Australian director Peter Weir's new movie, "Gallipoli," puts you in a solemn funk before a single image appears on the screen. The predominant musical theme, Albinoni's Adagio in G Minor for Strings and Organ, imposes a dirgeful mood that is never challenged or contradicted by subsequent murmurs of dramatic life. You feel as if you were attending memorial services for the characters before you've even laid eyes on them.
The central figures in "Gallipoli" -- Mel Gibson and Mark Lee as robust, oblivious Australian youths named Frank and Archy, who join the army just in time to fight in the last futile offensive of the Allied expeditionary force which failed to capture the Gallipoli peninsula from the Turks in 1915 -- never stand a chance. Not because of the dreadful odds facing combat soldiers in a specific battle or even war in general. Essentially, they're victims of the director's artistic self-consciousness.
Weir's solemnity becomes so exaggerated in "Gallipoli," which opens today at the K-B Janus and Outer Circle, that the entire presentation is robbed of human interest and historical resonance. From a perch of almost Olympian loftiness, Weir orchestrates a miniature spectacle of youthful energy and promise sacrificed on the cruel altar of war, adding mournful ceremonial noises in advance. "Gallipoli" seems calculated to cue a chorus of heavy sighing and tsk-tsking about the tragic waste of war.
Before scaling down his aspirations, Weir evidently hoped to film an epic dramatizing the entire Gallipoli campaign, an ill-fated effort to end the early stalemate on the Western front by outflanking the Germans in the Mediterranean. The idea was to seize control of the Dardanelles and force two German allies, Turkey and Bulgaria, out of the war. Although officially regarded as a sideshow, it's conceivable that the Gallipoli invasion might have brought the war to a swift conclusion and spared millions of lives had it succeeded. The military historian John North characterized Gallipoli as "one of the tremendous 'ifs' of history."
The strategic significance of the defeat at Gallipoli, where an Australian and New Zealand Army Corps fought valiantly beside a multinational, multiracial array of British and French divisions, becomes irrelevant to Weir's intentions. Frank and Archy are treated like symbolic cannon fodder by the director himself. They have no compelling individual identities. They might as well be any boys tossed into any hopeless battle.
Arriving for the last push-push, Weir also abstracts the campaign so far from historical reality that it appears an absolute folly. On the contrary, Gallipoli continues to haunt historians because it stood a good chance of succeeding at various tantalizing interludes, none of them documented by Weir. Their view preserves a sense of drama the filmmaker prefers to disregard.
There's relatively little battlefield footage -- perhaps the concluding 20 or 30 minutes. "Innocents Abroad" would be a more appropriate title. First introduced as fleet-footed boys in the Australian wilderness, Frank and Archy are destined to vanish in another kind of no-man's land. They're less important to the scheme of the film than the sustained pictorial pattern of figures lost against vast, ominous landscapes.
Intimate evocation isn't out of Weir's range. There's a wonderful scene of Bill Kerr as Archy's grave-voiced Uncle Jack reading a passage from Kipling's Mowgli stories to his family, and a shivery, timeless moment when Frank and Archy, stationed in Egypt, add their names to the graffiti atop a pyramid at sunset. I'd be happier with "Gallipoli" if I felt it were steeped in this kind of evocation.
As a rule, Weir overplays or overinterprets the suggestive effects built into the chain of little vignettes that constitute the scenario. Too skimpy and transparent to begin adding up, these vignettes usually expose the boys' colonial ignorance, inviting a knowing modern audience to feel culturally superior, congratulating itself on a far more sophisticated and virtuous perspective on world affairs.
The big commercial openings of "Gallipoli" in New York and Los Angeles must owe something to the popularity of Bruce Beresford's "Breaker Morant," which dramatized an earlier disillusioning chapter of Australian participation in British military operations. The comparisons should enhance the reputation of "Breaker," whose crispness and dynamism overcome several dubious aspects of its own.
To some extent these movies must also be appealing to a taste for reflective brooding about the war in Vietnam. "Breaker" inspired reactions that echoed "Patton": One found it being used as moral-philosophical corroboration by both doves and hawks. "Gallipoli," I'm afraid, doesn't lend itself to similar debate. It's a somber, dovish Art Object all the way.