In “The Water Diviner,” which he also directed, Russell Crowe plays an Australian farmer who, in 1919, defies legal and cultural obstacles to travel to the Ottoman Empire to recover the bodies of his three sons, soldiers killed in the Battle of Gallipoli during World War I.
The film is unblinking in its depiction of the horrific trench warfare that cost more than 100,000 lives on the Gallipoli peninsula in what is now Turkey. The battle, considered a loss for the Allies, has great significance for Australia. The nation suffered numerous casualties, and the conflict became a key to the growth of Australian national identity and the country’s independence movement.
There’s also a theme of brotherhood and reconciliation, as the two sides eventually join, with some reluctance, in an attempt to find, identify and bury their dead, not generally a priority in the history of warfare. The Crowe character, named Joshua, also gets some uncomfortable lessons in Ottoman ways by a less-than-friendly widow (and her young son), who runs a hotel in Constantinople.
Whether Joshua’s mission succeeds depends partly on cooperation from an Ottoman general. The outcome will also make use of Joshua’s skill as a “water diviner,” that is, a dowser, which becomes emblematic of his belief in the value of intuition in life.
Crowe was in San Francisco recently to talk about the film.
Q: For viewers unfamiliar with the Battle of Gallipoli, can you talk about its importance?
A: Just in the same way that Americans have a deep emotional connection to something like the Alamo, an armed conflict where the result wasn’t what was hoped for, Australians and New Zealanders connect to Gallipoli.
The most significant thing, for Australians and New Zealanders, was that the First World War was the first time they fought under their own flags, as independent nations. Prior to that, they were seen as extensions of the British Empire. In the Crimea and the Boer War, it was all about becoming a part of the larger British Army. But Anzac (the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps) was the first time they had gone to war representing their own countries.
Q: The war scenes are unnerving.
A: The film is unashamedly antiwar. But it’s a grave and deep responsibility, when you take on a subject like this ... to pay respect to the men and women who go through these experiences. Also as a touchstone for future generations, to help them understand that armed conflicts are not simple, not just about bravery and courage, are not clean. As illustrated in the movie, when a particular battle has subsided, the sound that comes out between those trenches is something that, when you start reading the diaries of the men actually involved in this war, is quite often mentioned, but never seen in feature films about that conflict.
Q: Some of the battle images put me in mind of the work of Wilfred Owen, the great British poet who was unsparing in his descriptions of war, and was killed in World War I.
A: Funny you should mention Wilfred Owen. I was a huge Wilfred Owen fan. I read everything of his when I was in my mid-20s, influenced by a person I was working with at the time, named George Ogilvie (Australian filmmaker who co-directed “Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome”). He wanted me to be really familiar with Owen’s work. It was interesting, the position (Owen) put himself into as a young man, because he wasn’t accepted by the upper echelons very easily (laughs). They thought he was doing something quite destructive by being as honest as he was.
Q: It’s remarkable that the two sides cooperated to identify the bodies at Gallipoli.
A: It was the very first time that the British army allowed individuals to be buried in marked graves, as individuals. Wars had been fought based on a headline fed to the newspapers by the authorities. Now there were so many people involved, such a mass, and the guys who went home were telling the truth about the situation. And mothers and fathers felt that the government, which had such influence in their sons’ volunteering, had a moral responsibility to inter their children in a respectful way. The British government were brought to that point reluctantly. What happened with the Turkish government was that they came to accept that it was an honorable thing to do.
That battlefield, that eight square miles, is now a national park. It’s an incredible place to visit, and you can still see the scars in the ground, and you can still see how close together the trenches were.
Q: The film did very well in Australia. Did you ever hear any criticism that it was too friendly to the enemy?
A: When I first started talking about the film, as with any corps of journalists, the Australian journalists knew exactly where to go to get a knee-jerk, right-wing reaction. And they did, and those guys had their say. An amazing thing, though, once the movie came out, nobody wanted to say that anymore. Because they realized what I was talking about. ... To put in front of people this different perspective, that in armed conflict there is bravery and compassion and grief on both sides, was a new way of looking at Gallipoli.
Q: This is the first film to include footage shot inside Istanbul’s Blue Mosque. How did that happen?
A: (Crowe describes the process of working up the chain of command and pledging to be respectful in filming.) Eventually we got to the mayor of Istanbul, and then the minister of culture, and that led to the request being put forward to the imam (of the Blue Mosque).
In our last conversation with the minister, he said, “I believe in the script — I’ve read it — and I believe in you. But what will I say to the imam, who will gain nothing by this? Give me the words that I can say to him.”
He put me on the spot. We’re in the middle of this formal meeting in the palace, with 20 people. I said to him, “I give you my word, as an individual, that our footprint will be tiny, but the resonance of what we do will be huge.” And the minister went, “I will use that!” When it’s something you believe in, moments of inspiration come.
Q: Can you talk about Joshua’s dowsing skill?
A: There’s a step in Joshua’s life where you see him talking to the parish priest. This is the environment he grew up in, the church he’s been attending since he was a child, and the church his wife attends, with fervor. But somewhere in this experience, Joshua has turned from that life.
When the priest starts to talk to him about the Book of Job, and about how everything happens for a reason, Joshua does not want to hear that the senseless waste of his children’s lives has somehow got a reason, detached from his reality. But I want people to know that Joshua is still spiritually available, part of what he does in his work (dowsing) is so faith based.
A lot of it is reading topography and simple practicality. Whether it’s reverse polarity or magnetism within his body, he is one of a small number, 1 percent, that can do that job for real. A larger percentage can do it in a charlatan way. ... My dad could do it. He used to get a metal coat hanger and unbend it, and he could feel vibrations. So I had a personal connection. ...
When Joshua gets to the battlefield searching for his sons, it’s pure parental intuition. I had an important personal experience with this, in 1988. I was in Sydney, in the kitchen of my apartment, and a bird, a kookaburra, landed on my kitchen window. And I just had a very definite moment where I knew something was wrong at home, and I knew who it was connected to. A split second later, the phone rang, and I picked it up and without even saying hello, I said, “Is Stan OK?” The person who was calling was my mother, and Stan was her father. And she said, “No, sweetheart, he’s dead.” So I believe in intuition.