A WWI tale from the Australian POV, specifically focusing on two young lads (Mark Lee and Mel Gibson) enlisting to do their part in the war. The duo are runners back home, and although cynical Gibson feels this isn’t ‘our bloody war’, he decides to join his more patriotic mates nonetheless. Lee is an idealist who wants to enlist and join the Light Horse cavalry, even if it means lying about his age to get in. They become separated when Gibson’s lack of riding skills see him used as an infantryman, whilst Lee becomes part of the Light Horse cavalry, alongside his other mates (Tim McKenzie, David Argue, and Robert Grubb). Bill Hunter plays Maj. Barton, an Aussie officer forced by his pompous Brit superiors (who generally cock things up strategically, at the potential expense of young lives) to send these young men into skirmishes they likely won’t survive.
Directed by Peter Weir (“Picnic at Hanging Rock”, “Witness”) in 1981, this is without question one of the best Australian movies ever made, if not the best (“Muriel’s Wedding” would be the only other one to come close to topping it for my money). I’m not big on patriotism or even mateship, but it’s pretty hard to argue against the two World Wars, and of any film to deal with mateship, this is the one you want to see. For starters, it ends up being essentially anti-war, like any realistic and honest depiction of war will ultimately end up as. If done correctly, it will look scary, chaotic, pointless, crazy, and awful. That’s certainly the case here (Mel Gibson acts out much of this in just one scene where acting as a runner and trying not to get shot). War is not nice, war is not logical, war is not necessary, war is...inevitable. It doesn’t beat you over the head with anti-war sentiment like some other films, it simply presents the situation, and it’s hard to get all rah-rah and patriotic about it. So if you’re not a pro-war kinda person, don’t worry, this ain’t right-wing propaganda anymore than it is left-wing propaganda. It’s just a depiction of what happened, as told by director Weir and writer David Williamson (“Don’s Party”, “The Year of Living Dangerously”). It’s such a persuasive and enjoyable film that even flaws like Mark Lee’s complete lack of charisma and the godawful synth score by Brian May (“Turkey Shoot”, “Roadgames”, “Mad Max”) don’t really ruin the entertainment value nor the artistic merit.
One of the main points being made here that resonates particularly well is the notion that wars send our young and innocent off and many of them will never return. That’s why the mateship angle isn’t as twee as it might’ve been, because you really need your mates in this situation or you might get killed. And indeed, many of these men saw their mates die right beside them. The early section of the film focuses on how young and enthusiastic these guys were at the outset, which obviously results in them getting a grim reality check later on. It also makes for a very convincing depiction of Australia’s attitude to the war and contribution to it. Mel Gibson utters the line ‘Because it’s not our bloody war!’ early on in the film, and it’s a line we seem to have been using for every single war ever since. It’s never our war, and I’ve never understood Australia entering any war, given how far away we are from everyone else. So I was glad that, although the film ultimately champions the (genuine) heroism of our diggers, it also includes more cynical attitudes towards war. And let’s face it, there’s too much larrikinism in the Aussie spirit for us to get too patriotic and rah-rah about these things anyway, which is one of the strongest things about this film (and “The Odd Angry Shot”, too). Like I said, it’s an anti-war film, but not in the usual way. It’s pro national service, but once we actually get to the war itself? Not so much, and Aussies being Aussies, the soldiers are often seen as insubordinate, boorish ratbags. Personally, I see those as positive attributes. We’ll help out the poms, sure. But don’t ask us to bloody salute, mate (BTW, the film doesn’t paint the British terribly fairly, but it wouldn’t be Australian to do that, in a way). The most perfectly Australian moment in the whole film is when a soldier walks past a buried hand, shakes it, and says ‘Nice to meet ‘ya!’.
The film stands out amongst other war films firstly because of the Australian perspective, but the characters of the young soldiers are also unlike any other war film. You don’t get the token Swede named Ole, or any of the other war movie stereotypes. These are largely just average, knockabout blokes, except idealistic Lee, and prudish David Argue. Argue is particularly hilarious, and seems like he was probably stoned throughout filming. His final moment on screen is touching, but not in a cheesy, overly sentimental way. By far the most impressive character is Bill Hunter’s stoic Major, a guy who wouldn’t ask his men to do anything he himself wasn’t prepared to do. His reply to a soldier asking if he’s scared just about sums it all up; ‘Who isn’t, son?’. I can’t even begin to imagine what it takes to put your life on the line, and anti-war or not, I do respect the troops, just not in any jingoistic way. Meanwhile, Harold Hopkins doesn’t have many moments on screen, but he makes them count, as a guy clearly not fit for war. Grizzled Bill Kerr is brilliant. That is all.
By the way, just one thing I noticed watching the film this time around (***** SPOILER WARNING *****); Given Lee is the faster runner of the two, and he turns down the chance to run, giving Gibson the gig, doesn’t that kinda make it his fault that Gibson doesn’t get the message across in time and it all goes to hell? Lee stubbornly chooses to fight instead of run, and it gets people killed. Idiot. Just something I noticed. ***** END SPOILER ******
The film looks absolutely gorgeous, thanks to the superlative scenery, but also the cinematography by Russell Boyd (“Picnic at Hanging Rock”, “The Last Wave”). As I said earlier, May’s score (reminiscent of The Alan Parsons Project or Emerson, Lake and Palmer) is terribly inappropriate and just flat-out awful. Perhaps it was following a trend set by Vangelis in “Chariots of Fire”, I’m not sure which came out first, but boy does it not work here, even if they both have ‘running’ themes. It’s so distracting that you find yourself taken out of the action every time it starts up, and transports you to something resembling a shite, low-budget Ozploitation film (Excellent sound design, though). I wouldn’t be surprised to find out that diggers spotting May in a pub cold-cocked him on sight. I’m not suggesting you do such a thing, but it wouldn’t surprise me if it has happened. It’s that bad. But this is just one aspect of an otherwise landmark (benchmark?) Australian film.
The film only presents warfare on screen in the final third or so, but you actually don’t notice that on first viewing because you’re too wrapped up in the classic storytelling. Hell, for the first half it actually plays (and thanks to Boyd, looks) like an Aussie western, and might even remind you a bit of “The Sundowners”, but with a legit Aussie cast. Bill Kerr in particular is so persuasive and interesting, you almost wish they forgot about the war and just stayed with his character instead. But all of the characters resonate, even if they’re played as blandly as Mark Lee. You care about these characters, these slightly naive but brave young men. I doubt that the emphasis on drama was for budgetary reasons, as dramas were the order of the day for Aussie films (and TV) at the time, but for once, here’s a film that could’ve stood to be even longer, with more war scenes. Nonetheless, the film stacks up admirably well against the best war films of British and American cinema.
Although I’m more of a Remembrance Day guy (that is, mourning the casualties of every war) than an ANZAC Day guy (mostly celebrating the contribution of the troops), there’s no doubt that this story deserved to be told and yes, retold every year I suppose. As you can tell, I’m a bit conflicted on the issue of war. And it’s told extremely well here, a story of heroism, tactical error, sacrifice, and mateship. I can’t think of a finer Australian film ever made. I just wish the DVD came with a function that removed the music score and replaced it with Redgum’s ‘19’ played on a loop.
Other than the music, this seems a very authentic presentation of the Aussie experience during WWI. It’s almost worth watching the film for the scene where the diggers play football amidst the Great Pyramids. I hate that it’s Rugby Union and not Rugby League, but whatever.