The freeze frame ending of Peter Weir’s 1981 masterpiece Gallipoli is one of the greatest final shots in cinema, a poignant encapsulation of the many innocent lives lost in the horror of war.
Although the location provides the movie’s title it only features in the final section at Anzac Cove. It is a story about the friendship between naive Archie Hamilton (Mark Lee) and roguish Frank Dunne (Mel Gibson), bonded by their love of running. For them, war is an adventure, as it was for so many brave and foolish young men suckered by the propaganda of the era. It is in the final scenes that they, and the audience, experience the true horror and scale of the slaughter.
In the climatic moments, Frank races through the trenches with a message from the General to hold off on the attack. He gets there too late, as Archie and his comrades are sent over the top to be slaughtered by the Turkish guns. As his fellow Anzacs fall around him, Archie drops his rifle and runs, as fast as his youthful sprinter’s legs can carry him, into the unceasing hail of lead. He is not a fighter, all he ever knew was how to run, and in the end he is a runner again.
As the bullets catch him, he arches backwards in agony and the camera freezes, the projected movement of cinema stopping with the boy’s demise. In it’s simplicity, the image takes on the immediacy of news photography, echoing Robert Capa’s famous shot of a solder falling in the Spanish Civil War. It is the moment of death, Archie’s final run over the finish line. We don’t see him fall, but he is gone.
Reports vary as to the extent of the deaths in the Gallipoli campaign, but they number around 150,000. These included 8,709 Australians and 2,721 New Zealanders, young men giving their lives to misguided patriotism in a war they had no need to be a part of. The final shot represents that innocence destroyed, a life senselessly extinguished, and it has universal power.
Peter Weir is one of the great artists of Australian cinema. He brings a poetic sensibility and a painterly eye to all his works, whether it be the gauzy lyricism of teenage feminine awakening in Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975), the contrast of peaceful Amish life and modern brutality in Witness (1985), a satirical prophesying of reality television in The Truman Show (1998), or the minutaie of life aboard an English battleship in Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003). For him, Gallipoli was a cherished project he had worked on since an inspirational visit to the site in 1976, coalescing many of his ideas into one powerful narrative.
The contrast of naive youthful innocence with the brutal corruption of callous external forces is a recurring theme in Weir’s cinema. The final shot of Gallipoli captures that in a single emotive image that burns itself into our retinas. If the strength of art is to make us think as well as feel, then it achieves both superbly, and is a beautiful tribute to the many innocents who lost their lives to war through the ages.