The Birth of Legends and Heroes

Ninety years ago 86,000 Turkish soldiers and more than 40,000 Allied soldiers died in the battle of Gallipoli. While Australia and New Zealand keep the memory of the battle alive with Anzac Day, here it is hardly known. Now Tolga Örnek has made a film about it

By Amin Farzanefar

Around 130,000 soldiers fell in the battle of Gallipoli, also called the battle of Canakkale, in which the Allied Powers joined forces in an attempt to occupy the peninsula

​​Around 150,000 viewers watched the film on the weekend of the premiere in Istanbul. Altogether the film spent five weeks as number one on the Turkish film charts—quite an amazing feat for a Turkish documentary.

But after all the battle of Gallipoli also created a legend. At the time it was the largest landing of troops in history, only surpassed later by the Allied landing in Normandy on D-Day.

The battle of Canakkale

When Churchill's plan to control the Dardanelles by sea, and thereby secure supply routes for their Russian allies, conquer Istanbul, and open a Balkan front against the Germans, failed, only the land route remained.

At the crack of dawn on April 25, 1915, British, Australian, New Zealand, French, and Indian troops landed on several different sites on the Gallipoli peninsula, which bordered on the Bosporus.

But they failed to achieve the quick victory they had hoped for. Instead the battle degenerated into grueling trench warfare, during the course of which more than 130,000 soldiers lost their lives.

"Gallipoli" is a cinematic realization of the historical events that apparently hopes to dispel from the outset any suspicion that it is nationalist propaganda, by presenting itself as a highly ambitious international project, with a dense presentation of material, painstaking reconstruction of events, and numerous interviews with experts.

The film is very moving: as the mutual siege lasts over months – as diphtheria and other diarrhea illnesses claim more lives, the trench war becomes an inhumane exertion.

The British strategists frequently leave their men without supplies, because other fronts seem more important to them. During the so-called August Offensive, officers rush their men off to certain death in several waves of attacks in an attempt to finally force a resolution after months of deadlock.

Monumental history lesson

The Allied Powers finally withdrew their forces in December and January. Turkey, who won this battle, will later lose the war. Still, legends were born here – as well as heroes. In addition to German General Otto Limann von Sanders, one man in particular was responsible for the successful defense: General Mustafa Kemal is regarded as the preserver of the Turkish nation and honor from this time on.

The battle had yet another consequence. Australia and New Zealand, young nations in "Down Under," were militarily involved in world events for the first time. Called by the British motherland, volunteers enthusiastically signed up for deployment with the ANZAC troops.

"Gallipoli" emphasizes the bond that Australians and New Zealanders have since felt with the Turkish because of their shared experiences in this tragedy.

Tolga Örnek, the director of this monumental history lesson, has helped the Turkish documentary gain new popularity. With "Atatürk" (1998), "Fenerbahce" (1999), "Mount Nevrud" (2000), and "The Hittites," which recently played in German movie theaters, he has single-mindedly explored the icons of Turkish national consciousness, from Antiquity to the modern age – and naturally been accused of being biased.

"Gallipoli" backs off in this respect. The fervently patriotic Turkish nation seems practically underrepresented. Most of the historians are not Turkish.

No involvement in world politics

Örnek tries hard to do justice to both sides. The film portrays the fate of five individuals based on excerpts from the army postal service, notes from diaries, and memories of survivors.

His sympathies lie wholly with the simple men on both sides, who often lay in trenches five meters apart from one another, and who, in times of relative ceasefire, sent for cigarettes, sang songs, and watched their opponents play soccer in their spare time.

Such stories of the front are intended to bring the barbarity of war closer to viewers than sober facts in history books can. With such painstakingly researched and detailed accounts, the director withdraws somewhat from the whole affair.

His refusal for the most part to analyze the larger political context on a global scale shields him from having to pass judgment. His criticism of the supreme army command remains within the bounds of what we know from every Hollywood war film. And in his empathy with the grunts in the trenches, he too often conjures up the spirit of sacrifice, courage, and camaraderie.

Moreover, you have to fill in some connections and background information yourself. For example, officer Mustafa Kemal, preserver of the fatherland, later became "Atatürk." Without his status as hero he most likely could not have pushed through his radical reforms with such ruthlessness and efficiency.

Also, it is not unimportant that the Young Turks had the peninsula evacuated before the battle, deporting ten thousand Greeks and Armenians, and that they intensified the repressive measures against Armenian Christians after the attacks, and pursued their plans of annihilation.

Asked about these connections, Örnek stated that the time, or rather Turkey, is not yet ripe for such an account. Most likely he is right.

Amin Farzanefar

© 2005

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