When I was growing up in Sydney after World War II a tall, thin old man we knew as Uncle Pat sometimes came round to visit Dad. Uncle Pat wasn't very strong and he wasn't very well tempered. My parents said this was because he'd been at Gallipoli. Gallipoli! At school we learned about Gallipoli. That was where Australians had fought the Turks in World War I, where the medic Simpson carried the dead and wounded down the slopes on his donkey, until he himself was killed. Gallipoli was very sad, like Uncle Pat. But Gallipoli was where the sardonic Australian soldier, the Digger, won acclaim throughout the world. It was also the birth of our nation.
Peter Weir's latest film, "Gallipoli," is an economical, simple story about two boys going to war, and its pace is sustained from the first premonitory clatter of machine guns on the soundtrack as the boys run through outback western Australia, to the final calamitous moments as they run toward the Turkish trenches. It is based quite closely on an actual battle during the Gallipoli campaign, but it could be any war and the boys could be from anyplace. However, if you know what you are looking for, issues like the relationship between the Australians and the British, or the importance of home states, or the white Australian's attitude toward nonwhites, then you will see that Weir has a design that is intended to tell you about how Australians came to be as they are -- anti-imperialist, xenophobic, isolationist -- as well as to show you some bright, desolate Australian landscapes.
Gallipoli was the name of an area of the Dardanelles through which the Turks commanded the passage to Constantinople. Turkey was an ally of Germany and Churchill, who was then a minister in the British government, thought it would be a good idea to take the Dardanelles, sail the British fleet up to Constantinople, knock Turkey out of the war, and gain control of the Black Sea. The Australians and New Zealanders landed on Gallipoli in the early months of 1915, but the assault on the well-entrenched Turks in the hills did not succeed in pushing the Australian line any further than a few hundred yards from the beach. It was a trench war with hundreds of lives lost on both sides. Just before Christmas 1915, the Australians were evacuated after Rupert Murdoch's father, Keith Murdoch, who was then a war correspondent, exposed the futility of the campaign to influential British ministers.
The battle in which the film climaxes was fought by the Light Horse, a cavalry unit without mounts, which had left its training camp in Egypt only four months before. It was the first battle in which the Australians fought and none of the cynicism and practicality that would develop later in France had influenced the young soldiers. On Aug. 7 the ninth and 10th regiments of the Light Horse were ordered to attack Turkish trenches that were from 20 to 60 yards away, uphill and across clear slope. It was, as a general remarked at the time, a task utterly beyond their power. The Australian war historian, a great journalist named C.W. Bean, records in his official history that the first wave of 150 troops was machine-gunned as it rose from the Australian trenches and that each of three succeeding waves, knowing their death was certain, nonetheless went over the top.
To an Australian of Peter Weir's generation the actual battle, Gallipoli, also meant Anzacs, the Australian New Zealand Army Corps which first fought in that battle to take the Dardanelles, and it meant Anzac Day. Gallipoli, the Kokoda trail, Ypres, Bloody Buna, Tobruk -- different wars, different fronts, different enemies -- they were all mixed up in our imagination but we knew it started at Gallipoli and it resulted in Anzac Day. That's like Memorial Day, but in Australia it used to be a grand, sentimental occasion. When I was a kid Mum would take us into town every Anzac Day to see Dad march past with his unit. Then she would rush us home before the drunken Diggers got in their cars to drive back to the suburbs. Every year there would be fewer and fewer of the Gallipoli veterans marching. "They shall not grow old as we that are left grow old," the returned soldiers intoned, remembering their dead mates at the dawn service on Anzac Day each year as they got older.
We kids got older, too. We learned that Gallipoli was really a glorious Turkish victory, that the politicians and commanders who conceived and controlled the campaign to take the Dardanelles and clear the passage of the British fleet through to Constantinople were incompetent and deceiving. Some of us wondered why we had been fighting way over there anyway. Then there was the war in Vietnam, and many of us, like many Americans of the same age, were opposed to the war, to the draft, to the Returned Servicemen's League, which supported both, and to the whole tradition of sentimental nationalist militarism that Anzac Day now represented.
Like the dead we celebrate on Anzac Day, the characters in the film do not grow old as we who are left grow old. They join up to "get in it," they go lightheartedly to war, and before they are machine-gunned they cheer for their home state. I first thought this manner of dying quite untypical of the laconic cynical Digger typical of the later stages of the First World War. But a glance at the war history confirms that it is exactly what happened.
Those that were left grew older. Australians never trusted British generals again, and in the Second World War the Australian prime minister rejected the demand of both Churchill and Roosevelt that Australian troops stay in the Middle East fighting Germans. He brought them home to fight Japanese. World War I began with a blaze of imperial enthusiasm -- but after the defeat at Gallipoli, Australians did not again die cheering.