Sunday, April 26, 2015



THE WATER DIVINER is only the third major Australian film of modern times that I know of which is concerned with the Gallipoli Campaign, the Allies’s disastrous attempt to wrest control of the Dardenelles from the Turks in the spring and summer of 1915. Like Ken Hannam’s BREAK OF DAY (1976), but unlike Peter Weir’s GALLIPOLI (1981), Russell Crowe’s directorial debut is more concerned with the aftermath of Gallipoli rather than the battle itself (save a handful of graphically visceral flashbacks).

John C. Tibbetts drawing of Russell Crowe, autographed in1997
Crowe begins and ends his film in two water rituals. In the first, he emerges from a newly-discovered underground spring in a scene symbolizing a kind of birth, in this case a determination to locate the remains of his three sons on the battlefield and return them to the “hallowed ground” of his Australian ranch; in the second, he descends into an underground waterway that carries him to safety from the strife that continues after the war to engulf Greek and Turkish soldiers during the partitioning of the Ottoman Empire.

In between are a series of improbable adventures that results in his discovery that a third son is indeed still alive. Yes, improbable. Crowe isn’t very adept at juggling an action adventure with an otherwise contemplative memorialization of a battlefield tragedy that saw hundreds of thousands of losses on both Allied and Turkish sides.

But at its best, we have Crowe’s understated performance and his scenes with the Turkish major (Yilmaz Erdogan), who once was his enemy and is now his comrade in arms.

As I watched, I couldn’t help but recall Peter Weir’s film, which rightly emphasizes the tragic and wholly unnecessary sacrifice of thousands of Australian and New Zealand soldiers (the Anzacs) in a doomed climactic charge in April 1915.

Permit me to cite my book, PETER WEIR: INTERVIEWS (2014), which contains, in addition to interviews with Weir about GALLIPOLI, the full text of a moving speech he gave on Anzac Day on 26 April 2001 in Washington, D.C. (Quoted with Weir’s permission)
Peter Weir and John C. Tibbetts,  Sydney, Australia, 2013
In that speech Weir quoted from his diary entry about his first visit to the Gallipoli battlefield::

“Out to dry off in the sun and faint breeze [he wrote], then, hiding my coat, book, etc., under some bushes I set out, feeling great, to walk up Shrapnel Gully. I’ll never forget the two-hour walk. The eerie stillness; felt ghosts all about me. Found water bottles, shells, French tin hors de Concourse 1900. Eno’s Fruit Salts bottle, thousands of shards of broken stoneware “made in Tamworth,” and piles of tins. Ridges towered above me. “Yea, though I walk through the Valley of the Shadow of Death” occurred to me. Back to the beach, exhausted, flop into the sea. Drive to Quinns Post and the N.Z. memorial at Chunuk Bair. Felt very emotional then, and later that night at the hotel.”

Having begun to immerse himself in the sites, historical circumstances, and consequences of the Gallipoli campaign, Weir realized he had to make his film, GALLIPOLI:

“It’s curious how you can know a thing happened. I mean, know it intellectually . . But how much different that other “knowing” is. To see and to touch—to feel it as a truth.”

Trench warfare in Peter Weir’s Gallipoli
Four years after that first visit, GALLIPOLI ended with a memorable charge by the Australian 10th Regiment in the face of murderous Turkish fire. In a deeply ironic, way, that sequence duplicated the footrace that began the film, but with tragic consequences:

“Among the West Australians every man assumed that death was certain, and each in the secret places of his mind debated how he should go to it. Many seemed to have determined that they would run as swiftly as possible, since that course was the simplest and most honourable...  Mate having said goodbye to mate, the third line took up its position... It was about 4:45 a.m... With that regiment went the flower of the youth of Western Australia, sons of the old pioneering families, youngsters—in some cases two and three from the same home—who had flocked to Perth at the outbreak of war with their own horses and saddler—men known and popular, the best-loved leaders in sport and work in the West, then rushed straight to their deaths. Gresley Harper and Wilfred, his younger brother, the latter of whom was last seen running forward like a schoolboy in a foot race...”

Archie’s fatal charge in Gallipoli
Critical brickbats thrown at this new Gallipoli film, THE WATER DIVINER, notwithstanding, Russell Crowe’s debut as a director marks him as a sensitive artist whose only fault, in my opinion, was in perhaps trying to do too much in a film that needed a tighter structural and thematic cohesion.

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