Sunday, October 30, 2011


1981 PG 110 min.
IMDB says... sprinters face the brutal realities of war when they are sent to fight in the Gallipoli campaign in Turkey during World War I.

The 73rd Virgin says... From the opening credits with red on black text and Albinoni’s Adagio in G Minor moaning away, you know you’re in for a tough ride. But instead it begins with sweeping vistas and brightly lit cheerful people out on the very edge of the British Empire in Western Australia, in 1915. A young impressionable rather Luke Skywalkerish ranch hand Archy (Mark Lee) worships his older adventurer uncle and they both prepare to make Archy the most famous sprinter in the world. Unfortunately, any young man worth his salt as a man and as a rider is being recruited to join the Australian Light Horse and get into the “greatest game of all”, that is, the Great War. England is bogged down in the southern theater trying to invade German-allied Turkey at Gallipoli, and as the soldiers sing, “if England needs a hand, well here it is.”

At Archy’s first race he meets his near match as a sprinter in a worldlier railroad worker, Frank (Gibson), who has abandoned his job and hit the road for adventure. Frank is a bit of a chiseler in contrast to Archy’s gee whiz enthusiasm for life, but as a lark Frank agrees to help the underage Archy fool the recruiters and join up, over the very moving objections of Archy’s uncle and Frank's English-hating father.

The rest of this beautifully filmed and lit movie follows them as they inadvertently drag each other along on the best and worst adventure of their lives. Archie is too young to join up, Frank helps him glue on a beard and fake his age to fool the recruiters. The train they hop drops them in the desert with a two week wait and Archie convinces Frank to cross the desert on foot.  Frank can’t ride a horse, Archie convinces him to join the infantry. They briefly split up on their way to training but reunite in time for the meat grinder.

The story is credited to director Peter Weir who takes his time getting the young men to their final destination.  There are a lot of breathtaking vistas and light-hearted adventures waiting for them. But, eventually Frank and his infantry mates reach Egypt for basic training, a pretty cool rugby game at the base of the Great Pyramids, an inservice on venereal disease, their first exposure to same, and their first exposure to the British officers who will blithely send the filthy Australians to their likely doom.

When they reach Turkey the movie changes tone, Albinoni rejoins us and you realize it won’t be fun much longer. As they land in the dark in a wonderland of exploding shells and strung up lights, Frank’s face shows profound trepidation, but Archy is all smiles. I frequently defend Gibson’s acting, especially when he was young, and his expressions of stoic soldierly terror, selfishness and remorse are as powerful as anything Hanks managed in "Saving Private Ryan" or Sheen in "Platoon", and many years earlier than either.

What I’d forgotten from previous viewings is just how impressive this production is. A huge number of extras inhabit the trenches, swim in the ocean as shells fall around them, and tease Johnny Turk’s machine guns a few tens of yards away. It’s not quite “The Longest Day”, or “Paths of Glory”, but it’s darned impressive.

As an old “mate”, Archy is able to get Frank transferred to the Light Horse who will not be using, or be anywhere near, their horses. They have become the fodder. It becomes clear that there have been communications breakdowns and the division will need a runner for messages, so naturally one of them gets the job – the other doesn’t.

And then Weir takes over with his uncanny ability to show men in extremis. As each wave of troops gets ready to go over the top to face the implacable Turks, with “nothing up the spout” - no ammunition, just bayonets - they hang watches, wedding rings, last notes home, photographs on any available hook in the trench, Weir, as he frequently does at the moment that most demands your attention, cuts the sound effects for respectful silence, goes to a deep focus shot of people in trouble, and away they go. The final effect is, of course, shattering.

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