War movies use the image of the young man through exaltation. It’s a cinematic method that wouldn’t seem fitting for a genre with a predominantly masculine audience unless we realize that this male-on-male gaze, more dominant in the last three decades’ box office returns, is a fantastical version of the innocence we thought we used to have. Similarly, contemporary filmmaker Peter Weir’s Gallipoli, co-written by David Williamson, starts with the picaresque backyard stories of blonde Archy Hamilton (Mark Lee), who would have otherwise existed if Katharine Hepburn and James Remar had a love child. In his Australian home turf he gets challenged twice, by his uncle training him to be a medal-winning runner and by a cowboy who conventionally thinks that he can ride a horse faster than Archy can run.
The second face is young Mel Gibson’s as a Archy’s tougher and more cynical counterpart Frank, who goes through multiple transformations, job titles, states of dress and occasional undress depending on situations he faces mostly without reluctance.
The two of them meet in a running competition and become unlikely friends, both craving the adventures that bigger cities like Perth and Cairo can offer. Archy treats the war as a way to see the world like his grandfather did, despite his uncle’s protestations of a world that has changed for the most dangerous. Nonetheless they race more than once in the movie, each challenge becoming more fraternal, treating, as the cliché would say, the world like their playground which is more of Archy’s philosophy than Frank’s.
Our first impressions of these epic actions are, again, Archy’s face and the surprising determination from his lean figure that we forget that he didn’t want to wait for the train and made Frank cross the desert to Perth with him, a difficult feat that in which he succeeds effortless. Frank stumbles before Archy does and the latter comes to save him and continues to do so no matter what country they’re in. It’s a character building experience yet both men survive that trial almost unscathed – instead of chapped lips and un-moisturized faces like those in Sergio Leone movies, all they have are dusty clothes. And during the trip he convinces Frank to join up, inadvertently promising women’s admiration and his prolonged friendship.There’s a subtext of class warfare more voiced out by supporting characters and minor plot lines and I even watch out for times when one young man is winning a race over the other but these two major characters disregard that, belonging within this story which is simply about two people who make each other happy.
In other words Archy has the same spirit of his English forebears, that optimistic underestimation that they try to hold on to for as long as they can. Their titular destination isn’t as well-known in their and this part of the world, bearing a name that the characters can hardly pronounce, which surprisingly attracts them to conquer it. They don’t heed warnings of their superiors of Cairo’s liquor and women, as if that’s the only source of their downfall. Weir thankfully allows them to have their fun, accusing a store for overcharging them for Egyptian knickknacks and hiring local prostitutes, bearing this philosophy that they should do these things if they die the next day. Both runners race again to the pyramids. Ironically, Weir sees Egypt as Australia’s twin country, both being arid locales. Because of the heat he outfits his characters with light pastel colours and later with uniform shorts, looking more like boy scouts than military men.
Being one of Weir’s earlier work it’s easy to see his signature, more of an epic movie and a more colourful tribute to David Lean thanks to Russell Boyd’s cinematography. Instead of choosing to portray destruction, Weir is more concerned more about the myth of invincibility. His depiction of the desert or the sea his glossy yet mostly survivable for the men of our past. Even when he gets to the movie’s perfunctory ‘waste of war’ section, he directs his actors with care, playing off Lee’s smiles with Gibson’s blossoming expressiveness, one of the only directors in memory who doesn’t satirize and instead, lets complexity shine through a mask of optimism, which is a mask we can live with. Image via horroria.