Issue 6 - 10 Nov

A Silver Lining by Richard Leonard SJ

November 11 is Remembrance Day upon which Commonwealth countries mark the moment when hostilities ceased in World War I - at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month 1918. After four years and three months of fighting, 20 million were dead, including 9.7 million soldiers. 40 million people were wounded. Australia lost 61,720 military personnel in ‘the war to end all wars,’ double the number who died in World War II. There is a Mother’s Memorial in every tin-pot place in this country because by 1918 everywhere was scarred by grief and death. There were to be more unmarried Australian women per capita from 1918 – 1930 than at any other time in our white history.
 
In 1914 the recruitment literature said the reason Australia was heeding the call of the ‘mother country’ to come to its aid on the other side of the world was For God, King and Country. 106 years later we don’t know what to do with a religious belief so it’s almost universally said that our soldiers went to war For King and Country. God is edited out. We have such short and selective memories.
 
Christians, of course, have mixed feelings about every war. Wars are a failure within the human community to deal with our conflicts in a more civilised, constructive and non-violent way. Catholic moral theology, of course, says there is such a thing as a just war. Developed over centuries, particular through the thoughts of Saints Augustine, Albert the Great, Bonaventure, and Thomas Aquinas, we hold that military conflict may be permissible if six things are in place: 
 
1. There must be a just cause - that a real and certain danger can only be confronted by war.
2. That a competent government, preferably a democratically one, has authorised the use of force.
3. That the publicly stated reasons for the war are the actual reasons for military action?
4. That all peaceful alternatives have been fully pursued before war is undertaken.
5. That the prospect of a successful outcome justifies the inevitable human and other costs.
6. That there is some reasonable proportionality between the good trying to be achieved and the evils involved in war – death, destruction and destabilisation.
 
Furthermore, the Church teaches that if we are to engage in war then there are four moral norms to be observed within it:

  • That terrorism, murder of civilians, chemical, nuclear and biological war are always immoral.
  • That the original objectives of war must never be exceeded.
  • That every effort must be made to avoid civilian casualties.
  • And that prisoners of war must be treated with human dignity.

 
So while war is ugly the vast majority of the people who fight them are good. Whether a professional soldier or volunteer, these women and men deserve to know that they may be laying down their lives for a just cause and a higher goal. That’s the only reason to mark Remembrance Day– good people paid the ultimate price in a cause worth dying for: freedom; justice; and the peace God wants to see for everyone everywhere. They deserve our prayers and our respect.
 
A creative way to observe Remembrance Day this year may be to watch or re-watch Peter Weir’s 1981 film Gallipoli. I’ve seen it 86 times. I had to. It was a chapter in my doctoral dissertation which I wrote on Peter Weir’s work. I’ve been moved by it 86 times too.   
 
The reason I think people of faith might find fruit in watching it again this year is because while Gallipoli can be read as a period film on mateship or an adventure/war genre film, it is also a profoundly mystical text, primarily interested in heroic death.
 
This mysticism of this film works on two levels: personal and mythical. On the personal level, it comes out of a lack Peter Weir perceives in himself and western society where all mystery has been stripped away. In his films, there is fluidity in the boundaries between religious/mythical, real/unreal, temporal/spatial, knowledge/emotion. These polarities are the most distinctive and unsettling elements in many of his films, including this one.
 
On a mythical level the importance of Carl Jung to Peter Weir cannot be underestimated. Jung’s influence is clearest in the way in which the individual enters his or her depths or unconscious through mythology, nature, dreams, ancient ways of being and knowing, a world of archetypes, the collective or familial unconscious, and of a relationship to nature. Weir’s mysticism is about constructing a new language for western epistemology, identity, transcendence, fragmentation, and mortality.
 
How does all this apply to Gallipoli? Think about Archy’s death at the end of the film. Almost all of Peter Weir films focus on, end in, or explore, death. Michael Ventura observed in 1983 that Weir’s films all involve “a disappearing into, being surrounded by, or a surrendering to, the new, the alien, the unseen… In Gallipoli a boy disappears into history - into, specifically Western history, which is experienced as the distant (military) command determining a mass event (a slaughter) in which there are victims but no participants, because to participate is to invoke choices and no one in this story acts as if there is such a choice.  The boy, in other words, disappears into Calvinism, which is a slightly more precise word for the assumptions with which the West defines its mission and its history.” (Ventura: 1983:39)
 
Archy’s life begins and ends in the desert. By doing so Weir flags his mystical intentions from the start. The desert for Australia is a “the motif(s) of descent, decline and degeneration…Our greatest national figures and legends, Voss, Richard Mahony, Burke and Wills, Leichhardt; our greatest iconographic national sites, Uluru, Hanging Rock, Gallipoli, the Outback, are all places or figures of loss, sacrifice and ruin.” (Tacey:1995:199)
 
Going to a deserted place is an ancient practice in many mystical traditions. In almost every mystical tradition any journey to the physical or personal desert is abundant with revelation, transformation and recreation. (Chryssavgis:1990:99) These are, of course, echoes of and direct use of the iconography from Moses’ death in the desert which opens up the Promised Land, Jesus’ sacrificial death in the ‘deserted place’ and the mixture of innocence and blood which marks the biblical story generally. 
 
Archie is the slaughter of the innocents - of truth, youth and hope. It is the death knell of colonialism and arguments in support of war.
 
The allusions to death are everywhere in Gallipoli. Archie tells us that the pyramids were “Man’s first attempt to cheat death.” Snow is encouraged to enter the Cairo brothel because, “..in a month’s time we could be dead.” Frank’s mystical fog bound landing at Gallipoli is an explicit illusion to the crossing of the River Styx. (Peake:1981:11). The Peninsula battlefield strewn with the corpses of young men is, literary, a ‘field of death’. On the eve of the assault, Zurga and Nadir in their love duet, “In the depths of the temple” pledge their love unto death. Moments before the assault, one soldier recites the 23rd Psalm, “Though I walk in the valley of death, I shall not fear.”

But it’s not just any death Weir is interested in, it’s not just Archie’s death either. It is the sacrificial death of all the Archies. Those pure, naïve men whose consummation of life comes in the heroic nature of their death. The immortal Archie, forever framed by his act of sacrificial love lives on in the memories of Frank and his mates who continue to keep his memory alive.  
 
In the famous, final, frame of the film, as Archie rises up to run across a desert to be gunned down by Johnny Turk, he opens his arms in a cruciform pose explicitly linking his death to that of Jesus who was raised up on a cross on a mound of another desert land: Calvary.
 
Gallipoli does what modern Australia cannot do: it puts God back into the mix with King and Country.  Lest We Forget.

Rev Dr. Richard Leonard SJ is the author of The Mystical Gaze of the Cinema: The Films of Peter Weir. University of Melbourne Press, 2009. 
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