Last night Maori TV screened the Gallipoli film that did the cinema rounds here last year. This epic reconstruction was produced and directed by award-winning Turkish director Tolga Ornek, and narrated by Jeremy Irons and Sam Neill. Guest blogger Philip Ferguson says that this powerful film, although not terribly political, is a good antidote to the new liberal-imperialist nationalism and its reworking of the Gallipoli story. [Read more below]
What a delight to actually be able to watch two hours of television - and passably intelligent television at that - without a single commercial break.
The film certainly wasn't especially political, let alone anti-imperialist, but I thought it was interesting and probably of some use in terms of an antidote to the new liberal-imperialist nationalism and its reworking of the Gallipoli story. It showed very clearly just how terrible and bloody the Gallipoli campaign was and also, by including the Turkish experience, presented a much more rounded view of the struggle on the peninsula. Basically, the Turks are missing from the two dominant NZ stories of Gallipoli - the old conservative-nationalist fable and the new liberal-nationalist fable - so anything which included them and presented them as real human beings is positive.
In fact, the Turks came across as rather more human and humane than "our" side. For instance, when line after line of Australian soldiers was being mown down during their assault on one of the Turkish positions, and yet new waves of Australians were being sent up out of the trenches to be mown down, there was a break in the fighting and a Turkish commander went as close as possible to the Australian trenches and asked them to not send any more waves over into certain death.
There were also extracts from Turkish soldiers' letters and diaries and one of these, I think from a Turkish officer, talked about the Turks' feelings at one point when they had wiped out a large body of British troops. They felt partly revenge, because their country was being invaded, but they also felt great sadness to see so many British corpses and that many of them were so young. This contrasted very strongly with stuff from a British upper-crust career officer whose letters suggested to me that he was actually somewhat of a psychopath.
One of the things that also came through was the decency of many common soldiers. They really were horrified by the killing and the waste of human life. Also there was a certain amount of fraternisation between Turkish soldiers and Allied soldiers, I think especially the Anzacs. The trenches were very close together, much more so than on the Western front, so the Turks used to throw cigarettes to the Allied soldiers and the Allied soldiers would throw back bully-beef and so on.
There was also a story of a Turk who used to collect bits of wood every morning in the no-man's land and the Allied troops wouldn't shoot him. Then, sadly, a new contingent arrived and their first morning they saw him and shot him dead.
Obviously quite a lot was missing from the film, however. One very obvious thing, which they could have mentioned even within a framework of a basically pretty politically-limited view, was imperialist war aims in relation to the Ottoman Empire. For instance, they said the Allied aim was to move forces up to capture Constantinople, knock Turkey out of the war and link up with Russia. That may have been true but the imperialists had another major aim, which was to break up the Ottoman Empire and divvy it up among the French and British (keeping their Russian "allies" out of it at the same time). The Gallipoli offensive was really a very blatant imperialist offensive aimed at grabbing the Ottoman Empire.
In fact, the imperialists wanted the whole thing, not just the Middle East. But Mustafa Kemal, who commanded the Turks for the victory at Gallipoli, succeeded in driving the imperialists out of Turkey after WW1, so a secular, independent republic was set up in Turkey itself. The rest of the Ottoman Empire ended up being oppressed and plundered by Britain and France and kept in a state of economic under-development and religious obscurantism.