To the young Aussies enlisting with the Australia and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) in Peter Weir's Gallipoli, the opportunity to fight on the Turkish front in the Great War is a patriotic duty entered into with a prevailing sense of adventure. It's hard to fathom now that war was ever considered so lightly, but this innocence to the realities of conflict is what makes the film so devastating. Much like Stanley Kubrick's World War I masterpiece Paths Of Glory, Gallipoli concerns soldiers who are led into unavoidable slaughter, but it's more closely aligned to the grunts, and it follows every step in their long journey into martyrdom. After traveling halfway around the world—from the wilds of Western Australia to the sands of Egypt—for basic training, they only begin to contemplate what they've signed on for once they approach the Gallipoli Peninsula. And by then, there's no going back.
As a champion sprinter who enthusiastically volunteers for ANZAC's Light Horse division, although he's under the age requirement, Mark Lee (or, more specifically, Mark Lee's teeth) personifies innocence as an idealist who doesn't think twice about joining the fight. A young Mel Gibson plays his opposite, an older and more world-wise drifter whose cynicism doesn't keep him from befriending Lee and volunteering in spite of his better instincts. The two are assigned to separate divisions—Lee in Light Horse, Gibson in infantry—but they reunite in the trenches, where they're brought in to support the British in a push toward Constantinople.
With piercing use of Tomao Albinoni's "Adagio For Strings," Weir doesn't downplay this defining moment in the nation's relatively short history. Ending with the most unforgettable freeze-frame since The 400 Blows, Gallipoli remains an anti-war movie at heart, but it's also flush with patriotic pride, honoring those who courageously sacrificed their lives, without understating the futility of their mission.
Key features: An hourlong, six-part documentary helps explain Gallipoli's importance in establishing the country's identity. Many of the cast and crew joke that ANZAC Day meant little more to them than a vacation from school until this film came along.