Films from Down Under are coming out on top

Hollywood, more over, Europe and Japan, step aside. Your monopoly on American movies screens may be over. Australia is preparing a major invasion. Phase 1 happens tomorrow, when a terrific Australian picture called "Gallipoli" has its American premier. Phase 2 happens on Sept. 11, when a New York theater switches to an all-Down Under format, featuring films from Astralia and New Zealand only. After an introductory festival of recent hits, the new policy at the D. W. Griffith Cinema will begin with a drama called "Tim."

Australian movies have been making inroads with American audiences for some yers now. "My Brilliant Career," about a turn-of-the-century lass who wants to be a famour writer, became a bright G-rated hit. "The Getting of Wisdom," about a girls' boarding school, and "Newsfront," the saga of a photojournalist, also gathered a lot of attention. "breaker Morant" and "The Chant of Jimmies Blacksmith" caught the dark side of Australian history. And a young man named Peter Weir launched his own new wave with "The Last Wave" and "Picnic at Hanging Rock," suspenseful yarns with a mystical twist.

"Gallipoli" comes from the same Peter Weir. Regardless of nationality, it could well be the movie of the year -- as colorful as "Raiders of the Lost Ark," as suspenseful as "Blow Out," with more brains than both combined. Exciting, involving, and splendidly acted, it revives a grand tradition of moviemaking with such skill and conviction that it seems as fresh as tomorrow's newspaper.

The title refers to a World War I battlefield near Istanbul. Besieged by Australian troops, it became the scene of great tragedy when a military snafu sent waves of soldiers to certain death at the hands of entrenched Turks. For decades after, Australians marked the anniversary of this event as a time for remembering fallen heroes.

But the movie doesn't dwell on battle. Indeed, the war becomes visible only in the last portion, when the main characters march confidently off to combat. The bulk of the film is a "boys' adventure" in the classic sense, a bright-eyed epic about eager lads who can't wait another minute to experience the whole world. Until the very end, when the mood abruptly darkens, "Gallipoli" sees the Australia of 1915 entirely through their eyes, with their energy and enthusiasm surging through nearly every scene.

This is not to tag "Gallipoli" as a film for children, though mature youngsters may get a lot from it. The seamy side of life pokes through once or twice, as when the characters meet temptation on the teeming streets of Cairo. And the ending packs an wallop that may be emotional jolting for the unprepared.

Yet the film's basic attitude is refreshingly positive. Even when tragedy strikes, we care very much because Weir has demonstrated the inherent goodness of his world, despite its many flaws and faults. At a time when cynicism has penetrated even the most frivolous Hollywood movies Weir is ever ready to celebrate the good and the true. Even sentiment is not beyond his pale, though he always manages to avoid emotionalism. He is a bold talent with a vision all his own.

During an interview in New York the other day, Weir discussed the beginnings of the "Gallipoli" project, which he planned for some years before going into production. Originally he had contemplated a World War I film set in France, but changed his ambition after a visit to Gallipoli, where he was astonished by its sense of living history. "Just by kicking the ground you dig up all sorts of scraps," he recalled -- "bits of clothing, tools, bottles, even live rounds of ammunition. It was like touchingm the past."

Though the events of Gallipoli are familiar to Australians, the filmmaker decided to tell them in his own oblique way, which was refined through several rewrites of the screenplay. As finally shot, the story focuses on two young friends -- one eager to defend his country, the other just looking for a little adventure -- who end up in the trenches side by side. While they are fictitious , the historical framework is meant to be entirely accurate, right down to the layout of the battlefield at the end.

Weir acknowledges that the tale doesn't synopsize well, since most of its incidents are commonplace: Lads trek across the desert, see the big city, join the army, go through training, and so forth. Yet his purpose in retelling this material was definite. "I like to give the actual feel and taste and smell of things," he says. "I want to bring these events alive in a tactile way."

Similarly, he doesn't hesitate to revive the most venerable characters and convention -- and old uncle who bestows his watch on a young recruit, a crusty officer with a deep sentimental streak, a wounded soldier who holds out his diary and gasps, "Give this to me mum." As the filmaker sees it, "These have become cliches through being misused in so many bad movies. But there's a lot of truth in them. I tried to make them fresh by getting to that truth."

Another goal was to reawaken memories of the men who fell at Gallipoli -- or, more broadly, the kindm of men. "Australia had the only all-volunteer army to fight in World War I," says Weir. "There was no conscription. Pople went for different reasons, but they went.

"During the years of protest over the Vietnam war, it became unfashionable to remember this episode with a special day. There are reasons for that. But I think it's sad if we forget that Australia lost a whole breed of men in those days, men with a kind of spirit you rarely find any more. I think one reason so many Australian films are set in the past is the same reason Americans make so many westerns -- we're looking for the myth of our past, our frontier days. The men who fought at Gallipoli were of that strong pioneer type and they are very much a part of or heritage, though there were no 'trench poets' among them to sing their praises. . . . I wanted to tell their story. . . ."

Weir's own background is thick with old-fashioned storytelling, with an accent on adventure. A major influence was his father, who regaled his childhood with cliffhanging bedtime stories -- "about Black Bart, Captain Blood, people like that" -- which lasted for weeks on end. No wonder a grizzled Uncle Jack casts a spell over the first part of "Gallipoli" with gruffly affectionate concern for his family, movingly manifested in his bedtime reading of a Rudyard Kipling yarn. From such fondly remembered roots grew the Weir sensibility.

He found his way to the movies almost by accident, through making documentaries and putting on sketches with a Monty Python-type comedy group. After a couple of early ventures, his reputation soared with "Picnic at Hanging Rock," the mysterious tale of sereral boarding-school girls who disappear from the face of the earth during a routine outing. It became the most successful Australian film of the '70s, and paved the way for future projects of his own choice. His follow-up film, very successful in the United States, ws "The Last Wave," about a white lawyer who uncovers the secrets of a mystical aborigine subculture in a modern Australian city. It is among the most brilliantly realized films of the past decade, though Weir now considers it "too ambitious" for its own good. He also made a fine, Pinteresque TV movie called "The Plumber."

In the new "Gallipoli" he leaves behind mystical themes, feeling "those explorations are probably finished now, for me." Yet a sense of mystery hangs over more than one scene in his latest film, as when the soldiers pitch their camp in the shadow of the Egyptian pyramids, or when the battlefield at night takes on a ghostly and otherworldly aura. Such moments lend added resonance to "Gallipoli," and suggest extra layers of meaning beyond its straight forward narrative.

Right now Weir's career is riding high, with "Gallipoli" doing great business in Australia and plunging into the international circuit. His next film will also deal with history, though more recent: Focusing on a reporter who travels to Indonesia during the last days of the Sukarno regime, it will pursue a love story and a political story on parallel tracks.

It's harder to say whether the number of Australian films riding high will be maintained, says Weir, because of confusion attending recent changes in government policy toward movie financing and tax laws. He is encouraged, however, by the fact that "Gallipoli" is sharing Australian audiences with "The Winter of Our Dreams" by John Duigan, which he describes as the opposite of his own film -- very low in budget and intimate in subject matter. "The audience is open to different types of experience," says Weir, "and they are willing to support good domestic films of whatever kind. That's very good sign for the industry."

The industry will get another boost if Australian films catch on more solidly than ever with American moviegoers. The new policy at the D. W. Griffith Cinema should be a bellweather for this, if its selection of Australian and New Zealand pictures are made carefully and tastefully. It's too bad that the first regular attraction "Tim," is a textbook example of soap opera -- the action revolving entirely around weddings and funerals, with every scene calculated to make you sob with joy or grief or both.

Mel Gibson (a star of "Gallipoli") igves a good performance as the title character, a backward young man who is befriended and then loved by a compassionate older womam played by Piper Laurie. But this is not the kind of heavyweight stuff the Australian film community is capable of. It's a trifle, though its family scenes are capably directed by Michael Pate.

Of course, not every Australian movie is worthy of international (or even local) attention. But if the Griffith series is properly programmed, it can call valuable attention to solid films that could then spread to cities everywhere. Many a movie from Down Under has already languished too long without achieving a wide audience: "The Devil's Playground " Phillip Noyce's "Backroads," and the Disney-line "Storm Boy" are just three items that have yet to be shown commercially in the US.

In the meantime, if "Gallipoli" finds the audience it deserves, it could help write a new international chapter for movies from a very busy corner of the cinematic world.

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