Part 2 of Portrayals of the First World War in Media: The Water Diviner

As part of an ongoing feature, every so often I will be watching a film, TV series or documentary and assessing how I feel is represents the First World War. I won’t be giving a complete run down of the media sources that I write about, but I hope to give an insight into the programs and to encourage you the reader, to watch and enjoy for yourselves. Today’s post is about the 2014 film The Water Diviner, starring and directed by Russell Crowe.

The Water Diviner is the story of a father – Joshua Connor – who leaves Australia in 1919 and travels to Turkey in order to find out where his three sons are buried, all of them presumed killed during the Gallipoli campaign. The film follows his journey throughout the country to discover the fates of the three boys: Arthur, Henry and Edward. The concept of the story originated from a single line in a letter written by Lieutenant-Colonel Cyril Hughes who was a worker in what became the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) and is also a character in the film itself. The line simply said, “One old chap managed to get here from Australia, looking for his son’s grave.” After a year of research, the writers were unable to identify the man or his son which gave them the freedom to imagine a story which would become their screenplay.

Connor is portrayed as your stereotypical Aussie male – on the outside he is gruff and hardy, a man who knows and understands the Australian outback. On the inside however, there is grief and suffering; he mourns for the loss of his sons. This grief is what drives Connor to leave Australia for Turkey. We can see the grief change throughout the film, from denial to anger and eventually acceptance. It is as much a journey for Connor’s emotions as it is a journey to find his sons.

There are many good elements that this film does very well. Firstly, it does something that is rare in war movies, it takes the time to understand the conflict from the other side. Instead of just highlighting how the campaign was bad for the Allies, it highlights the struggles faced by the Ottomans, both during the conflict and after the wars end, when there is civil unrest and continuing fighting against the Greeks. Two of the characters, Lt Col Hughes and Major Hasan are required to work together in the process of recovering remains from the Gallipoli peninsula. They share stories and experiences and learn there is more that they share than divides them, which is a theme not often explored in fictionalised accounts of the First World War.  

We see throughout the film combat scenes which are done very well. We see hand to hand fighting between the ANZAC and Ottoman troops in trenches, which is graphic not only in terms of the visual content – with serious injuries etc – but also in the distressing scenes that happened after the fighting. The scenes depict troops lying out in No Man’s Land, moaning and groaning in pain because of their injuries. Eventually, the noises stop one by one as the troops succumb to their injuries. As a viewer, hearing these pain filled noises is quite difficult to bear and is a very emotional part of the film. This part, in my opinion, is done incredibly well and I have to admit that there is one particular scene that did move me to tears.

However, there are certain elements of the film that are a bit suspect. For example, the film keeps bringing up the stereotypes of how British officers behaved at the time. There are two British officers that appear in the movie that highlight the perceived stiff upper lip, rule abiding British officer of the First World War who did not show compassion. There are two examples that come to mind. Firstly, a British officer who is on the Gallipoli peninsula helping to recover burials, states that he doesn’t know what the Australians were complaining about being at Gallipoli, comparing it to the ‘Garden of Eden’. That is until he sees the devastation higher up on the peninsula; the trenches, barbed wire and remains that have been left as they were.  This portrayal is unfair, mainly as there is an assumption that the officer is saying that the peninsula couldn’t have been so bad, when what happened at Gallipoli was well known at the time and there were actually more British and French troops at Gallipoli than ANZACs. The second officer is based at the War Office in Istanbul, who is unwilling to help Connor to get to the Peninsula (as it is still a dangerous place to go) and, when he finds out that Connor still went off his own bat, took away his passport and told Connor how and when he would be leaving Istanbul, under the order of the British Army. A point that certainly came to my mind when this scene happened was, why was the British officer to keen to send Connor home? Nowhere in the film is there any justification for the behaviour of the British officers, it seems to me that the behaviour was just  tools in the film to either provide a stumbling block for Connors journey or to portray the British as unfeeling or not understanding what had happened at Gallipoli. Yes, the Gallipoli campaign is an important part of the history of Australia and New Zealand, but its wider context and impact should not be forgotten.

I also found the portrayal of Greek soldiers in this film very interesting. After the First World War, there was another conflict called the Greco-Turkish War, which lasted from 1919 to 1922. It ended as a Turkish victory and resulted in the creation of the Republic of Turkey from the failing Ottoman Empire. The film is set in 1919 so the war would have been in its early stages. The Turkish characters are portrayed as protecting their country, whereas the Greek characters are very two dimensional characters with the simple message being that the Greeks were bad. This is manifested in a scene where Greek soldiers attack a train carrying Turks travelling to join the forces of Ataturk. They killed almost everyone, either in the ambush or by execution. They are also very unkempt and are not in the best condition. I have not done a lot of reading about this particular conflict, but I feel that this may be an example of exaggeration.

Regardless, as a film it is a very enjoyable piece to watch. As a historian, I did pick up on the historical inaccuracies, but that comes with the territory! I found the film very impactful in many ways, in its portrayal of a grieving father, the combat scenes, and the developing journey throughout the film. It is also good to see another aspect of the First World War, not just experiences on the Western Front. As a piece of cinema, I would definitely recommend it but as a historian, there are some areas which could have been improved on.

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