near Istanbul. Turkey had signed a treaty with Germany, and the invasion was intended, among other things, to open up a new front in the ongoing wider European conflict. However, the Turks offered more resistance than expected and the British mismanaged the campaign. The battle resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths and ended in evacuation.
As this story begins, the young Australian man at the center of it knows nothing of the horrific events to come. All he knows is that an exciting adventure awaits in this place called Gallipoli. He’s read about the heroic feats of faraway soldiers, and heroic adventure is just what he’s looking for. So he and a friend make their way to the recruitment center to sign up.
Of course, they don’t really understand what this war is all about. At one point an acquaintance enquires why they go to fight. They offer the weak, if familiar, justification that it’s better to stop the Germans in Europe than wait till they come to Australia. This implausible explanation underscores how naive they really are. They enlist, and at first their experience is the happy adventure they were expecting. They see distant lands, learn new skills, and enjoy each other’s company. But it’s play, with no real sense of what is to come. When they finally encounter real war, there is nothing heroic or adventurous about it. It’s just a senseless waste of life.
What makes this film particularly powerful is that it shows how the best qualities of youth—energy, desire for accomplishment, and heroism—are used to attract young people to the dubious romance of armed conflict. It is just that romance and sense of adventure that leads them to a potential doom they are ill equipped to anticipate. At the same time, the film shows how cheaply lives are spent once in the hands of government. Hundreds of thousands of young men really were sent into near suicidal trench warfare attacks in World War I—no wonder that more than half of the troops mobilized during the war by the various combatants were either killed or wounded.
Artistically, this is generally regarded as a great film, and so it is. Mark Lee and Mel Gibson are ideal as the likable pair of Aussie pals, and director Peter Weir tells their story in such an endearing way that you’d have to have a heart of stone not to be moved by what ultimately happens to them.
We can all thank heaven that in times of crisis ordinary heroes still volunteer to defend the world’s democracies, and many no doubt do enlist naively — all the more reason, if honor is to be done to them, that the rest of us make sure wars are rare, defensive, and not made lightly.