Gallipoli (1981)

Review by Boniface

Last week, I rented the 1981 classic film Gallipoli, starring Mel Gibson when he was 25 years old and still had an Australian accent. The movie takes place during World War I and has to do with the tragic and stupid British assault on the Turkish city of Gallipoli and its disastrous outcome. What the movie demonstrates excellently, from a philosophical point of view, is the often trivial factors in wartime that can lead to a soldier's death and the futility of that death at times; the soldier rouses himself to make the complete sacrifice for his country and his comrades, but his death is often brought about by the stupidest miscalculations and errors at higher levels.

First off, in this movie, the main characters (Australian ranchers from the western side of the continent) are shown joining the Army for what would seem to be frivolous reasons: one in order to see a little bit of the world and another in order to impress others; neither seems conscious of the possibility that the decision could actually put their lives in jeopardy. The movie depicts how they idle their training time away, drinking and whoring with all of the other dissolute soldiers in apparent ignorance of the dire condition of the trenches that they are about to be plunged into (the drinking and whoring scenes are not depicted but implied; they are relatively mild and shouldn't concern you too much).

Meanwhile, the British command conceives an ill planned attack on the Turkish defenses at Gallipoli. Through the most insignificant human error, the watches of the high command not being synchronized and being off by five minutes, the infantry attack comes too late after the heavy artillery fire has ended, and the British find the Turks firmly entrenched in their positions. Nevertheless, the high command (who are ignorant of the true condition in the trenches and do not really care either way) orders the soldiers to "go over to top" to take the Turkish lines. Row after row of British boys are mowed down as soon as they get out of the trench. Yet the stubborn commander continues to order more assaults, and hundreds more are slain because of the blindness of one commander. A cut phone cable causes confusion in the ranks; a higher ranking general orders the attack to cease, but because the line is cut, the sergeant on the ground has not heard the message. In the final scene, Mel Gibson (who plays a message-runner) dashes to the front hoping to convey the orders to cease to the sergeant before the next attack. But he is just a minute too late, and the sergeant receives contradictory orders from another general to make another assault. The boys go over the top again into the Turkish machine guns, and the last scene of the movie shows Gibson screaming in anger as he hears the whistle sending all his company to death, and because of such stupid human error.

And what is the point of this movie? It amply demonstrates on so many levels how war is seldom rational: it is irrational in the motivation of the soldiers who enlist (for money, or prestige, etc.), in the plans for attacking a position (carried out in ignorance of the enemy's true strength and fortifications), in the irrational errors and tactical mistakes (like two watches that are not synchronized) and unplanned emergencies (the loss of the phone lines) that can directly lead to the deaths of thousands of young men in the prime of life, and for no good reason at all. The true, historical tragedy of this senseless battle could have been easily prevented.

In the ultimate sense, it is no tragedy that men have to die in war; all men must die sometime, and the possibility of death is simply part of what war is. But it is a real tragedy when men have to die for no reason. That is the opposite of the traditional ideal, in which men make the supreme sacrifice for a cause greater than themselves. In Gallipoli, and in modern warfare in general, men often make the ultimate sacrifice for some stupid strategic or tactical blunder.

Gallipoli is one of those movies that has a really profound message and impact, but the moral is not readily apparent until you really reflect on it. It teaches a lesson and makes you think without you realizing it - this is what truly great films do. With its excellent cinematography, its great plot, message and lack of any (substantial) cussing or sexual scenes, I give it two point five out of three papal tiaras.