I’m going to seize the première of the last film directed by Sam (“American Beauty”) Mendes, “Jarhead”, just to talk about War considered from a different point of view. “Jarhead” is the most recent opportunity for realizing that war movies have generated a sub-genre: the antiwar movies, which reflect the feelings and expectations of the soldiers before the war, and their angst, doubts and behaviour when exposed to real combat situations.
There are distinguished examples of this sub-genre in the history of cinema. I will only mention some of my favourites: “Paths of Glory” (Stanley Kubrick), “Saving Private Ryan” (Steven Spielberg), and “Gallipoli” (Peter Weir).
An alternative vision of war: Peter Weir’s “Gallipoli”
Peter Weir, the talented and versatile Australian director, is best known for some popular films such as “Master and Commander”, “The Truman Show” and “Dead Poets Society”, but he has also directed some masterpieces like “Picnic at Hanging Rock” and “Gallipoli”, starring Mark Lee and Mel Gibson (in one of his first roles).
Gallipoli is not a war film per se, but rather a film about war. Two speed runners (Archie and Frank) decide to abandon their routine lives in the deserted and discouraging Australia of the 1910’s. Without vital objectives and searching for their own identity, they have a compulsive feeling of being involved in something to which apparently they are not up to: World War I.
This is a time when Australia, allied of English faction, recruits infantry and cavalry soldiers to fight the Turkish army for control of the Dardanelles and Gallipoli peninsula, considered to be vital to the defence of Constantinople during the War.
Gallipoli is a story of friendship, and one of the most memorable (I have to say that not only in my own opinion). However, the real merit of the film is the introduction and description of the characters. Many Australian young men, absorbed by an ignorant patriotism, search for new emotions and fun, and desire to be considered as heroes. Only the role played by Gibson is more pragmatic, as he doesn´t understand the insistence on participating in the War: his motivation for doing it comes from a feeling of blame for Australian society (which encouraged the boys to become future heroes), and from his union and friendship with Archie.
Their illusions are put down in the second that they discover the Turkish are real, and the battles are real too. In that moment their objectives change and are transformed into confusion.
Peter Weir succeeds in erasing any praise of War. After all, what are they doing in Turkey? Are they fighting for Australia? Obviously not. They are fighting for themselves, yet they aren’t conscious. Indeed, Archie tries to feel like a man, not a boy. The armies’ tops know it, but the soldiers are only pawns. When these soldiers discover it, they just can’t move backwards. We can see the transformation of the enthusiastic youthfulness into a heart-rending and futile maturity.
The final scenes, where Weir wants to tell us that war is not a chess game, and the characters involved in it are not players, are superb and highly emotional. They display lots of common sense, musically underlined with brilliance, in what is probably one of the most haunting resolutions ever seen in a film.