Monday 11 May 2015

Deadline Gallipoli - Max Berghouse reviews the recent Showcase two-part series

Deadline Gallipoli. Directed by Michael Rymer ,  Writer Hannah Carroll Chapman, two part series screening on Foxtel’s Showcase on 19 & 20 April.

I recorded this two part TV movie for watching subsequently. As I grow older, the knowledge of the carnage of this the first major engagement Australian troops becomes more onerous. I'm sure this is the way history should affect us but this aspect of my "interest" in the history and the film, affects my judgement to the specific filmic qualities. In short I am becoming much more aware as a critic that interest or disinterest can severely affect one's appreciation of a film. In the background I was hoping that there would not be, in this the 100th anniversary of the landings, another superficial diatribe of the brave bronzed Aussies led by supercilious and incompetent British superiors.

First, by way of "back story", some history. By the close of 1914, the Western front was already in stalemate and losses were at an unprecedented level. Russia, Britain's ally, was reeling under offences by Germany and Austria Hungary. If the "Allies" (Britain, the Commonwealth and Empire and France) could find a means to resupply Russia from the south through the Caucasus, it might possibly relieve pressure on the Western front. This meant capturing Constantinople (now Istanbul) and forcing Turkey out of the war. The attack at Gallipoli was designed as the first step although the ultimate aim was incapable of achievement because Britain in 1915 simply did not have sufficient spare armaments and munitions to supply its own forces much less those of Russia. The Greek government gave advice to Britain that a landing could only be successful with approximately 170,000 men. The Allies could only muster 70,000 because of commitments to the Western front.

A very experienced senior British officer, Sir Ian Hamilton, an officer of great physical bravery, distinguished record and considered highly intellectual, was chosen as commander-in-chief. He was not however involved in planning which was rushed in a period of approximately 6 weeks because of fears that if action was not taken very quickly, Turkey would reinforce the peninsula. In 1913 as part of a project by Britain to keep Turkey out of any future war, the Admiralty sent a naval mission to assist Turkey in mining the Straits along which is the Gallipoli Peninsula. They did a very good job such that the Royal Navy could not "force the narrows" in either 1914 or immediately prior to the landings in April 1915. The Navy unilaterally backed out of assisting the landing forces to any particular degree whereas Hamilton was expecting continued assistance.

There were not enough men and they could not be landed sufficiently quickly. Multiple ships' lifeboats carrying several dozen men and pulled by a small steam powered tugboat, were too slow and inadequate in number. The reality is that the campaign at Gallipoli was lost on the first day, quite probably before lunchtime on the first day. Numerous senior officers, British as well as Australian, urged immediate withdrawal. Hamilton was under instructions to hold on – to "dig in" but it is also true that he was fearful of confronting Lord Kitchener, the War minister. Quite some months later Kitchener made a personal visit to the campaign front and recognised that withdrawal was the only option. That withdrawal was completely successful. The net loss of troops, British, Commonwealth, Empire and French (including its colonials) was acute. It is not the case that British commanders were generally incompetent and they certainly did not use Australian troops as cannon fodder. The truth is that  landings of significant numbers of troops was virtually technically impossible until much later and indeed the spectre of Gallipoli hung very heavily over the planners for D Day in 1944. Even then it was thought that the chances of a successful landing were low!

Now to the film. I recognise completely the imperative of dramatic narrative including the arc of development, characterisation which preferably involves suitably opposite protagonist and antagonist, et cetera. That can involve to some extent the distortion of history for the purposes of narrative/drama. Such practices go back as far as Homer and possibly beyond. At the same time an historical narrative must recognise the exceptional power of film to create the impression of accuracy by virtue of the power of visual impressions. In this year, the 100th anniversary of the birth of Orson Welles, it is well to remember that the picture practically all of us have of William Randolph Hearst is of a tormented and fundamentally unhappy and unfulfilled life. This is the picture from Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, USA, 1941). But it is by no means the truth. Hearst was a profoundly optimistic and happy man, throughout a very fulfilled and long life which included significant financial reversals. Yet this "factual" history is ignored or regarded as inaccurate. Such is the power of film.

The present film involves the exposition of the roles of the significant war correspondents in the campaign. Ellis Ashmead Bartlett (English), C W Bean (Australian), Keith Murdoch and Philip Shuler (Australian) are the correspondents who deal at an exceptionally personal level (almost certainly inaccurate) with such principal characters as the commander-in-chief (Charles Dance in a very solid performance), General Bridges (a totally miscast Bryan Brown, an actor with a very intense but extremely limited range) and sundry others of the great and good. Those at the top have dialogue which consists significantly in "back story" to enliven the interests of those viewers who have little historic knowledge. Things like "we have so many thousand troops to do this that or whatever, and our job is to take X, Y and Z which have the following features......". In short there are too many principal characters. Ashmead Bartlett (Hugh Dancy) who seems to have, at least for the first third of the film, an extremely campy manner despite being vigourously and excessively heterosexual, turns out to be the writer who effectively lionises the brave sunburnt Aussies. This significantly undercuts the apparent hero Bean (Joel Jackson an actor of whom I know nothing but who performs very creditably in a significantly thankless role) who seems to capture the pedantry of the real man. Unfortunately Bean's lifelong commitment to accuracy and the memorialising of Australia's commitment in the First World War, is reflected accurately I imagine in the film in that he appears desperately boring and uninteresting.

Philip Schuler, about whom I know nothing is played by Sam Worthington in a style I found excessively demotic. In this he takes over from Bryan Brown, as General Bridges, who is soon deceased, as effectively the "larrikin". I thought both performances too broad so that they appeared more like buffoons.

There is a great deal to like in much of the construction of the film. Obviously there are limitations in budget so that one could not get a cast of thousands like Ben Hur but scenes on the beaches (South Australia I imagine doing extra duty as Gallipoli) have the same painterly quality as many significant portraits in the National War Memorial. The same for the trenches and the like, where limited numbers of actors and extras are put to very good use. There is no sense of wave upon wave of thousands of troops but there is a strong sense of the immediacy and intensity of battle between enemies who are often just a couple of hundred yards apart from each other. CGI while not extensively used, presumably because of the expense, is nonetheless expertly applied and used to enhanced dramatic effect.

Much of the second half of the film is taken up with the machinations of opposition to the continuation of the campaign and the final resolution by withdrawal. It appears to me to be desperately undramatic and the final decision appears to materialise without specific cause. Was it the correspondents, Bean and Ashmead Bartlett, who turned against the campaign? Was it the senior officers who realised that the game was up? Was it delayed because politicians like the now disgraced Winston Churchill, opposed withdrawal? To me this would have been the heart of the drama: the almost universal challenge to resile from a bad position once taken. However that does not appear to be the intention of the writer and director who appear to be much more concerned with linear storytelling and as such the last quarter of the film struck me as very limp.

There is one I think telling event only half told in this film and also in the competing film shown at the same time on a competing network, Gallipoli . Both start with the disembarkation of the troops in the lifeboats previously mentioned. As it happened, the entire class of 15-year-old midshipmen at the Royal Naval College at Dartmouth were immediately brought into active service so that when the land troops climbed down the ropes into the lifeboats, they were met by, essentially boys, who were in command, until the water' s edge and disembarkation onto the beaches, of many young men, perhaps only three or four years older. The fact that so many of these boys and young men died dispels any notion that Australia alone suffered. One hundred years later, to reflect that any nation could send so many untried men into such calamity, is the ultimate poignancy.

I am increasingly of the view that commitment to historical accuracy in terms of the mise-en-scene, even when not appreciated at a conscious level, is very important in establishing an unconscious acceptance of the disposition of events. So although never having dinner service person myself I note the following egregious errors: in the early part of the film: Constantinople is referred to as not having been captured for 800 years. In fact it was captured by the Turks in 1453 or somewhat more than 500 years from the date of the events depicted. In another scene General Bridges at the dinner table wears his full uniform together with his Sam Browne belt. Officers always take this off at table. Sam Worthington appears in a similar scene without his coat and showing his braces. That would have been regarded as grossly improper. In another scene at a quayside, a sergeant wearing his Sam Browne belt crossed from left to right rather than from right-to-left which is improper, intercepts Shuler. Sergeants only wear a Sam Browne belt on parade.

Latterly a "Colonel White" remonstrates with his senior officer, presumably Brigadier General, about White's decision to go "over the top" with the men. Neither of these officers is properly dressed because officers of the rank of Colonel and upwards wear distinctive red patches on their lapels and a red felt surround to their forage caps. Indeed it is a matter of folklore that the red trimmings obtained when reaching the rank of Colonel are referred to as "getting felt". Equally the troops are referred to in a further scene as "gentlemen". Listed men are never gentlemen, only officers. Perhaps all this is arcane but would be readily known to a military adviser.

More to the point is that Keith Murdoch refers to reporting to the Australian ambassador to London. The Australian "ambassador" was then, and is now, a "High Commissioner". That is a real blooper especially as this film can have little relevance outside a traditional "British" market.

Very careless.

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