I’ve been having my own private (belated) Armistice Day film festival this weekend, with a stack of documentaries from the 90th anniversary Anzac Day earlier this year. Just returned from seeing the new Gallipoli documentary by Tolga Ornek. It’s beautifully made, and narrated by Jeremy Irons, who could make the phone book sound poignant. I’m not sure it has anything very new to say, and it’s necessarily brief, but it’s refreshing to see many images of the Turkish defenders, and to hear their words (often narrated by Sam Neill, in a nice twist).
In June last year I stood on the beach at Anzac Cove and looked up at the cliffs and muttered, echoing everyone else (besides that ninny General Hamilton) who has ever stood there: “What on earth were they thinking?” I sailed down the Dardanelles a few days later and from that side the peninsula looks equally rugged. It’s no use telling me (as they do endlessly on these documentaries, as if it somehow explains or forgives the debacle) the landing boats drifted off course – the country inland of the original Anzac landing place is just as steep.
When you drive in along the peninsula from Istanbul, Suvla Bay stretches out, sandy and flat and convenient, to your right. You can’t help asking: why didn’t they just land there first?
I was humbled to be guided around the battlefields by the legendary Kenan Celik. We stood in the trench at The Nek, with all the Australians in the group whispering to themselves, “What are your legs? Steel springs”, and looked across at the graveyard that marks the Turkish lines. Kenan left us alone for a moment. (If you’re not Australian, or you haven’t seen the Peter Weir Gallipoli film, just translate it into something like Denzel Washington and Morgan Freeman marching up the beach towards Fort Wagner in Glory.)
It doesn’t matter how many times you’ve heard that the trenches at The Nek are only as far apart as the width of Swanston Street, or that Lone Pine is the size of a tennis court – you stand there amongst the graves under the pine tree and think: “12000 men died here, and it’s only the size of a tennis court”. It’s hot and dusty, there are red poppies on the hills and bits of barbed wire, and buried down on the beach is a cousin you never knew you had.
Then it doesn’t matter how many books you’ve read or how many documentaries you’ve seen, you cry.
PS: If you have no idea what I’m talking about here’s an overview.