The Water Diviner – Russell Crowe’s Gallipoli Film

TL-DR: It veered towards greatness, then lost its nerve (taking troubling historical liberties en route.)

ETA. Worth reading Athena Andreadis’s take on the film. She has a lot more skin in this game, and her account is a passionate (and convincing) indictment.

I went to see this yesterday since 25th April marked the centenary of the disastrous Dardanelles invasion. The film was an attempt by the veteran Australian actor Russell Crowe to capture the Gallipoli experience for the thousands of ANZAC troops who fell there. The whole experience is one I didn’t touch on at all in White Feathers, though a Guardian article mentions that the horrors of Gallipoli/Çanakkale led to the depravities of the later battle of Kut-al-Amara, which gets a (thankfully brief) mention.

A Brief Note on the Politics

When I tweeted I had seen it, I got a reaction I didn’t expect. Let’s just say that a whole lot of people were hurt and angered by this film. Greeks, because they got portrayed as the bad guys in the film, in spite of the brutal Pontian massacres and forced evacuations against Ottoman Greek populations; Armenians for not being mentioned at all, in spite of the fact that at the time the film was set, 1.5 million Armenians had been murdered by the Young Turk movement and the date the film came out was the same date as the starting point of the genocide a hundred years in the past; Australians because of the still-resentful feelings many have against the British authorities for being used as machine-gun fodder and the fallacy that it somehow made them “stronger as a nation” as opposed to being casually and cruelly used; and even the Germans for the allegations that the German officers mismanaged their Turkish allies. I don’t think the Turks are too annoyed as they are flatteringly portrayed in the film. To be fair, I can see why that would be the case as there are two sides to every battle and depicting the Ottomans as evil you-know-whats seems too simplistic when it was the Allied forces who mounted the invasion against Turks on their native soil.

A warning: I did a bit of reading on the above, and there is so much background and so much history that I can’t possibly do it justice in a film review. So there is the strong possibility that people will be annoyed that my main criticisms are artistic. But as it happens the dodgy dramatic bits pretty much dovetail with the red rag to a bull history bits. All comments are welcome but if that can borne in mind it would be much appreciated.

The Plot and Dramatic Arc

The story unfolds as follows: Joshua Connor is a middle aged man with a wife and three sons who have been lost in the Gallipoli conflict, on August 7 at Lone Pine. His wife cannot get over this and early into the film commits suicide by drowning. Filled with guilt and grief, Connor promises to bring the boys home. To that end, he travels to Constantinople (Istanbul) to try and get to Gallipoli, but is met with icy unhelpfulness by a stereotypically patronising Pommie army officer. In the meantime, a young child snatches his bag and in the chase to get it back, Connor finds himself outside a hotel which is run by the beautiful Ayse whose husband is also missing at Gallipoli. Once she discovers he is Australian, she is hostile to him, and tries to prevent the young boy Orhan, her son, from spending too much time with him.

During this first half we see a lot of the city as it might have looked a century ago and it looks rather beautiful, especially the pictures of the Blue Mosque. I can see why this would please the Turkish government because I wanted to get on a plane and go straight there. The tranquility of the hotel is in violent contrast with the brutal flashbacks to the battle scene and here the film briefly but powerfully excels. These scenes are raw, they are painful to watch without ever being gratuitous. There is a tough-to-watch scene of close, hand-to-hand combat between the invading Australians when they come across an Ottoman trench and Christ, it is brutal. These men are engaging with knives and fists and any large blunt thing that comes to hand. Then when the three brothers are left in no-man’s-land, wounded, they do not die quietly. One starts a sound somewhere between a howl and a whimper, a loud discordant moan and repeats it over and over and over, while another has his face shot off and dies almost immediately. It is utterly uncompromising and chilled my blood. If you want to watch something that puts you off war for good, then the first half of this film has the goods.

Unfortunately it is ruined completely by the Hollywood Lone Male Ego Syndrome.

I don’t know if this is Crowe’s fault, or a fault of the script, but given he was directing as well as acting in the film, it’s inexcusable. As the Roger Ebert site review points out, it ends up contradicting the point it made so well up till the middle. What happens is that Crowe’s character’s determination to break the rules, inconvenience his new Turkish friend Hasan Bey who has helped Connor a lot in his search for his sons, and disregard the military regulations mean that the Pommie comes down hard on him and arranges for his deportation back to Australia. Because he is a lone male hero and rules are for losers and females, Connor/Crowe/Maximus/whatever projection we are having these days, evades the skulduggerous Brits by leaping out onto the roof and hitches a lift south-east (I think, though apparently the film was taking them in the wrong direction entirely due to sloppy research) to a town where prisoners were once kept and where Connor is convinced by an ill-realised psychic sense his remaining son lives in. By then the film has become car-chase territory, filled with derring-do and the distinct sense of a middle-aged man being unable to let go of youth and pursue this grave topic with suitable gravitas. And as for the Greeks – but I’ll get to them in a minute.

First, let me get to the point which irritates me far more than anything. And this might spoil, OK? Connor gets another story of what happened that night in the battle of Lone Pine and in the process of retelling the story, the audience revisits that powerful flashback of the brothers in their death-throes, the one that so starkly showed the pity and cruelty of battle, and it is completely changed with a Hollywood-style sentimental ending.

For Christ’s sake. Y’know when I was ranting about the misapplication of restraint? Here is a screaming, compelling argument for the opposite. Restraint was never more called for, the not giving in to the temptation to lean towards sentiment and drama, and the film utterly failed in its nerve. After that, the whole soggy edifice lost credibility with me. I was so, so disappointed. Blunting the impact of that obscenity was an obscenity in itself. (Spoiler: the story came from the remaining son. He’s alive. I was hoping against hope he would tell Daddy Russell to eff off, but no, not a chance, nothing so unsentimental.)

Anyway, there was also an attempt to suggest a romance between Ayse, an interesting character, and Connor. The age difference was very marked. It was even more marked when Connor returned to Ayse’s hotel with his son Arthur in tow. Let’s just say that one look at Arthur and Connor Senior would not have been realistically in with a chance. The whole thing struck me as yet another act of intergenerational theft, just like…well, World War One to start off with, really.

And What About the Greeks?

Backing up the truck a little, parallel to this whole timeline, a real and nasty war was going on between the Ottomans and the Greeks. It could be argued that the Greeks had expansionist ambitions and wanted to expand into areas of Turkey with Greek populations. Also when they invaded, they did not behave well, to put it mildly. One example from the above link: “In one of the examples of the Greek atrocities during the retreat, on 14 February 1922, in the Turkish village of Karatepe in Aydin Vilayeti, after being surrounded by the Greeks, all the inhabitants were put into the mosque, then the mosque was burned. The few who escaped fire were shot.” I wanted to put this there to ensure that there wasn’t bias involved when I say it seems clear that bad as the Greeks were, the Turks were even worse, particularly after the regime there changed. The wholesale massacres of Greeks and Armenians have been confirmed even by Turkish historians and the stories are truly chilling.

When Connor throws his lot in with the budding Turkish nationalist movement led by Mustafa Kemal, hitching a ride on a train with Hasan Bey and other Turkish soldiers, they are promptly set upon by barbaric looking Greeks with bandanas, knives and rifles. The Greek commander has a dirty face and kills one of Connor’s new Turkish best friends by cutting his throat. The Turks are in full uniform while the Greeks appear to be armed bandits. They are in fact wearing what they would have been wearing if they were the Pontian Andarte ethnic Greek resistance movement of the north, hundreds of miles away, whereas the Greek soldiers would have been in uniform. These deliberate inaccuracies, presumably put in there to provide suitable car chase material for Crowe (he sets about one of the Hellenes with a cricket bat) are the one thing that has caused more anger and outrage than anything else in the film, especially given the massacres discussed earlier.

Of course some people might be angry at anything that portrays Turkey positively. I don’t share that view; I think Turkey is a very interesting country and I think the film deserves points for opening up to the Turkish point of view as it’s not one we hear much about. But had the story line been better, they could have avoided the whole scene that caused the anger and outrage in the first place, and killed two birds with one stone by being a better film, and less fast and loose with history that is still a live issue for so, so many people.

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