Gallipoli (Peter Weir, 1981)

What's it about? Australian athletes Archy (Mark Lee) and Frank (Mel Gibson) enlist in the army at the outbreak of WWI, head off for a merry bit of training in Cairo, before being exposed to the trench warfare at the botched Allied campaign on the Gallipoli peninsula and the full horrors of war.

Is it any good? Excellent. By choosing to spend much of the film away from the battlefield, director Weir allows himself time to humanise the lead characters as young men with hopes, dreams and bright futures, bonded together by principles of friendship, honour and nationalism. Thus, by the time they are thrown into battle, we have invested emotionally in their fates and care deeply about what will happen to them and their comrades. This empathy is increased by the appealing performances of Gibson, an obvious star in the making, and Lee, who effectively embodies the fresh-faced innocence of youth. Parallels between sport and war run through the film, with war viewed as a great game to be played rather than fought. This naïve viewpoint is shattered once and for all in the final devastating scenes as soldiers prepare to sprint towards the enemy and certain death rather than a finish line and victory.

Anything else I should know? The final freeze-frame is a gut-wrenching homage to Robert Capa’s famous photo which captured a soldier at the moment he is shot to death during the Spanish Civil War. By finishing in such abrupt fashion, Weir emphasises how the lives of so many soldiers in history have been brutally cut short.

What does the Fonz think? Josef Stalin once said ‘One death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic’. If anything, Gallipoli serves a moving and sobering reminder to us that a million deaths is actually a million tragedies.
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