Gallipoli stands a very good chance of becoming ‘the definitive dramatisation’ of that First World War campaign credited with forging the identity of our nation. Its historical pedigree is beyond reproach and the money that has been lavished on its special effects and physical settings has been well spent. But in revealing the truth of that faraway struggle, does it run the risk of leading us into an even greater fiction?
Gallipoli is an eight-hour series that has taken three years to bring to the small screen. It currently dominates the safe adult slot after 9:00 PM on Mondays, and is likely to be a best seller when it’s released on DVD and Blu-Ray on March 18. In broad brushstrokes, it tells the story of seventeen-year-old Thomas ‘Tolly’ Johnson (Kodi Smit-McPhee) who lies about his age to follow his brother Beven (Harry Greenwood) into the greatest adventure of his era. The opening two-hour episode relates Tolly’s experiences as he and his friends struggle to gain ground on the first days of that abortive invasion. Gallipoli was supposed to be a decisive action that would knock Turkey out of the war, open a new front on Germany and provide a secure supply route for Russian allies. Instead it soon devolved into a trench war stalemate that lasted for eight months and cost tens of thousands of lives. It was brutal cauldron from which many mythic Australian images emerged – Simpson and his donkey, the tanned Aussie digger, the legendary courage of cornered ANZACs. But as true as the events are, are the meanings we’ve applied equally accurate?
Better historians than me will argue the toss over various details in Gallipoli. For one, the ineptitude and inflexibility of the British generals is being questioned across the world in this centenary year of the campaign, though it’s a cliché the series is happy to trade on. However, given Gallipoli is co-written by leading historian Les Carlyon I’m happy to concede the point. Yet the ‘birth of a nation’ mantra that the producers use the events to support is built on much more uncertain ground. I have personally conducted interviews with leading, international historians who are pains to point out that ANZAC Day did not become significant in the Australian calendar till much later, that the images we associate with the time were employed as nation building tools much, much later and that World War One actually had the result of making us feel more British, not less. However hindsight has a great way of reshaping the way we see things we see to justify the positions we take today.
Take our understanding of religion in Australia for example. Many television programs suggest – take ANZAC Girls for example – that the experience of the First World War was responsible for the death of faith in Australia, indeed around the world. Yet the truth seems to be much more mundane. Churches in that period were key community centres and so recruiting stations for nations. And Christians, civically minded and supportive of the government God appointed, were keen to enlist. The Sydney Anglican congregation in Newtown alone sent off more than a hundred men who did not return from that conflict. Consequently they were unable to father faithful families, or take on positions of leadership in the church and society that would have carried their views forward. Yet historian Dr. Colin Bale says we still see their parents and families turning to God to explain and even come to terms with their suffering. I would suggest that Australia did not so much lose faith as lose the faithful.
Enjoy Gallipoli. It’s a stirring reminder of the many who were prepared to lay down their lives for their beliefs, particularly when there was no immediate benefit to themselves. But be cautious of the meaning that will be overlayed on their sacrifice. Making the dead spout opinions that are welcome to our ears is easy when they’re not here to answer for themselves.
Distributor: Nine Network
Release Date: Mondays, 9:00 PM