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4 Great (Mostly) Forgotten Films by Director Peter Weir

Peter Weir is a highly-acclaimed movie director, but not by any stretch of the meaning, is he prolific. With only a handful of major film releases in the near fifty years he has been in the business, his work has been limited yet substantial in terms of contribution to the art.

Perhaps best known for his big hits The Truman Show (starring Jim Carrey), Witness (Harrison Ford) and Dead Poets Society (starring Robin Williams), his films challenge audiences with heavy themes. What is our role in the grander scheme? Is it a responsibility to be individuals, to think as we wish and shed conformity? What is the modern world teaching us about where we are headed? His unique vision (Oscar nominated 6 times) has defined films in their era as touchstones of the time and continue to influence and inspire. While his name is not as well known as those who produce more, his work is unchallenged as some of the greatest ever made. Here are 4 films that any movie fan should put on their list.

The Year of Living Dangerously (1982)

Peter Weir
The Year of Living Dangerously (1982)

Weir, a native of Australia, casts fellow up-and-coming Australian star Mel Gibson as a journalist in Jakarta in the 1960s when the unstable Sukarno regime was in control. Gibson plays Guy Hamilton, an idealistic reporter thirsty for excitement and gets it in a city he knows little about. Taking help from a Chinese/Australian dwarfish character named Billy Kwan (Linda Hunt) who knows the system all too well, he is introduced to Jill Bryant (Sigourney Weaver), a British diplomat at the and of her service in the country. It’s not long before Jill and the dashing Guy become lovers, and Billy, who once proposed to Jill, is on the outside, all the while as riots spill into the streets and violence erupts in the city. Hunt, a woman playing a man, won an Academy Award, though all the leads are very strong, with Gibson especially convincing. Weir’s direction is dynamic, finding excellent balance in the softer, more personal moments to the larger-scale, chaotic scenes.

Steady and patient, this is in a time long before the jagged, jump cuts of modern trends, and the long slow shots are decidedly rich, complemented by the pacing of the action. There’s a wonderful moment when Jill walks along a market in a the pouring rain, letting the water soak through. She stands much taller than the natives of the city and without an umbrella moves like water through the masses, her languid form gently parting the crowd. When she meets Guy at the top of a flight of stairs and the two fall into a passionate embrace, Weir keeps his distance, using the shadows and the backlight to give great power to the moment, punctuated by a stirring Vangelis score. Watch this movie.

The Mosquito Coast (1986)

Peter Weir
The Mosquito Coast (1986)

Adapting Paul Theroux‘s complex, anti-consumerist novel of the same name is no easy feat, yet Weir and cast bring much of that message to the screen, despite the failure at the box office. Once ignored, this startling good film has earned higher praise in the years since its release, the textures, nuance, and deep characterization profoundly effective in what could easily be regarded as one of the best films of star Harrison Ford‘s career. Ford plays Allie Fox, a genius inventor disillusioned with the American way of life, centered on rampant, empty consumerism and vapid political ideals. He has a young, teenaged son (River Phoenix) who is in awe of his father and his preachings, believing, thanks to his dad, that a great end is coming to the powers of the world. Fox finally grows too distrustful of the future and packs up his family, including ‘Mother’ (Helen Mirren), their younger son and twin daughters and takes them to Belize where he believes his machine that can make ice will be bring civilization to the forest-dwelling natives.

Weir worked with Ford the previous year in the highly-acclaimed Witness, a powerful film about a man on a quest for truth while living in a strange land (Pennsylvanian Amish). Here, Weir and Ford revisit that theme but with entriely different circumstances and concequences. Weir captures the vast chasm of difference between middle-American life and the Central American jungle, painting one as a barren landscape of wastefulness and the other a pristine utopia where even the slightest introduction of the the other forever taints its beauty. Ford is explosively good, his story told though his son’s eyes. Fox is never a truly likable man, despite his charms, neglecting his family with his tunnel-vision, they the debris in the storm that he becomes. Weir’s direction is especially good in Belize, when Allie attempts to build a settlement along the thickly-forested riverside. The jungle becomes a character all its own, it’s ferocity in hand with nature, the only true match for the determined Fox. A magnificent achievement in film, this is a chilling, emotional experience

Gallipoli (1981)

Peter Weir

Weir’s first film with Mel Gibson, this epic tale of innocence lost is a powerful anti-war story. Gibson play Frank Dunne, an ambition but out-of-work laborer with no real skills other than his great running speed. He meets his match in Archy Hamilton (Mark Lee), a supremely fast sprinter who longs to enlist in the army and fight in the great war. The two become friends, and near penniless, make their to Perth to join up. They become separated once in uniform but their paths cross again on the titular Gallipoli peninsula, a vantage point heavily fortified by Turkish gun emplacements that have the Australian forces pinned down. The battle is based on real events, conducted under wrong information. As telephone and communication lines are inoperable, messages are sent via sprinters, and when orders are belayed that can stop further carnage, Frank makes a last ditch effort to save the men and his friend.

While the film fictionalizes much of the real events, glossing over the significant contribution of the British military also involved in the battle, this was a conscious choice by Weir to humanize one aspect of the conflict. And this is where the movies shines best. The large-scale battles are deeply personal despite their size, with a powerful sense of futility achingly layered over the entire production, made all the more impactful by Gibson and Lee, who both deliver great performances. A harrowing look at war, it accomplishes this without focus on battle, but on relationships. The destruction of idealism with the madness of blind leadership make Weir’s work here a truly great film.

Fearless (1993)

Peter Weir

Weir takes on the meaning life with this deeply affecting drama about a man named Max (Jeff Bridges) who survives a plane crash and feels a renewed sense of existence, one that makes him dangerously fearless. I’ve already written about this amazing (but under seen) film here, and cannot recommend it enough. Bridges is at his best, and Weir evokes great personal investment in the character and the message, getting his star to deliver a powerfully emotional performance along with Rosie Perez, who received an Oscar nomination for her portrayal of a woman ruined by survivor guilt.

Weir arguably does his best work here, layering the film in an ethereal aura as Max contends with what we don’t know is magical or madness. Weir creates many intense moments, from a gripping and frightening turning point atop a high-rise roof to a frantic, desperate drive in a car that has profound effect on both characters. Woefully underrated, Fearless is a must see and one of the best films Weir has ever made.

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