“If the truth is good for the war, we will tell them the truth; if a lie is likely to win the war, we will tell them lies.”
These words from a British army commander in the new SA-made mini-series Deadline Gallipoli highlight the barriers facing war correspondents during the Gallipoli campaign.
They were writing about one of the bloodiest and most ill-conceived battles of World War I, yet the military demanded that readers back home be given the impression their troops were undaunted and gaining ground. No fear here, chaps! We’ll win this war!
Deadline Gallipoli, filmed almost entirely in South Australia, tells the story of the campaign through the eyes of four journalists who sought to defy the propaganda machine: Englishman Ellis Ashmead-Bartlett (Hugh Dancy) and Australians Charles Bean (Joel Jackson), Phillip Schuler (Sam Worthington) and Keith Murdoch (Ewen Leslie).
Produced by Penny Chapman (Devil’s Playground, The Slap) and directed by Michael Rymer (Angel Baby, American Horror Story), it’s the latest of several television shows produced to coincide with the ANZAC centenary and, this year, the centenary of the landing at Gallipoli.
Judging by the strength of the first instalment of the two-part series, it may also be the best so far.
Deadline Gallipoli is a much slicker and more wide-ranging production than the recent seven-part television drama Gallipoli, and certainly grittier than last year’s Anzac Girls.
It has a strong cast (which also includes Bryan Brown, Charles Dance and Rachel Griffiths), and one of its greatest achievements is that it manages to convincingly convey anguish and compassion without resorting to sentimentality.
Deadline Gallipoli also excels in juxtaposing contrasts: between the soldiers’ carousing in Cairo (where the series opens) and the sudden shock of the explosive battlefield; between the extravagant elegance of an English tea party and a chaotic, under-resourced field hospital.
The journalists, too, are full of contrasts. Part one focuses on Bartlett, Schuler and Bean, each of whom is flawed in some way – especially the arrogant, philandering, “blue blood” Englishman. Bean is the most earnest of the three; he is also arguably the most difficult to play – cerebral, awkward and somewhat introverted – but newcomer Jackson, in his first major role since graduating from NIDA, is superb.
Deadline Gallipoli shows the journalists’ frustration growing as they each witness first-hand the horror of war, the heavy casualties and mismanagement of the campaign, but are prevented by the military censors from telling the truth in their reports. One thing they share is a spirit of defiance – and when Age journalist Murdoch arrives (in part two), an opportunity finally arises to do something about it.
At a special preview screening of part one this week at the Adelaide Studios, producer Chapman admitted she was “insanely nervous” presenting the show to an audience consisting mostly of veterans and media representatives.
She needn’t have worried.
Deadline Gallipoli is a gripping production which presents a fresh perspective on a battle that is indelibly printed on the Australian and New Zealand psyche.
The story it tells also drives home the imperative of an independent media to counter the pressures of propaganda, especially during times of conflict – something which resonates today as much as ever before.
Deadline Gallipoli will screen at 8.30pm this Sunday and Monday (April 19 and 20) on Foxtel Showcase.
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