(Tolga Örnek, Turkey, 2005)


War is a topic as valid as any other for a historian. Nonetheless, I have sometimes found the presentation of war history, in television documentary and in print, a strangely morbid, quasi-pornographic affair. The "big picture" of why wars were fought and whose interests they served is too often eschewed for the sake of an obsessive reconstruction of the minutiae of dates, weapons and manoeuvres involved in combat.

Tolga Örnek’s Gallipoli, a big commercial success in Turkey, tends towards this style of recounting history. It doggedly works through every phase of the Gallipoli campaign, from first landing to final retreat, via close attention to the appalling sanitary conditions in the trenches. There are many striking and moving details, but overall I found the film dissatisfying.

The novelty and value of this project is in its non-partisan outlook. The story of Gallipoli is told through the poignant biographies of soldiers from Britain, Turkey, New Zealand and Australiaa focus which creates a larger mosaic than was possible, for example, in Peter Weir’s famous fictional recreation from 1981.

This new Gallipoli is not a political film. It adopts a vague, broadly humanist attitude, arguing that "war itself is the only enemy"; that all soldiers are victims, mere cogs in a machine beyond their comprehension: and that, beyond the pretext of national ideology that got them to the battlefield in the first place, all these men were brothers under the skin.

There is truth in these catchcries, but one longs for a broader, more inclusive analysis of exactly why this war came to be fought. This lack is especially evident at the end, when the narration casually, almost dismissively, lists a number of sweeping "historical repercussions" of the eventand then instantly returns to its heavy tone of tragic lament.

The bigger problem with this movie is the way in which it has been put together. Interviews with historians (including ex-Age editor Les Carlyon) are intercut with archival materials and generally depopulated "reconstructions" of trenches, explosions, significant objects, and so on. Binding everything is a relentless voice-over narration featuring (in this English-language version) the likes of Jeremy Irons and Sam Neill.

This is basically the Ken Burns style of history-telling: slow, solemn, meticulous. It may be a perfect mode for television, but I found it excruciatingly unsuitable for cinema. Moments in which the spoken prose and the visual imagery seem to refer to classics of the war genre (such as Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line [1998]) only reinforce this gap between the mundanity of television and the poetic grandeur of cinema.

© Adrian Martin November 2005

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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