Rated R. Running time: 1 hour 51 min.
Our content ratings (1-10): Violence 6; Language 2; Sex/Nudity 2.
Our star rating (1-5): 4
How the mighty have fallen, and the weapons of war perished!
2 Samuel 1:27
It has been 100 years since the disastrous Battle of Gallipoli in 1915, and so Russell Crowe’s first feature film that he also directed comes out at a propitious time—at least in Australia and New Zealand where ANZAC Day is still celebrated on 25 April, the anniversary of the first troop landing. This film, in which he plays Joshua Connor, the father of three sons who participated in the battle, would be a good one to watch after seeing Peter Weir’s Gallipoli. Whereas the earlier film shows much of the action and lays the blame for the defeat on the incompetence of smug British officers and botched signals, Mr. Crowe’s film unfolds four years later in 1919, with just one night of the bloody battle seen in short flashbacks.
The story begin with Joshua and wife Eliza (Jacqueline McKenzie) living a miserable life on their Australian farm because her grief over the failure of their sons to return from the Battle of Gallipoli has deranged her mind. Blaming her husband for letting the sons go off to war, she insists each night that he read from the boys’ favorite book The Arabian Nights, even though their beds are empty. The pair seem to be living on automatic, sharing now only their nights of unrelieved anguish. By day Connor has the never-ending farm work to keep his mind occupied. We see that he possesses the mysterious gift of being able to divine the location of deep down water. He uses two special twigs that vibrate slightly when he comes upon the right spot. Very handy in his semi-arid part of the world. From what we see of his life the discovery of a new source of water is his only joy. The couple’s domestic life comes to an end when Joshua early one morning finds Eliza face down in the farm’s pond. Forced to negotiate a deal with the unsympathetic priest for her to receive a Catholic burial, Connor vows at her grave that he will find and return the remains of their sons to their family plot.
After a three-month voyage he arrives at Istanbul (which the British still call Constantinople) where the eager street urchin Orhan (Dylan Georgiades) grabs his bag and leads him on a wild chase through the crowded streets and markets. The boy stops at last in front of the hotel run by his mother, Ayshe (Olga Kurylenko), and uncle Omer (Steve Bastoni). Because Connor is one of those she still regards as the Enemy (the Ottoman Empire sided with Germany in WW 1), Ayshe at first says there are no rooms, but then her brother-in-law intervenes. During the course of his stay Connor grows close to the boy who serves as his guide. When his upset mother orders Orhan to stay away from the foreigner and return his fees, Connor whispers to him to keep the money, that it will be “our secret.” As she learns that Connor has come in search of his three sons, Ayshe grows more sympathetic, her own husband also still missing in action.
Connor is rebuffed by a British officer who tells them no outsider is allowed at Gallipoli where a graves unit is engaged in digging up and attempting to identify the thousands of bodies there. The Australian, following Ayshe’s advice to pay a fisherman to transport him, wades to shore, and is immediately taken into custody. The officer in charge, Lt. Col. Hughes (Jai Courtney) of the British War Graves unit, tells him he cannot stay. Connor, refusing to leave voluntarily, camps out on the beach, his persistence winning over the colonel and his Turkish advisors, Major Hasan Bey (Yilmaz Erdogan) and his aide Sergeant Jemal (Cem Yilmaz).
As Hasan accompanies Connor during his search across the battlefield he describes the conflict as he had seen it. In several flashbacks we (and apparently Connor through his strange power) see that final night of the three sons, Arthur (Ryan Corr), Henry (Ben O’Toole) and Edward (James Fraser). They are part of the group ordered to charge forward. The fighting becomses savagely brutal, hand to hand, as the Australians and the Turks engage one another in a trench. Hasan barely escapes with his life as ANZACs sweep through it. In another charge the Australians are cut down by machine gun fire. One brother dies instantly on one side of Arthur, whereas the other lingers on the other, the night hours filled with his groans.
During one of their walks among the dug up piles of skulls and bones (one heap labeled “Turkish”), Connor feels the pull associated with his diviner skills. Sure enough, the two skeletons dug up are those of two of the sons—but not Arthur. One has a bullet hole in his skull, and when Connor learns that Hasan had been part of the command that had ordered no prisoners be taken, he attacks him. Once he cools off, he apologizes, which turns out to be a good thing.
Back in Istanbul Connor returns to the hotel where he grows closer to Ayshe and Orhan. He discovers through Hasan’s research that Arthur might still be alive, having survived his wounds and been taken prisoner. Back in the capital himself, Hasan has become part of a rebel group bent on driving out the Allies from Turkey. Throughout the film we see crowds demonstrating on behalf of Mustafa Kemal. (Not long after the end of our story this leader will succeed in forcing the Allies to leave and become the first president of the Republic of Turkey.) It is members of this group, keeping an eye on the foreigner, who save Connor from relatives of Ayshe’s brother-in-law Omer. Desiring to marry her, Omer had started beating Ayshe as she forcefully rejects his proposal. When Connor stepped in to stop him, Omer, shamed by the intevention, had left. Ayshe warned Connor of his danger of retaliation.
Learning that Arthur might be living in Anatolia, Connor asks to accompany Hasan and a small contingent of Turkish soldiers who plan to sneak aboard a freight train bound for that province where the Great War has morphed into the Greco-Turkish War. When the train is attacked by artillary equipped Greek soldiers, the film slips into Indiana Jones mode, eventually ending with the posibility of –well, for this and more on the fate of Arthur, see the film.
One interesting aspect of this movie is that much of it is from the Turkish point of view, thanks to the well-rounded portrayal by Yilmaz Erdogan as Hasan Bey. I have reviewed in these pages He Who Must Die, the story of Greeks living in Anatolia during the same period: in this the Greeks are the peaceful villagers under cruel the heel of the Turks; and in Atom Egoyan’s Ararat it is the Turks who slaughter Armenians in a horrific scene. Thus we get a very different view of them in this film, with the invading Greek army assaulting the train and almost executing Hasan and Connor.
The film is beautiful to behold, thanks to cinematographer Andrew Lesnie (The Lord Of The Rings trilogy and The Hobbit trilogy). The all too short sequence in which Orhan conducts Connor on a tour of Istanbul offers us a brief glimpse of the opulent Topkapi Palace and the magnificent Blue Mosque, as well as some of the colorful marts and streets. Also there is a flashback to Australia where a huge dust storm is bearing down on the three young sons who are returning from a successful rabbit hunt. Connor is rushing on his horse to reach the boys before the massive cloud envelops them. Reaching them just as the whirling dust and sand makes sight impossible, he throws a blanket over their prone bodies and lies atop them. He gets them to imagine that they are about to take flight on the magic carpet from Arabian Nights.
I wish there could have been another scene or two of the boys in their later years. It would have intensified our understanding of the parents’ anguish and of Connor’s sense of being compelled to set forth on his quest. Nonetheless, those who enjoy a quest story interwoven with romance and magic realism will be well rewarded by this exciting film.
This review with a set of discussion questions will be in the June issue of Visual Parables. A subscription to the journal will also give you access to Lectionary Links, a feature for preachers that links a film to one or more lessons from the Common Lectionary.