Saturday, November 10, 2018

As We Come Up To The World War I Armistice Day That War “To End All War”- Yeah, No Question War Is Hell-With Peter Weir’s Film “Gallipoli” In Mind

As We Come Up To The World War I Armistice Day That War “To End All War”- Yeah, No Question War Is Hell-With Peter Weir’s Film “Gallipoli” In Mind 

By Film Critic Emeritus Sam Lowell

As the readers of this site may know I recently have retired, maybe semi-retired is a better way to put it, from the day to day, week to week grind of reviewing film old and young as I just hit my sixty-fifth year. That stepping aside to let Sandy Salmon take his paces on a regular basis did not mean that I would be going completely silent as I intended to, and told the site administrator Greg Green as much, to do an occasional film review and general commentary. This is one of those general commentary times. What has me exercised is Sandy’s recent review of Australian director Peter Weir’s World War I classic Gallipoli starring Mark Lee and Mel Gibson. I take no issue with Sandy since he did a fine job. What caught my attention was Sandy’s comment about Archie’s, the role played by Mark Lee, fervent desire to join his fellow Aussies on Gallipoli peninsula as a patriotic duty and a manly adventure. When I did my own review of the film back in 1981 when the film first came out I make a number of comments about my own military experiences and those of some of the guys I hung around with in high school who had to make some decisions about what to do about the war of our generation, the Vietnam War of the decade of the 1960s. 

While the action of the Australian young men itching to get into the “action” of World War I preceded us by fifty years a lot of the same ideas were hanging our old-time working- class neighborhood in Vietnam War times. (World War I’s ending, “the war that was to end all wars” which turned out to be terribly off the mark, which by the way we are commemorating the 100th anniversary of the fourth and mercifully last year of this year ending with the Armistice on November 11, 1918 at 11:11 AM- how is that for symbolism. Less symbolic is the American turn of the day into a generic veterans day back in the 1950s which some veterans, including me, are trying to have returned to the original purpose of the day-stopping wars in their tracks.) More than a few guys like Jim Leary and Freddie Lewis from the old Acre neighborhood were like Archie ready, willing and able to go fight the “red menace,” tip the dominoes our way a big selling point at the time but totally absurd in the end, do their patriotic duty take your pick of reasons. Maybe in Freddie’s case to get out of the hostile household that he grew up in and maybe Jim like Archie for a little for the adventure, to prove something about the questions he had about his manhood. I did not pick those two names out accidently for those names now are permanently etched on that hallowed black granite wall down in Washington that brings tears to my eyes old as I am every time I go there.

(The most recent time Memorial Day, 2018 to mark the fiftieth year of mourning for Jim who was one of the corner boys, was a real piece of work and, take your pick, enlisted voluntarily or did so under judicial guidance-that being ordered forthwith to the military or five years jailtime for some armed robbery they grabbed him on-He told me he would rather take his chances against the “gooks”  than be a lifer’s “girlfriend” in stir. Yeah, that is exactly the way he put it, the way he put his choice. Wrong move but who is to fault his decision despite 50 years of mourning over his lost youth-and mine. Freddie was just a quiet kid from my street who had a terrible home life and no great prospects so he joined up thinking that those lying bastard recruiting sergeants were for real when they told him he would get training in electronics which he was interested in-that was the “come on” but in no front lines Vietnam that turned him into a dog soldier infantryman whatever else he did-damn the bastards.)
Then there were guys like me and Jack Callahan, fallen Pete Markin who didn’t want to go into the military, didn’t want to enlist like Jim and Freddie but who having no real reason not to go when our local draft boards, our friends and neighbors if you are old enough to remember, sent “the letter” requesting our services did go and survived. The main reason that we did not want to go, at least at the time, not later when we got a serious idea of what war was about, was that doing military duty kind of cramped our style, would put a crimp in our drinking, doping, and grabbing every girl who was not nailed down. Later Pete and I got religion, realized that the other options like draft refusal which might have meant jail or fleeing to Canada were probably better options. But we were like Archie and Frank in Gallipoli working class kids even though we had all been college students as well. (Markin, hell, the Scribe which is what we all called him from about junior high school once our leader Frankie Riley dubbed him with that moniker after having spewed out a ton of words of praise on Frankie’s behalf, had made his own fatal decision when he dropped out of Boston University in his sophomore year to pursue the dream inherent the Summer of Love, 1967. That in those hellish man-eating days in Vietnam made him prime “cannon-fodder” a word we did not know then but damn well learned later. When the Scribe finished his Vietnam duty he decided not to return to school since ‘Nam had taught him all he needed to know. Again, who was to fault his judgment then-even though he would too soon fall down to drugs and his own hubris and an early grave-a still mourned early grave.)

When in our past was there even a notion of not going when the military called, of abandoning the old life in America for who knows what in Canada. We did what we did with what made sense to us at the time even if we were dead-ass wrong.         

And then of course there is a story like Frank Jackman’s who grew up in a neighborhood even down lower on the social scale than ours, grew up in “the projects,” the notorious projects which our parents would threaten us with if we didn’t stop being a serious drain on the family’s resources. Frank somehow was a college guy too and like us “accepted” induction although he had more qualms about what the heck was going on in Vietnam and about being a soldier. But like us he also accepted induction because he could see no other road out. This is where the story changes up though. Frank almost immediately upon getting to basic training knew that he had made a mistake-had no business in a uniform. And by hook or by crook he did something about it, especially once he got orders for Vietnam. The “hook” part was that through a serious of actions which I don’t need to detail here he wound up doing a little over a year in an Army stockade for refusing to go to Vietnam. Brave man.  The “crook” part was also through a series of actions which need not detain us now, mostly through the civilian courts, he was discharged, discharged from the stockade, honorably discharged as a conscientious objector.           

Archie, Frank and their Aussie comrades only started to get an idea, a real idea about the horrors of war when they were in the trenches in front of the Turks also entrenched on Gallipoli peninsula and being mowed down like some many blades of grass. Archie and most of the crew that joined up with him were among those blades of grass. It was at the point where Archie was steeling himself to go over the top of the trenches after two previous waved had been mowed down and then being cut down by the Turkish machine-gun firing that I realized how brave Frank Jackman’s actions were in retrospect.

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