Here’s the thing you notice first: they all look so young. These are kids, you think to yourself, what the hell are they doing dressed up as soldiers charging with fixed bayonets up a hill into enemy fire?
This, I couldn’t help thinking too, was really rather clever of Gallipoli (8.30pm, Wednesdays, TV3), a new seven-part Australian mini series which has been made to mark the centenary of that awful campaign, a drama that has set itself the rather daunting task of being both dramatic television and historically accurate.
By casting boys (or at least actors who look like boys) the message is clear: the men who made the Anzac and Gallipoli legends weren’t really men at all. They were naive, fresh-faced, scared shitless kids who’d been trained to fire a rifle before they’d even properly learned how to shave.
Gallipoli centres its drama on one kid, Tolly Johnson, a 17-year-old who signs after lying about his age. He’s played by a kid, too; the actor bringing this boy to life is Kodi Smit-McPhee (he actually played a character called “the kid” in the under-appreciated adaptation of The Road) and is just 18 but, more importantly, still has, can you believe this, bumfluff.
The casting is a good start. But the opening episode’s greater challenge was to blend fact with fiction, to satisfy the need to impart, with reasonable accuracy, what happened in 1915 while also having enough drama to make us care about these on-screen kids who are living and dying.
I’ve seen enough plodding, leaden fact-based TV series to know how difficult this can be. But it didn’t take much of Gallipoli to feel it’s already succeeding.
What we’ve learned so far about the history of the real Gallipoli was this was no D-Day. It was disorganised, it was a SNAFU, it was bound to fail. But this factional – if that’s the word – drama is no revisionist, Blackadder-esque, lions-led-by-lambs caper.
While the generals – New Zealand actor John Bach plays campaign commander Sir Ian Hamilton – are largely preening and over-confident, they are not played as fools. There is nuance. If Gallipoli seems to argue that prestige and stubborn pride are the reasons Hamilton decided not to pull out after the Anzac’s mainly disastrous first day of the campaign, it also argues his staff officers were divided on what should be done.
But the heart of Gallipoli’s drama is ultimately the boys at the sharp end. Tolly is our eyes and ears. A young lad, we learned through well-handled flashbacks and surprisingly good voice-overs, who has joined up, to his mother’s horror, for adventure and to be with his slightly older brother Bevan.
We watched in horror as young Tolly – in horror – bayoneted another young man and then watched him die with little dignity. We watched as he, his brother and a small group of men spent their first day desperately taking and losing their patch of a hill above Anzac Cove. And we watched as this boy with bumfluff acclimatised himself to war.
Gallipoli is a series with a large ensemble cast and a larger story. It is an historical drama which is attempting to make us, a hundred years on, understand why we – the Anzacs, the British and the Turks – were there, as well as what it was like to be there.
There is always a danger in passing judgment on a show after a single (if extended) episode, but Gallipoli, in tone and action, already feels like a slick, well-made and fitting sort of tribute to the boys who made the Anzac legend.