Peter Weir's Gallipoli is pretty much exactly what a war film is. With a few exceptions, this film is a good emulation, a good practice of the war film genre, but not really anything new or startling in sum.
Archibald Hamilton (Mark Lee) and Frank Dunne (Mel Gibson) are "mates" who go to war, only to be exposed to the horrors of the front and its strange wonders before ultimately being unable to save each other from the fate cut out for them by the war.
To comment on the novel plot twists would be a waste of time, because there are none. The really novel thing about the film is the way it presents the specific conflict. As opposed to the sprawling, dwarfing shots from the outback of western Australia, the battle scenes are shot in a claustrophobic way. Ironic also is that when Archy and Frank are alone in the outback, they are lonely, hungry, hot, and pretty much lost. In war, in battle, they have food (however poor), companionship, water, an economy, etc. Gradually the audience comes to understand why Dunne, who has previously been opposed to joining the war effort, might consent to endangering himself to join up with his mates. However dangerous, at least it's something to do.
Another irony of the lighting is that while in the Australian desert the sun is punishing and severe, in Turkey and Egypt it seems to enliven the men rather than sapping their strength. These scenes are drenched with sunlight in a way very much the opposite of the way the Australian scenes were bleached with it. It's life, it's vital, and it frames death in an almost nonchalant way until the end.
The music in Gallipoli deserves a special word for being groundbreaking. The race scenes of the picture are set to music with computer-generated boops and beeps which must have seemed pretty revolutionary at the time, but now seem to be escapees from an old Atari game. To be fair, this is not as distracting as it could be, until the audience begins to boop at the first sign of a footrace, but it also really anchors the film to some degree in 1981.
The two principal actors, Mark Lee and Mel Gibson, are believable but not moving in their roles. We know them before we learn anything about them. The whole time, the audience is anticipating their demise in a way that is almost vulture-like. It's hard to watch their characters develop in this kind of a plot trap, and indeed there is not much character development to watch. It seems to consist mostly of random bonding moments and some catchphrases which apparently serve the purpose of letting the audience know the exact millisecond when they really become each other's friends.
The standout performances come not from the main players, who pretty much perform as expected, but from side players Bill Kerr as Uncle Jack and Australian übermensch Bob Hunter (Strictly Ballroom, The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, Muriel's Wedding) as Major Barton.
Kerr is in a standard role, the mentor/role model in the Obi-wan Kenobi style, passing down the side legacy of battle and adventure and a dim heroic past which in part inspires Archy to go to war, and also providing a handy catchphrase to die to in the most predictable sort of way. But Kerr transcends his role, bringing a sincerity and a tenderness to it that cannot sustain itself much beyond his actual presence on the screen.
Hunter, also, portrays the typical man who must follow orders against his better judgment. But Hunter has an incredible everyman presence which allows him to make the character sympathetic and almost manages to stretch the credibility of the character's final actions to cover the embarrassing banality of the conclusion. Almost.
In the end, Gallipoli is a pretty typical genre exercise that nevertheless succeeds in providing some images and moods not seen before.
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