â€¢ Prince of the City
â€¢ True Confessions
â€¢ The Battle of Gallipoli is remembered as one of the disastrous campaigns of World War I. British forces attacked the Turkish peninsula of Gallipoli in order to capture the Dardanelles, and Australian troops were to create a diversion by attacking the Gallipoli heights from the shore. In this futile and uncoordinated attempt, many hundreds of Australians were slaughtered by well-armed Turkish troops ensconced in trenches on the heights. The campaign was a blunder as much in its conception (Churchill's) as in its execution (General Ian Hamilton), and the victims were the naively patriotic Australian volunteers who were led into this trap.
This incident is portrayed in detail in Peter Weir's newest Australian film, GALLIPOLI, and it is quite a departure from his cinematically innovative and heavily symbolic earlier works, such as The Last Wave. This is a traditional historical piece, done with unsparing realism and scenes reminiscent of Kubrick's Paths of Glory.
The best parts of the film are not the climactic battle scenes, however, which occupy less than a quarter of the time, but rather the native background of the recruits, coming from farms and mining towns in western Australia "to sign up for king and country." It is here that we come to empathize with those who are later to be slaughtered, and in this depiction there is a strong sense of humor and a fine feeling for characterization. It is here that the director is apparently most at home, and it is in these early sequences that the viewer is most likely to wring from the film some genuine warmth of feeling.
Especially memorable are the shots of the Great Desert of western Australia, through which two of the soldiers-to-be trek at length to reach Perth. At the edge of the desert they meet an old prospector who asks them why they are going to fight so many thousands of miles from home. It's the Germans, the recruits reply; they're evil and dangerous. They were good to my family once, says the prospector; it's the British who butchered my Irish ancestors. But if we don't stop the Germans now they'll come here and take our land, comes the reply. Surveying the expanse of desert from which he tries to eke out a meager living, the old prospector replies, "They're bloody welcome to it." Apparently the post-Vietnam backwash has struck Australia too.
â€¢ PRINCE OF THE CITY is, as films go, an important one. It deals with an important themeâ€"the corruption of a police department and the determination of one man to expose the corruption. It is almost three hours long, with hundreds of scenes, and is constructed with great intricacy and detail, with a masterful jigsaw-puzzle architecture reminiscent of the films of Fritz Lang. It is an organic unity: hardly a minute of those three hours could be cut without sacrificing an important aspect of plot or characterization. There are more than a hundred characters, and keeping abreast of every nuance of the story calls for one's full concentration. Unlike most current films, this one challenges our intellectual powers, besides leading us to forsake cliches in our moral judgments. All this requires complexity, which this film has in abundance.
Writer-director Sidney Lumet is most at home in making films about his native New York City, to which he returns in this one. It doesn't lead you on to heart-pounding involvement like his Twelve Angry Men; it just lays a moral issue before you, in all its real-life complexity. It is more than vaguely reminiscent of his earlier film Serpico, yet Serpico was intellectual third-grade stuff compared with this one.
Whether it should be the duty of policemen to arrest dope pushers is a matter for controversy. What is not controversial is that they can't make many arrests without informants who are themselves junkies and that these junkies must be rewarded for their information with renewed supplies of drugs. And from what source shall these rewards come? From the supplies confiscated by the policemen themselves. But all this is highly illegal. The result is that the moment a cop succeeds in getting the other cops in the dope ring arrested so that the arrests will stick, he is himself on trial for the illegal gifts of dope to his informants. By a slow but steady process of attrition, he is made to do what he resolved never to do: inform on his friends.
This is not a film for everyone. Its ceaseless portrayal of the seamy side of city life, the scenes of junkies screaming for a fix, will be too depressing for many viewers. Many others will lack the patience to follow the complex interweaving of the strands of plot. But its great virtue is that it does not simplify moral choices: by presenting them in the intricate context of actual circumstances, it leads us to put ourselves in the place of the protagonist, sharing his moral conflict and his torment, and to ask ourselves, "In these circumstances, what would I have done?"
â€¢ Two brothers, played by Robert Duvall and Robert De Niro, are a joy to watch in TRUE CONFESSIONS. Though one is a policeman and the other a priest, both love power and the accoutrements of power. They show to one another a variety of subtle shades of emotion: competitiveness, hostility, detachment, esteem, affection. The scenes in which both are present are the best in the film.
Other than as an interesting character study, however, the film is something of a disappointment. In what story there is, there is a gruesome murder mystery whose ramifications affect the lives of both the brothers, but this aspect is developed so slowly and with so many interruptions that it hardly sustains one's interest. The shift of emphasis from plot to character delineation tends to get in the way of them both. The biting humor and crisp dialogue of the book is quite lacking in the film, which is low-key throughout and almost unremittingly serious. There are a couple of dramatic scenes; but, unlike The French Lieutenant's Woman, this film is not worth seeing just for soaking up atmosphere. One leaves the theater with the feeling that it's the sort of thing that, in view of the fine acting and the literacy of the script, one ought to have enjoyed. But in spite of the apparently serious intentions, the enjoyment doesn't quite come off.
John Hospers is a professor of philosophy at the University of Southern California. His book Understanding the Arts was recently published by Prentice Hall.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Movies".