REVIEW: Gallipoli (2015)

Our very own Aussie, Cal, looks back on an important moment in his country’s history with this bold and brilliant new miniseries. 

The extensive eight-month Gallipoli campaign of 1915 has never been properly covered in film or television. It’s such obvious fodder for a miniseries that it’s frankly surprising it took so long for such a project to be brought to fruition. Arriving in time for the campaign’s centenary, Gallipoli (a collaboration of the Nine Network and Screen Australia) should please anyone seeking to learn more about this segment of World War I history. A powerful miniseries, it was adapted from Les Carlyon’s highly-acclaimed book of the same name, which is often perceived as the definitive resource on Gallipoli. Thank goodness that the resultant miniseries is not just good but genuinely great, and one of the greatest things to hit Australian television in recent years.

With The Great War in full swing overseas, seventeen-year-old Tolly Johnson (Kodi Smit-McPhee) lies about his age to enlist in the Australian Army, following in the footsteps of his older brother Bevan (Harry Greenwood). Landing on the Gallipoli Peninsula on April 25, 1915, Tolly is immediately tossed into the deep end and ordered to kill Turkish soldiers despite a lifetime of being told that killing is wrong. Ultimately, the Gallipoli campaign runs for far longer than anyone has anticipated, with death becoming a daily occurrence on the peninsula.

It would be unfair to compare this series to Peter Weir’s highly acclaimed 1981 motion picture of the same name, which was a smaller story that only covered basic training in Egypt and the battle of The Nek with any detail. 2015’s Gallipoli is a different beast, determined to cover as much of the extensive campaign as possible, concentrating on soldiers’ actions on the frontline, the journalistic perspective, and the bureaucratic side of things, with officers often seen conversing about offensives and tactics. Tolly is the primary focus, though, of course, with the series highlighting how the teenager is changed due to the war. There are flashbacks at various points to Tolly’s life before Gallipoli, which is a fairly obvious and trite chestnut, but it nevertheless works to some extent.

Taking plenty of detail from Carlyon’s tremendous literary achievement, Gallipoli is a hugely authentic watch, portraying the minor everyday skirmishes as well as the more well-known battles. The horrors of war are not glossed over; trench walls are stained with blood and viscera, and there are hundreds of dead bodies laying around in various stages of decay. Gallipoli is violent but it’s not exploitative, displaying tact during the combat scenes whilst still showing the requisite blood of a typical bullet hit. Other aspects documented in Carlyon’s book are portrayed as well; it was impossible to have a feed without attracting flies, sleep deprivation ran rampant, and there was plenty of tedium throughout the eight months. Indeed, the miniseries covers the daily drudgery of army life, with constant sentry duty and the less-glamorous jobs doled out on a day-to-day basis (fetching ammunition, unloading supplies, and digging… oh so much digging).

Written by Christopher Lee (no, not that Christopher Lee), the series’ depiction of Australian soldiers is truly spot-on, with their pitch-black humour, cheekiness, and rebellious attitudes towards authority (one none-the-wiser soldier addresses a general as “cobber”). Added to this, the production is not quick to demonise the Turks, a move which gives the series some added dimension. In the second episode, an armistice is established to bury corpses, and several of the Australians actually converse with their Turk enemies, highlighting that the soldiers could even be mates if it weren’t for their respective governments. Another great scene shows the Aussies and Turks in their trenches playing games with each other out of sheer boredom. Admittedly, however, the script could’ve incorporated other facets of Carlyon’s book to enhance the production – some written passages could have been used for Tolly’s voiceovers, and some of the book’s most notable moments of dark humour would’ve been superb to see here.

Directed by Glendyn Ivin (Beaconsfield), combat scenes throughout the series are staged with real finesse and style, making this one of the most impressive depictions of WWI to date. The ANZAC landing in the first episode definitely merits a mention, with its scattered battles and general sense of utter disorder permeating the first day that’s absolutely accurate. A great number of officers were killed by Turk snipers in the first few hours on the peninsula, leaving many soldiers without leaders or orders. And since the Australians landed in the wrong spot, negotiating the rough landscape populated with armed Turks was treacherous indeed. Other well-known battles are handled skilfully as well, including the well-known conflicts at Lone Pine and The Nek which are given their own episode. However, The Nek probably could have carried a bit more weight if more time was allotted to it (you certainly will not feel the impact of Weir’s picture).

Gallipoli deserves plaudits for its superb production values and staggering attention to detail. It is clear that military advisors were used, as military tactics are very true-to-life, and the series contains even the tiniest details of army drudgery to contribute to an authenticity that will go unnoticed by many. The uniforms are particularly accurate, with Rising Sun badges and even regiment patches on sleeves. Filmed in Victoria, the sense of place in Gallipoli is truly astounding. The peninsula indeed resembles photographs of the real-life campaign, and none-the-wiser viewers may be tricked into thinking that the series was actually lensed in Turkey. (To heighten the verisimilitude, the final episode actually closes with recently-filmed imagery of the Gallipoli peninsula.) Gallipoli was shot digitally, and although shooting on film stock might have yielded an overall superior image, the visuals are nevertheless gorgeous. Many sequences were of course enhanced with digital effects to show the various ships anchored just offshore, but the CGI is quite effective and competent, rather than the bargain-basement variety. The score composed by Stephen Rae is hugely affecting as well.

Most Hollywood movies try to pass thirty-year-olds off as teenagers, but the producers here opted for an old trick known as casting an actual seventeen-year-old to play a seventeen-year-old character. Smit-McPhee is a real catch – a child actor who has appeared in films like The Road, Let Me In, and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. He’s ideal for the role of Tolly, with a youthful look and innocent demeanour that simply cannot be achieved by an adult performer. He’s convincing from top to bottom, and fortunately, he’s backed by a sublime supporting cast

As someone who has read Carlyon’s amazing book and served in the Australian Army, I was very happy with 2015’s Gallipoli, which functions as a marvellous spiritual follow-up to the equally excellent 1985 miniseries ANZACS. It’s not quite the definitive chronicle of the campaign, but such a production would be impossible to achieve without at least fifteen or twenty hour-long episodes. Considering the circumstances, I’ll take it.

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