Sunday, January 7, 2018


SPOILER ALERT! The plot will be discussed.

An important historical note which helps to appreciate this 1981 film directed by Peter Weir is that Australia had just become a united country in 1901, just 14 years before the WWI events depicted in the movie. The Australian engagement in the war was the first national enterprise on the world stage for the country. So, there was a general feeling to prove itself in battle, sort of a trial by ordeal. An example of how there was this sense of proving the strength of its nationalism can be seen in the fact that the country had the only volunteer army fighting against Germany and its allies.
The titles of the film are in red, possibly pointing to the blood that will be spilled later at Gallipoli in Turkey. (The Turks were allies of the Germans). The story starts in May of 1915 with a youth practicing for a running competition. Archy Hamilton (Mark Lee) is a fast sprinter, and his uncle, Jack (Bill Kerr) is a loving, but demanding trainer. Archy’s youthful desire to compete successfully symbolizes the young nation of Australia wanting to prove itself. Some of the locals tease Archy about how men prove themselves by fighting, not running. It is possible that this needling is one of the reasons Archy feels he must fight for his country. A bully, Les McCann (Harold Hopkins) makes a wager with Archy, saying he can beat him if he runs and Les rides on horseback. Les says that Archy must be barefoot, to which Archy agrees, as long as Les rides bareback. Les falls off of his horse and loses, but Archy pays for the struggle with bleeding and injured feet. His wounds are a foreshadowing of what can happen in war.
We have a scene during Archy’s recuperation where his Uncle Jack reads from Kipling’s The Jungle Book. The section he reads is significant because it deals with leaving behind the sheltered protection of childhood and testing oneself in order to become an adult. Again, Archy’s journey mirrors Australia’s path to seasoned nationhood. Archy is later seen with local men who want to enlist, but there is one who sees the danger in this bravado, and tells the others that they are signing up to die. There is a large wooden horse at the town where the race takes place, and it reminds one of the Trojan horse, a symbol of how the urge for heroic conquest make one susceptible to deception. Archy competes against Mel Gibson’s Frank Dunne, who is a laborer that wants more out of his life. Archy beats him in the race, gives the prize money to his Uncle Jack, keeps his medal, and says he is enlisting. Jack is upset, not expecting his nephew to return from the war. However, Archy is underage, and is denied entry into the military.

Archy runs into Frank, who says if they go to Perth, nobody there will know Archy, and he can fake his age, and enlist. The travel to the city is a sort of journey to test Archy's survival skills because the two men hop a freight train are left off in the desert. (The desert is always a place of trial in the bible, and there is a shot downward from on high to show the immensity of the land versus their small size, which emphasizes the difficulty of their struggle). And the movement from a rural place to a city shows the transition from innocence to worldly experience. The two men quarrel along the way, and their differences reflect the growing pains of Australia itself. Archy feels that he must fight for his homeland, while Frank, being of Irish descent, sees the war as having nothing to do with him, it being a British conflict. On their way they encounter an old camel rider who gives them directions. The man seems to represent the isolationist attitude that Frank espouses, as he knows nothing of the world war, and says he “can’t see what it has to do with us.” Archy argues that if they don’t stop the Germans and their allies in Turkey, then they will eventually take over Australia (an argument that may have been sound in a world-wide struggle, but which was used later in the Communist domino theory used to justify America’s presence in Vietnam).
Archy and Frank arrive at a ranch, and Archy says he is going to join an elite fighting outfit called the Light Horse Brigade. The owner’s daughters say how much they love the uniforms the soldiers wear. The talk of patriotism and glory in battle, and the admiration of the young women, start to pressure Frank, who wants to improve his lot in life, into changing his decision to stay out of the conflict. However, Frank can’t ride a horse, which shows how idealism collides with reality. Archy tries to teach him how to handle a horse, and in return, Frank makes up a fake birth certificate for Archy. Another old man questions why Frank would want to fight for the British, who would just as soon hang Irishmen (these old guys are like Shakespearean soothsayers, warning of bad future events). When they go to enlist, Archy makes it into the Light Horse Brigade, but Frank can’t pass the riding test, and winds up in the infantry, the most dangerous fighting outfit. There is a big town send-of for the departing soldiers, making it seem like they are going off to participate in a sporting event. It’s as if they will bring back awards that will glorify their feats of accomplishment, instead of embarking on a voyage leading to brutality and death. Frank becomes separated from Archy, but he is glad to reunite with some old mates he used to work with.

The soldiers arrive in Cairo for training. They are still viewing the conflict like a sporting competition as Frank and his friends play ball near the pyramids. One man says that the Pharaohs buried their wives and their belongs with them in the ancient tombs, and says it was “man’s first attempt to beat death.” The point here is that even the great ancient kings, with all their power and wealth, could not escape their mortality. So, what chance do these foot soldiers have in defeating death? Instead of hearing about how slim their chances are of surviving combat, the officers dispense information about the dangers of drinking the local alcoholic beverages and contracting venereal diseases. There is a drill practice battle with the Light Horsemen, where Frank reunites with Archy. However, the mock encounter is  worthless as most of the men lie down and act dead so they can be carried off as opposed to doing the carrying of the supposed casualties.
There are scenes which show mistreatment of the Australians and the local people. Frank and his mates meet some British officers riding on horses, their elevated positions physically reflecting their superior attitudes toward the Australian men, who should be respected for risking their lives to help them.There is an encounter that illustrates how the local inhabitants suffer as they are caught between the warring factions. One of Frank’s friends says he was cheated by a local shopkeeper by selling him a fake relic at a high price. The soldiers harass a man and damage his goods, and he isn’t even the right merchant, as the victim keeps telling Frank and his mates.

Frank, to the disappointment of his fellow infantrymen, gets a transfer to the Light Brigade, which now will fight with the infantry without horses. He can now be with Archy. There is an elegant party which Frank crashes, and at which Archy delivers a note to their commander, Major Barton (Bill Hunter), that says they will be fighting at the strongly defended Gallipoli position. Barton shows his apprehension at the order. The brightness and merriment of the celebration contrasts with the darkness of the following scene where the men will be fighting, and where the only light comes from explosions. The soldiers must restrain from smoking and and making noise as to not give away their presence. There follows a scene in daylight where the soldiers swim naked and during their underwater dives they find ancient shipwrecks with rusted rifles. The images suggest the theme that wars are endless, dating back to antiquity and continuing to the present. Bullets zip through the water, and one man is wounded. The whole scene of youthful nakedness floating in water defiled by weaponry seems to symbolize a demonic baptism into the horrors of adult warfare.
Those men who have been there before Archy and Frank have already started to deal with their situation by engaging in dark humor. For instance, they shake the hand of the corpse of a dead soldier, and say, “G’day, Mate.” A seasoned infantryman shows them that just by poking a little above their trenches, bullets come flying in, ready to cut them down. There is a sign close to him which says, “Abandon hope past this point,” which sound like the words that appear before the gates to hell in Dante’s “Inferno.” They go about their business while there is constant shelling in the background. Frank receives a package from a women’s auxiliary at home which, although meant to be morale boosting, contains articles more fitting for a picnic, and which does not show an appreciation of what those at home have sent their men off to do. He also gets a bill from a man who fixed his bicycle, which is especially insulting giving Frank’s circumstances. Frank once again joins his old mates, and before they engage the enemy, they frequent some local prostitutes. One man tells another that it is okay to indulge, since God turns a ‘blind eye” before every battle. This can be taken two ways - one, that God cuts soldiers some slack before they face death, or it also can imply that the deity has forsaken them, as he “turns” away from them. One of Frank’s infantry friends is killed, another wounded, and yet another suffers from what we now call Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. There is a briefing among the officers that basically orders Barton’s men to be sacrificed at the Battle of the Nek as a diversion so that British troops can land elsewhere. Barton is promised that there will be heavy shelling of Turkish trenches to protect the advancement of his men.

Barton wants to use Archy, because of his running speed, to convey messages to command headquarters since communications will go down during the battle. Archy tells Barton to use Frank, who he says is just as quick a runner as himself, thus sparing Frank from becoming involved in the fighting. According to IMDb, before the fight, Barton plays some classical music by Bizet, which turns out to be a bad omen, as it is a duet between two men who swear to remain as friends, and who will be reunited in death. On the day of the battle, Barton is to send three waves of troops over the top of the trenches. Unfortunately, the Turks are able to regain their trenches after the British shelling and before Barton sends his men. The first two waves are almost immediately slaughtered by machine gun fire. Frank is sent to have the orders reconsidered, but is told they are to proceed by the colonel in command (who in reality was Australian, not British), and who is misinformed that there were British markers in the Turkish trenches, showing that they have persevered. Information comes down that the British troops have landed easily, are enjoying tea on the beach (as the Australians are being killed), and thus, there is no need for the continued losses. Frank Suggests to Barton that he go over the head of the local commander, and ask the general to reconsider. Frank dodges bullets and delivers the message. The general tells him that he will take some time to reconsider. But, Frank can’t get back in time before Barton must send the last wave over the top.

Death is now palpable for these young men. One looks at a letter and picture of his child for the last time. Archy embeds his running victory medal in the trench as a sort of memorial. Barton knows he is sending his soldiers to certain death, and sacrifices himself, too. The last image we see is that of Archy running, remembering the encouraging words of his uncle. It is not enough, and he is shot.

Weir leaves us with the frozen image of Archy’s body after being hit by bullets, a chilling reminder of how war, sold as an opportunity for glory and patriotic duty, many times strikes down the youth of a country, thus damaging the hope for the future.

The next film is Winter’s Bone.


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