To much fanfare, Russell Crowe’s first film as a director, The Water Diviner, was released on Boxing Day. It appears at a key moment – the focus of the film, Gallipoli, is about to become the centrepiece in an elaborate nation-wide commemoration to mark the centenary of the landing in 1915.
If intentions are taken seriously, the film is a huge disappointment. Its release came packaged to suggest that it presents a more honest and more understanding appreciation of our then enemy, the Turks. Besides being the director, Crowe is the star and driving force in the film’s conception, and hence fully responsible for the result. His intention: ‘It is time to teach our children the other side [i.e. the Turkish side] of the Gallipoli story’.
Many of the media reviews have been just as presumptuous and wrong-headed. The Age, for instance, tells us ‘This is perhaps the first Australian war movie to deal honestly with the Turks and that is one of its achievements’.
Well, not really. This highly sentimentalised and rather pointless attempt to depict the human dimension of the Gallipoli campaign, as experienced by an Aussie father (Crowe) searching for the bodies of his three sons, fails both as plausible drama and as an honest attempt to confront the actual behaviour of the enemy (the Ottoman empire), not to mention the moral justification for the terrible sacrifice of Allied lives.
On that last point, distinguished British historian Jeremy Black recently wrote: ‘The current fashion for commemorating the dead by honouring their struggle does not in fact honour them unless we explain why they were fighting and facing the personal, moral and religious challenges of risking and inflicting death. Why did men volunteer in 1914? Why did they advance across the ‘killing ground’? To mark the struggle without recalling its point and value is both to lack a moral compass and, indeed, not really to seek one’.
And for those who believe, as Crowe seems to, that Britain and Australia entered the war for ignoble reasons, or no reason at all, it is worth ‘remembering’ that Britain was responding to a clear act of German aggression against a neutral country, Belgium, with which it was honour bound by treaty to defend, a decision overwhelmingly supported at the time by the Australian government and the Australian people. Turkey threw in its lot with the Germans and made itself the enemy.
Not only does the film fail to show the slightest inkling of interest as to why the allies fought and, for that matter, why the hero’s sons died, but Crowe bathes the whole story in a painfully mawkish and barely credible tale of a heart-broken water diviner (Crowe himself) who miraculously emerges as a body diviner rambling around the rocky cliffs of Gallipoli ‘bonding’ with the very soldiers responsible for his sons’ deaths, with of course the now obligatory Aussie sneer directed towards a British officer made out to be a right pompous git (shades of Weir’s Gallipoli?).
Leaving aside aesthetic considerations, the fact is the film’s lack of any historical context is breathtaking. There are many, but there is one really glaring omission.
It so happens that the well-documented genocide of the Armenians at the hands of the Turks was initiated on the day immediately before the Gallipoli landing, an overlap that traditionally receives hardly a mention from Australian historians, and no reference whatsoever in this film.
What happened to the Armenians? Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, author of The First World War in the Middle East (2014) paints the basic picture:
The Armenian genocide started in earnest on 24 April 1915 with the arrest and deportation of thousands of Armenian political leaders and intellectuals. This act triggered widespread massacres that subsequently killed an estimated 1 million Armenians. The combination of the outright killings and the forced marches through the Syrian Desert constituted one of the earliest examples of a ‘crime against humanity’…
The mass murder of this ancient Christian community made no exception for women and children and was conducted with a barbarity that shocked even officers of the Ottoman’s German allies, some of whom witnessed the gruesome scenes first hand, as did missionaries and other outsiders.
The legacy of what happened a hundred years ago in Turkey this April is now taking on all the characteristics of a diplomatic perfect storm. Obviously, the Australian centenary commemorations at Gallipoli will be more elaborate than anything previous, the worldwide protests by the Armenian Diaspora will be more vociferous than ever, and the Turkish government’s fierce opposition to even the mention of the word genocide will be as aggressive as ever.
This combination of factors is now coming to a head with Turkey virtually ruling itself out of any hope of having its stalled application to join the EU accepted, its position on the Armenian issue being a major factor. If all this were not enough, more evidence is emerging that highlights Turkey’s current machiavellian position vis-a-vis the Islamic State’s forces on its borders, a savage army currently trying to murder what’s left of Iraq’s and Syria’s Christian communities, and other demonised faith communities.
Where does Australia sit in this gathering storm with its myriad strategic and moral conundrums? Not well. While Opposition Leader Tony Abbott did not hesitate to condemn the Armenian genocide, last June Foreign Minister Julie Bishop issued a statement that called the Armenian killings ‘a tragedy’ but added, quite unnecessarily, ‘we do not recognise the events as genocide’ for which, according to (former Speccie Diarist) Geoffrey Robertson QC, ‘she was duly lauded in Turkey as a genocide denier’.
The moral issue at stake is neatly captured in the subtitle of Robertson’s recently published book on the genocide: ‘Who now remembers the annihilation of the Armenians?’ It was Hitler’s comment to his generals on the eve of the invasion of Poland urging them to show no mercy as there would be no retribution. It’s all part of ‘the other side of the Gallipoli story’ that Russell Crowe somehow didn’t get around to even hinting at.