‘Generations passing away*’, Honest History, 10 March 2015
(Caution: this review contains minor spoilers, notably that the Australians were on the losing side at Gallipoli.)
Having failed in the ratings the series Gallipoli has been ‘burned’, as TV industry jargon has it. The final two episodes (‘If only …’ and ‘The earth abides’) were combined into a double episode and broadcast so that the series ended a fortnight earlier than planned. As Historypunk’s excellent collation of blog responses shows, the reasons for the cooler than expected response seem to range across the board, from irritation at the way Channel 9 greedily crammed in more advertisements than even a well-inclined core audience were prepared to tolerate to a detestation of the show’s celebration of Anzackery. Ratings of the final episode did not reach a third of what they were at the start of the series, a month ago.
Lord Kitchener, British Secretary of State for War, c. 1916 (Wikimedia Commons/AWM A03547)
It’s worth reflecting how unbalanced is the traditional re-telling of the Gallipoli story, a re-telling which the series Gallipoli reflects and follows. The August offensive actually occurred almost exactly half-way through the campaign; the two episodes butt-ended together last evening galloped through the campaign’s final four months. In this the show is faithful to Les Carlyon’s book, Gallipoli, which inspired the show. Such was Carlyon’s obsession with Hamilton as architect of the campaign’s failure that he swiftly lost interest once Kitchener sacked the general. The fatal sacking telegram arrives on page 504 of Carlyon and the book’s text ends on page 543, arguably closing the story with indecent haste.
With the previous couple of episodes of the Endemol version of Gallipoli preoccupied with the drama of the failed breakout, the writer seems to have remembered to return to the Celia-Bevan-Tolly love triangle sub-plot, not that this return seemed necessary or convincing. In the end the triangle plays a part in the long-awaited confrontation between the brothers. Writer Christopher Lee deftly implies that Tolly’s preoccupation with the diaphanous Celia was perhaps merely adolescent fantasy – not that it matters because we don’t know whether the survivor actually gets the girl or indeed, whether he actually survives the war. Tolly’s now been mentioned in despatches (twice!) and been promoted to corporal, though he remains as wet as ever, surely incapable of actually fulfilling the demanding duties of a corporal, the most thankless rank in the military hierarchy. The soldiers’ story, including poor ill Dave, whose stubborn refusal to report sick is actually seriously atypical, takes second place for much of the time.
The real focus of these episodes is with the machinations of the commanders and their staff officers. Ian Hamilton’s staff, led and abetted by the duplicitous Walter Braithwaite and the deceitful Guy Dawnay, plot against the ineffectual Hamilton, who sacks the dithering Frederick Stopford – too late – and demands from Braithwaite a loyalty he cannot give but cannot openly deny. This is Game of Thrones with red tabs but no sex. No wonder it attracted Carlyon (who was much more comfortable with the politics of command than with its results; his Gallipoli is not really a – or anyway is not a very good – history of Gallipoli as a campaign).
But Hamilton’s leaving the fray is a protracted affair, requiring much mournful gazing, awkward silences, enigmatic quotations, a good measure of dreary music and even a dream sequence, lifted straight from Carlyon’s book. Hamilton dreams that he is drowning and foresees (so Christopher Lee infers from Carlyon’s careful qualification) the arrival of his nemesis, the Australian journalist Keith Murdoch. (Unfortunately, Lee uses exactly the same trope about fifteen minutes later, when Tolly also dreams of death, just before saying how he thinks he’ll make it. This is such a clear signal that he won’t that we feel confident deciding that he will die. Christopher Lee, you feel, is just playing with us.)
Murdoch appears, stuttering (as he did, though perhaps not as much as he actually did) and acting as the mechanism by which Ashmead-Bartlett attempts to tell the truth about the balls-up Gallipoli has become. Ashmead-Bartlett dominates the screen, as he did the journalists’ camp. Murdoch comes across as something of a stooge, with no sign of the kingmaker he later became – later in the war and as the founder of the Murdoch dynasty: more duff casting and a failure to pay attention to the historical detail.
Enver Pasha, Ottoman War Minister and Commander-in-Chief, c. 1910 (Wikimedia Commons)
The series has often troubled to show us the inescapably nasty side of war, in this episode including poor ‘English’ troops burned amid the scrub of Suvla. The production’s ‘prosthetics’ and ‘bodies’ units deserve whatever awards are going for ‘best desiccated corpse’. The producers, however, did not always bother to ask where the corpses came from or why. While Keith Murdoch tours the trenches we are shown Tolly and his mates chucking what look like fresh corpses over the parapet. It’s hard to work this out. For one thing, Murdoch arrived in early September – a month after the August offensive, which was the last aggressive action on the old Anzac line. And why would you knowingly or willingly throw corpses out to rot within a few feet of your own trenches when you would be better off burying them behind your lines? Does no one involved in these productions actually work out why they do what they do at such great trouble and expense? Artistic licence needs to be justified.
Coincidentally, the story of the Murdoch letter, one of the dramas in this episode, had been told just the previous evening in Channel 7’s bombastic, nationalistic and shouting Australia: the Story of Us, featuring such notable military historians as Ben Roberts-Smith VC, Malcolm Turnbull and Rebecca Gibney – all well known as experts on the Great War in general and the Gallipoli campaign in particular. Gallipoli’s rendition even shows a line from Murdoch’s letter quoted in The Story of Us, about the attack at the Nek killing ‘squatters’ sons and farmers’ sons’, as if the sons of landowners were more valuable than their jackeroos and saddlers. Gallipoli’s version had Murdoch cravenly hand over without demur the fabled letter to Asquith damning the campaign’s bungling. Channel 7’s version, on the other hand, had Murdoch haring about the ship at least attempting to evade the narks (sooled on to him thanks to his erstwhile colleague, Henry Nevinson, who, despite his salacious classical limericks, is revealed as a bit of a shit after all). Which version was correct I could not say. The journalists have become in this rendering of Gallipoli its third theme, an understandable preoccupation of a book by a journalist.
Finally, to update our Beanwatch, Charles Bean at last comes into his own in this episode, with more lines than in the rest of the series put together. With Ashmead-Bartlett sent home in disgrace, Bean at last emerges from his more colourful colleague’s shadow, as it were. He farewells Hamilton and talks about wanting to tell the truth, something he could not attempt, as it turned out, until he wrote his official history seven years later. Even then Bean only partially succeeded in overcoming the constraints, self-imposed and imposed on, a man whom Carlyon notoriously dismissed as a ‘clerk of facts’.
Graves at Gallipoli, c. August 1915 (Australian War Memorial C01506)
These final episodes continue the parade of oddities that seemingly infest a long series, one which is seemingly too big for anyone to keep on top of the historical detail. Braithwaite seems to say at one point ‘G Haitch Q’, as if a senior British officer had attended a convent school in Yass and not Victoria College, Jersey. I haven’t bothered to check the officers’ medals but I have always wondered whether they are accurate. Could Dayton McCarthy or some other expert advise? (The varying numbers of ribbons suggest that they are accurate but I would be interested in confirmation, especially of Hamilton’s.) As ever the words in this production remained a worry. Tolly, for instance, talked in a voiceover about ‘fifteen hundred blokes scattered along the front lines’, probably rendered in the script as ‘frontlines’, though no Anzac used the term ‘frontlines’: thus do anachronisms spread like Salvation Jane. Finally, there were actual mules in several scenes this week but still no Indians.
With scenes of Anzac in winter the unpropitious location wished upon the production by Film Victoria finally came into its own. It would be a back-handed compliment, unappreciated by Tourism Victoria, to observe that the Mornington Peninsula is a dead-ringer for Gallipoli in winter but it looked pretty right. Whether a man actually froze to death standing on a fire-step on 27 November is perhaps more artistic licence (only one Australian actually died on Gallipoli on 27 November, a 19-year-old member of the 22nd Battalion, killed in action), but the event sets up the climactic scene between Tolly and Bevan. Having been led to believe that one or the other but not both of the brothers will not leave the peninsula, we see Bevan save Tolly from a sniper’s bullet but seconds later Bevan is killed by the explosion of a shell falling at random in the trench. Bevan is half buried and eviscerated – a terrible death very plausibly depicted.
Heads of Gallipoli soldier and girl, c. 1961 (Australian War Memorial ART91393/Sidney Nolan)
And so to the evacuation. Of course, the drip rifle gets a run, though not the staff-work to which its success was attributable. This is one of Gallipoli’s biggest myths, that the ingenious drip rifle – which fired when a sufficient quantity of water had dripped into a tin, falling and pulling the trigger – explained the success of the evacuation. The drip rifles had nothing to do with the success of the evacuation; the first such guns actually went off after the last troops left, so they actually played no part in its success. The series encourages the myth by showing Dave and Tolly messing about pouring water into mess tins to make guns go off, when all they had to do was point a gun over the parapet and let a round off.
These final scenes call upon more soulful music and more of Tolly’s gormless gazing into the middle distance before he boards the ‘last boat’ as music builds with overtones of the Last Post. In the final frame of the drama Tolly at last focuses his gaze, looking directly into the camera. Knowing viewers, those who understand what his chances are of surviving the war, must surely think that he is – or will become – a dead man.
In an unnecessary and rather tacked-on coda, we hear Tolly’s half-digested thoughts in voice-over. He tells us that Gallipoli was ‘the war that got away from its handlers’ (a direct quotation from Carlyon, though strictly speaking it was a ‘campaign’ not a ‘war’). That is the sort of vacuous insight that a script editor really needed to put a red pencil through. Surely that seemingly profound point applies to all wars, since they all have losers, they ‘get away from’ at least one of the belligerents, if not both, and in that Gallipoli is hardly unique.
This awkwardness is followed by sunlit shots of Gallipoli’s flower-bedecked cemeteries (both real and bogus – the Commonwealth War Graves ones full of real graves; the Turkish one with vacant plots and possibly fictitious headstones). The shots of actual epitaphs chosen or composed by the families of the dead – the words that make visits to war cemeteries such powerful experiences – make a connection between the fictional deaths that the series has revealed to us, however unevenly, and the historical reality which ultimately is so moving. Did the producers consider showing us the imagined headstones of the Australian soldiers whose deaths we had seen – the larrikin Cliff, ‘Two Bob’ the ‘quarter-caste’, Stewie the Light Horseman killed at the Nek and poor Bevan, disemboweled by a howitzer shell? That might have been a fitting finale to the fictional story.
Unfortunately, instead, the producers chose to end the series with a screen showing the celebrated (or is it notorious?) 1934 Atatürk quotation – the one praising ‘those heroes’ and claiming both that Turkey somehow tends Anzac graves – which it does not and never has – and the equally doubtful assertion that Turks today regard the enemy dead as their sons. (This is also widely believed, even though hardly any Turkish visitors actually visit Anzac or British cemeteries, but gullible Australians sentimentally persist in believing this version.) The quotation’s inclusion may have been a sincere gesture on the part of the producers; one of the dominant themes of Carlyon’s book is that Australians need to comprehend and respect the Turkish perspective on Gallipoli. Sadly, the result of that laudable intention has been the propagation of the ‘Atatürk quotation’ to the point of saturation. It has become an inescapable inclusion in many books, exhibitions and Anzac Day ceremonies, by authors or organisers who mistake its reconciliatory intent for history. Or was its inclusion here the price demanded by Turkish authorities for access to the peninsula?
Finally, to cap the little editorial coda, a screen reveals the dead of the campaign’s various protagonists, presumably using figures supplied by the War Memorial. You’d have to be quick to take it in, but sharp-eyed Australian viewers might notice that the dead of the campaign included 21 255 British and 9878 French and a curiously exact total of 86 629 Ottoman soldiers. The magnitude is right but the exact figure is impossible to ascertain. Curiously, the list includes ‘1500 Indians’. Actually, it should be 1623, almost exactly. Sadly, the Indians remain slighted by approximation.
So what do we make of this Gallipoli, now that it is over? It’s no 1981 Peter Weir Gallipoli. I cannot see undergraduates and senior high school students either being made to watch this series or using it as a jumping-off point for their essays for a decade, as occurred with Weir’s film. While Weir’s film has gained in stature over the years – I now regard it as Australia’s visual War and Peace – the Endemol Gallipoli will surely become a wreck in the narrowing channel of Australian free-to-air commercial drama, a sign of what happens when vision plus hubris plus budget meets marketing saturation, advertising revenue targets and the diminishing patience of a viewer base increasingly alienated by early-onset commemoration fatigue. ‘Peaked too soon, mate’, TV executives will muse over their chardonnay. ‘Had to burn it. Pity, ‘cos as a script it was a ripper …’
Gallipoli figures, 1962 (Australian War Memorial ART91334/Sidney Nolan)
And indeed, except that it was probably three or even four episodes too long, the script and the rendering of the production had merit. The production’s attempt to depict the reality of Gallipoli was, perhaps, its most admirable achievement. Moments in it rose to heights the equal of any depictions of war on screen – Tolly bayonetting a surrendering Turk; Stewie shot as he tumbles into a trench at the Nek; Cliff’s sudden death from sniping; the burning bodies of Suvla. Such moments compare with the wounded at the Atlanta depot in Gone with the Wind, scenes of combat in Glory or (the opening sequence of) Saving Private Ryan or the massacre scene from Soldier Blue. These are honourable comparisons and the director (Glendyn Ivin) and his colleagues should feel proud of not having bottled the depiction of war. Can Ivin claim, as Will Dyson put it, ‘no picture he ever drew would go towards the glorification of war’?
Endemol’s Gallipoli, carrying as it did the burden of expectation that it would constitute an adequate tribute to Australia’s part in the Gallipoli campaign, could not make such an unqualified claim. Could Endemol’s Gallipoli, in the light of the Anzackery which is such an inescapable part of the popular treatment of war in this country, be anything more than a nationalist rant against incompetent ‘English’ generals? Given that it was ‘inspired by’ or ‘based on’ Carlyon’s book – which pits Australians and Turks against the ‘English’ as a fundamental engine of its narrative – we could hardly have hoped for a fresh or dispassionate re-telling of the story. Adapting Carlyon closed off many avenues of potential stories – of a different balance between those at war and those at home, between Australians and New Zealanders, between Anzacs and Britons, even (despite the half-hearted inclusion of Atatürk at the landing and in the mawkish quotation) between invaders and defenders.
As a filmed drama Gallipoli was of course fatally hamstrung by the disastrous decision to make the main characters a 17-year-old naïf and a 60-year-old ‘English’ general, and even more so by Kodi Smit-McPhee’s limitations as an actor. When you think of the possibilities offered by the real characters who were at Anzac – Archie Barwick (who overcame terror to become a proficient soldier), Ellis Silas (who never overcame his terror but produced some of the key images of the campaign) or men like William Malone or Charles Bean, whom this Gallipoli simply failed to capture – the shortcomings of this version become clear.
Ultimately, the decision to base the series on Carlyon’s book was its undoing. The book offered a dominant story of machinations between generals and war correspondents, without any compensating narrative of ‘ordinary’ soldiers, and the tacked-on story of teen-aged heartbreak was worthy of Home and Away but not of a series striving to assert a stature. In Gallipoli’s idiosyncrasies lay the seeds of its failure – ironically, proving to replicate Ian Hamilton’s tragedy on the small screen. Australia defeated at Gallipoli, again.
* ‘One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh: but the earth abideth for ever.’ (Ecclesiastes 1:4)
** Professor Peter Stanley of UNSW Canberra is President of Honest History and author of 27 books, including five dealing with Gallipoli.