Saturday, 26 May 2012

Civic Mythology in Cinema: a sequence from Gallipoli (1981)

An academic piece.

Amidst the visual and narrative sprawl of Peter Weir’s 1981 film Gallipoli, the sequence in which the film’s heroes Archy (Mark Lee) and Frank (Mel Gibson) spend a brief interlude in the house of a pastoralist family after their gruelling trek across a vast salt lake, stands out in spite of its brevity for several pointed reasons. On a narrative level, this sequence contributes to the forward motion of the story, marking the point in which Frank decides to join the army along with Archy, thus placing him on the same trajectory as his new friend, directed inexorably towards Anzac Bay. It is also an islet of compressed and efficient screenwriting and directing by David Williamson and Weir, as the sequence contributes not only characterisation, as aspects of Archy and Frank’s burgeoning friendship and individual expectations are examined, but also the engagement with the historical context and underlying social, gender, and ideological presumptions which fill out the film’s self-mythologising bent. Gallipoli actively seeks to engage with and transmit a specific national image of the past and, by implication, of the present and future, through its employment of such mythology. This sequence presents, in miniature, a cross-section of the film’s version of the epoch and its society, creating a carefully woven tapestry of psychological, physical, and social cues, which help Weir in his attempt to capture “the burning centre that had made Gallipoli a legend.”

This sequence consists of three interlocking scenes: Archy and Frank dressing for dinner, in which the two men mock each other for their sudden attentiveness to their appearance, the conversation of the two men with the pastoralist family, and then Archy and Frank retreating to their beds, whereupon Frank reveals he is reconsidering his choice to avoid joining the army. In terms of direct narrative flow, these scenes follow on directly from those immediately preceding, in which Frank and Archy cross a vast and inhospitable salt lake after being deposited in the middle of nowhere by the train they think will take them to a city, and lead on directly to an abortive attempt by Archy to teach Frank to ride a horse: Frank’s lack of skill in riding for the time being keep them separated once they join up. For the two heroes, the homestead represents a welcome respite from the rugged landscape, and also a graze with a higher social level then either man is used to, one being a roustabout, the other a labouring vagabond. Archy and Frank neatly embody two distinct variations on a stereotyped ideal of the Aussie male: Archy is a rural lad of pure, na├»ve outlook, physical prowess, and spiritual simplicity, and Frank, the more urbane, larrikin type with a gentle cynicism that camouflages a spirit essentially in accord with Archy’s. The oppositions that the two men offer in their disparate personalities, and also their unity as swiftly unshakeable mates and Australians, are consistently used throughout Gallipoli to signify the tension between these spheres of Australian life. “Frank’s character as one fearful of war is out of character to the man of the myth, the polar opposite to Archy’s innocent, sacrificial, heroism,” (Melksham’s words), yet the story of Gallipoli is the story of their essential, unshakeable unity in that opposition.

Whilst it is then apt to admit that “in nostalgic films such as Gallipoli (…), mateship is seen an innocent and noble form of bonding,” as Dennis Altman said in a 1987 article, that bond is enabled by the disparate personalities and personal competitiveness of Archy and Frank, and whereas before this has been expressed in sport, here there is the men’s efforts to appeal to the family’s attractive daughter Mary (Robyn Galwey). The first scene, depicting the two men fastidiously grooming themselves, presents homosocial humour as Archy laughs at Frank’s slick appearance and Frank ripostes, “Don’t wear out the leather on them boots, will ya?” This exchange reveals much: mutual masculine scorn at a sudden desire to look good, with the consciousness of the violation of the presumption of the unpolished, expedient lifestyle favoured by real blokes, an underpinning of the larrikin sense of humour, coupled with anxiety over class status, and their nascent move into the environs of the squatocracy, in a family parlour, a familial and feminine-friendly space where decorum and bearing are currency. The undertone, too, of sexual competition, serves both a significant thematic purpose that is revealed as the scene plays out, and also, incidentally, illustrating that Archy and Frank are not homosexual, a seemingly necessary corollary to the film’s celebration of mateship. The room the two men are given to sleep in, worker’s quarters with tin walls and bunks, indicates their status in regards to the household, but they are given momentary distinction by their crossing of the lake and Archy’s intent to join up, thus inspiring a compromised but consequential moment of egalitarian feeling for the characters, one which matches the moment of national evolution engulfing the country.

The family consists of Mary, her mother Laura (Phyllis Burford), father Lionel (Don Quin), and Gran (Marjorie Irving). Mary is the first member of the family the two men have met, in the moments immediately prior to the sequence’s commencement, in which she watched the two men approach her from the wilderness. Mary, with white linen strapping a broad hat to head, is here an image of idealised femininity who, along with the colonial house, stand on the edge of like an outpost for civilisation. This contrast possesses supplementary meaning to the iconic image of the two men in the midst of vast desolation, setting up an opposition of masculinity, and its link to the rugged landscape, and the house with its genteel but incomplete family unit. Galwey’s Mary suggests a previous archetype of idealised femininity in a Weir film, Anne-Louise Lambert’s Miranda in Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975), similarly pursued by a innocent young hero in an equally doomed quest, except that whereas in Picnic the innocent sacrifice is the young girl, and the film’s dominant paradigm is that of the Anglophile, feminine world of the Appleyard school, here it is the polarised masculine world of mateship, labour, sport, and war, momentarily coming into contact with its opposite. In the hallway outside the parlour, Mary takes a drinks tray from a serving girl to carry in to the family and their guests, a move that matches the two men’s efforts to ‘rise’ in smartening themselves up in adopting the servile task herself for the sake of social lubrication and flirtation. Mary remains throughout the sequence an inviting and responsive emblem of all that men like Archy and Frank might reasonably aspire to, crystallising in the moment in which Mary says to Archy, “Most of the boys around here have joined the Light Horse.” An implicit aspect of this sequence’s dynamics, for as Trevor Melksham says of another passage of the film, the language has little to do with the underlying meaning of the character exchanges, is elucidated here by Weir’s framing of Mary, seated, gazing up at Archy in particular with adoring eyes. Archy, in addition to his physical qualities, possesses a dazzling cache in his intent and nature that has powerful social and erotic appeal.

With a different but equally powerful appeal, Laura says, “I do love the Light Horse uniforms!” whilst Lionel states, “If I’d had a son that’s what he would have joined too.” The Light Horse gains the lustre of special distinction or, as Frank later puts it, “The Light Horse – that’s got a bit of class.” The Light Horse has links to an older world of landed gentry and agriculture, or, again as Frank puts it, “Toffs and farmer’s sons,” and, more remotely, mounted knights. Archy bears much resemblance to mythical knightly figures in his transparency, dedication, and determination, for whom Mary becomes then a fitting lady fair. As Melksham describes it, “Weir (draws) on classical mythology to root the Anzac myth into classical myth by creating an immortal hero upon whom to centre a cult.” Frank, in contrast to the guileless Archy, characteristically appropriates an earlier line of Archy’s, “All you need is your watch and the sun and you can find your way anywhere!”, to present a confident and persuasive demeanour to the family, and his employment of the euphemistic “business interests” similarly signals both his ambition and his capacity to wrap truth in a glib raconteur’s package. Yet he still finds Archy has gained the upper hand in this contest for the family’s admiration. Archy and Frank are sportsmen, another trait associated with the quintessential Aussie male, and they are used to the distinction, and the reward, this brings: Frank is confident enough of winning in the first race to suggest it isn’t the first time he’s made such a bet. But this distinction, this sequence suggests, is momentarily losing its strength as a means of impressing the ladies, so to speak; in the moment of national maturation, it’s Archy’s guileless patriotism that is now the social and sexual cache. One appropriation gives way to another as, upon sensing the specific respect Archy is given for his intention to join, Frank begins to reconsider his own attitude, keen to the social distinction the Light Horse might convey and, in a time when everything is pointing towards war service. Frank’s reasons for choosing this option are enlarged upon in the culminating scene in which he mentions his plans, now impossible, to start a bike shop with the winnings of the race he lost to Archy. Thus a convergence of influences presents Frank with the inevitability of joining up, and he will try to take the most advantageous alternative this offers.

The parlour’s environs squarely evoke a familial atmosphere, a feel of genteel inclusion and closeness: family photos on the walls, polished silver, depicted in a group shot in which the men stand and the women sit before them in the foreground, both marginalised but also in a spectator’s position, the two interlopers actors upon a stage of family where they are being assessed for worthiness. The lone note of specific tension introduced comes when Gran challenges Frank in his plans not to join up: “While the Germans are crucifying kittens on church doors in Belgium?” This line provides one of the film’s relatively few engagements with the background of World War One, its propaganda, the wider political context, and the social dissemination of that context through discourse. Gran’s pointed question is a demand for action, and also a set of absurd, emotive images, for which there is no comfortable or easy riposte, and the momentarily sheepish look of Frank and Archy reveals the discomfort such rhetoric is intended to provoke. Gran here in her single line becomes the voice of the pro-war party across the British Empire, creating the melodramatic need for action. Mary and Lionel step in to save the two mates from this momentary humiliation, with their positive pronouncements on the Light Horse, and as they speak their lines, the only close-ups not on Archy and Frank are proffered, lending their more positive pronouncements more weight and appeal. Gran operates as rhetorical stick to the carrots proffered by the rest of the family.

That carrot is however just as manipulative, as each embodies for the two young men objectives for the returning hero: for Archy, who has no apparent family beyond father-figure Jack (Bill Kerr), and Frank, who has a father (John Murphy) and plentiful siblings but no mother and no sense of belonging in his society. Lionel and Mary become then icons of a social embrace, patriarch offering the nominal place of son, and Mary as prize of beauty. This would be an idyll for a post-war state, a complete and settled patriarchal family unit, which can be interpreted as equivalent to an Imperial family, too. When the two young men retreat to their room, enthused and partly drunk, what is revealed is not simply that Frank now wants to join up, but that he and Archy are destined, after coming together for initially pragmatic reasons, to be inseparable friends: the images of the two men lounging in their beds, excited by the elusive promises of their evening, suggests sublimated sexuality as well as comradeship. “It (Gallipoli) has been described by some as a male love story,” film scholar Brian McFarlane has reported, and this moment is mindful that mateship, as Archy and Frank embody it, is a bond associated with frontiers, violence, and labour, inimical to settled, domestic, feminine niceties, and imported Euro-centric world view that is still the aspiration of the pre-Gallipoli Australia portrayed here, and mateship is a substitute for and relief from traditional family structures and sexual couplings. Before they can truly come ‘home’, Archy and Frank must, as mates, brave a different frontier as a mutually supporting unit, the perfect axiom of mateship in such a context. 

The intense, building bond of the two men is deepened in this scene where the invites presented might threaten it, revealing how closely bound up this ideal of masculine friendship is not only with their immediate experiences, but also the exigencies of a great communal activity, that is, the nation going off to war: “Mateship…is supposed to have been born in the bush, then galvanised in the trenches of World War I,” as Jane Freebury put it in her 1987 essay ‘Screening Australia: Gallipoli – A Study of Nationalism on Film.’ But Gallipoli also depicts the alienation of the emerging Australia from its colonial roots, and the British Empire, its sire. As the narrative engages with the clash of attitudes between the Australians and British officers, and the final portrait of Aussie soldiers sacrificed for Imperial war aims, the film exposes tensions of world-view introduced in this earlier scene, as the two men travel from the point of utmost isolation, upon the salt lake, to engagement in a moment of history that straddles world, empires, and eras, a shift which the journey of Archy and Frank actualises in physical and emblematic movement. The pastoralist family comes, incidentally but inevitably, to stand for a world that is unobtainable to the two young men until the call to Archy’s final blood sacrifice is answered. Because the promises and threats presented by the family are proved illusory or incidental: the Light Horse will finish fighting alongside the Infantry as cannon fodder, against the Turks and not the Germans, and the young knightly hero will be consumed by the dragon he seeks to fight. 

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