Why It’s Important
It’s hard to overstate the importance of Peter Weir’s Gallipoliin shaping both Australia’s cinema and its wider culture. Released in 1981, the film opened to impressive box office receipts, taking $11.7 million domestically from a $2.8 million budget, and received critical praise to match. The movie is part of the Australian New Wave, an era that – thanks largely to the foundation of the Australian Film, Television and Radio School and the government funding that came with it – heralded the birth of Australian cinema as a serious artistic force. Peter Weir was one of the most important figures of the movement, with his Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975) a significant film in the movement.
Gallipoli tells the tale of two young soldiers, Archy Hamilton (Mark Lee) and Frank Dunne (Mel Gibson). Each competitive runners, their initial rivalry soon transforms into a close friendship – or, rather, mateship. They each join the Anzacs, but Weir luxuriates in the quotidian details of their lives rather than rushing into battle. We watch as they train in sands of Cairo, as they swim in the seas of Gallipoli and, ultimately, as Archy is cut down by Turkish gunfire sprinting towards the enemy’s trenches. It is a story of mateship, of tragedy, of a young nation and the young men who sacrificed their lives in its name.
Decades after its release, the film retains a towering reputation; revisiting the film in 2002, both David Stratton and Margaret Pomeranz counted it among their favourite Australian films. Last year Guardian film critic Luke Buckmaster described it as “one of the best loved and most quintessentially “Australian” films.” Outside of the dated electronic sections of its score, it’s aged especially well.
But it’s in Australia’s modern perception of the Anzacs where Gallipoli’s legacy is mostly keenly felt. Released in an era when the Anzacs’ perceived significance was diminishing – Weir felt kids of the era regarded Anzacs as a “joke” – Gallipoli shifted the cultural conversation to reposition their sacrifice as central to Australian identity. (All this despite the film’s stridently anti-war themes.)
No surprise, then, that Weir’s film would re-emerge in public consciousness as the centenary of Anzac Day approaches, with widespread theatrical screenings and deluxe DVD and Blu-Ray commemorative editions – scheduled on and around Anzac Day, naturally – cementing Gallipoli as one of Australia’s enduring cinematic artefacts.
What’s It Really About?
Mel Gibson has described Gallipoli as “not really a war movie,” but “the story of two young men.” Frank and Archy: two men who went to war together. Two men who carved their names into the Great Pyramid of Giza together. Two mates. Gallipoli spends more time with Frank and Archy than it does in the trenches of Gallipoli, and along the way establishes the archetypical Australian notion of mateship.
Frank and Archy’s relationship is the heart of Gallipoli. We understand that Frank’s decision to join the army is to be with his mate. At the film’s climax, when Frank arrives too late to prevent a suicidal charge, we understand his anguished cries are for Archy. There’s a hint of homoeroticism in the closeness of the pair – particularly when they go skinny-dipping in the ocean together – but it’s kept implicit. What is clear is that there’s a unique Australianness to Frank and Archy’s mateship, the intensity of their bond paired with good-humoured shit-stirring.
The focus of the film’s first act is not the battlefield, but the running track. Frank and Archy are both short distance runners, able to cover a hundred metres in less than 10 seconds. But this rapidity goes hand-in-hand with a distinct lack of foresight – neither looks much further ahead than those 100 metres.
For example, the two mates jump on a train they believe is heading to Perth only to face a daunting desert trek when that belief proves mistaken. Once in Cairo, the darker side of Australian larrikinism is revealed as Frank trashes a local merchant’s store after a fellow soldier is ripped off, unaware that the swindler in question occupies another store entirely.
In this fashion, the two runners embody the actions of both Australia and Australia’s young men as depicted by Weir. Archy, in particular, seems almost oblivious to either his nation’s reasons for heading to war or the consequences of warfare, and he’s not alone. The soldiers of Gallipoli head to war because it is expected of them, just as Australia headed to war because, as part of the British Empire, it was expected of the nation.
That blind faith is comprehensively betrayed in the film’s catastrophic, iconic climax, with Archy and Australia alike sacrificed for the good of the Empire. The nationalist lies of the propaganda machine leave only death; a freeze frame of Archy’s pained expression the perfect, horrible image with which to end the film. In this interpretation – supported by screenwriter David Williamson, who notes that “the tragic waste was our focus” – Gallipoli is an unambiguously anti-war film.
The Anzac Myth
Films, of course, are open to multiple readings, and while neither Weir nor Williamson set out to glorify the events of Gallipoli, the representation of Australia’s role in World War I offered in this film has since become the dominant Anzac myth – in ways that are not as explicitly anti-war as the filmmakers intended. In many ways, the film has been co-opted as a nationalist symbol, an updated version of the jingoistic recruiting propaganda presented – and implicitly criticised – in the film itself.
In the introduction to the book What’s Wrong with Anzac: The Militarisation of Australian History, Marilyn Lake argues that “[i]n no other country has military experience in foreign wars become so central to a nation’s sense of itself and its national identity.” Anzac Day – and the “Anzac spirit” – positions Australia as a country that survived its “baptism of fire” in Gallipoli and emerged triumphant, the sacrifices of its beautiful young men forming the foundation of today’s great nation. This militaristic rhetoric tends to sidestep some key facts about Gallipoli, such as that we invaded Turkey, whose casualties far outstripped ours, and that we lost the battle.
Unintentionally or otherwise, Gallipoli provides the framework upon which this narrative was built. Weir’s soldiers never fire a shot in anger, reinforcing the notion of Anzacs as victims rather than aggressors. (As Lake points out, “eulogies forget that soldiers don’t just die for their country, they also kill for it.”) The film dodges the fact that the Allies were invading Turkey, though, to be fair, that’s true of most Australian stories about Gallipoli.
The now prevalent narrative of England as the true villains of the battle – sending Australians to their death to provide a diversion for English soldiers – arguably originates here in the popular consciousness. The climax sees hundreds of Australian infantry sent to their deaths at the hands of Turkish machine guns. Why? To provide a diversion for the English troops. The tragic scene – a sharp contrast to the casual optimism of the movie that preceded it – is based in historical fact, though it’s worth noting that while many audiences assume Colonel Robinson (John Morris) is English from his accent, he’s actually an Australian officer).
None of this is to detract from Gallipoli or to impugn the modern rhetoric around Anzac Day; but it’s an effective example of how powerfully pop culture can shape the wider understanding of history.
What Should I Watch Next?
For a contemporary depiction of the Anzac myth, it’s hard to go past Russell Crowe’s AACTA Award-winning directorial debut, The Water Diviner (2014). It’s an accessible crowd-pleasing film; the kind of movie where Rusty takes out a bad guy with a cricket bat. But it’s also a considered deconstruction of the mainstream Anzac narrative. The Water Diviner refuses to uncritically venerate its Australian characters while simultaneously incorporating a robust Turkish perspective.
There are plenty of other modern representations of the Anzacs and Gallipoli, thanks to the 100th anniversary of Anzac Day. These include Channel Nine’s miniseries, Gallipoli, a gory depiction of life and death in the trenches; Foxtel’s recent four-part drama Deadline Gallipoli; and a host of documentaries like Gallipoli: The Power of Ten, The First ANZACs and The Waves of ANZAC Cove.
It’s worth noting that Gallipoli was not the only Australian New Wave film to focus on Australians at war. Both Bruce Beresford’s Breaker Morant (1980) – reportedly a significant influence on Gallipoli – and Simon Wincer’s The Lighthorsemen (1987) adapted true stories of Australian soldiers for the silver screen. Around the same time, the television series Anzacs (1985) – currently available on DVD – gave a more detailed depiction of Anzacs in World War.
There’s an intimidating list of reading materials on the Anzacs and Gallipoli alike, starting with pretty much any modern high school history textbook. Experience of Nationhood by K.J. Mason is a good place to start, while The Anzac Book is an invaluable resource for those after primary sources.
Those looking to put this history in context, and understand the ideological and political underpinning of the Anzac myth, are encouraged to check out Marilyn Lake and Henry Reynold’s What’s Wrong with Anzac: The Militarisation of Australian History. This collection of essays challenges the simplistic idea of Anzacs as noble sacrifices, providing a rich portrait of the complex politics of the time. It also attempts to explain the increasing importance of Gallipoli and Anzac Day in Australia, beginning around the 1980s. It’s well worth a read.
Finally, those looking for books related to directly to the film would do well to hunt down Bill Gammage’s The Story of Gallipoli, which appears to be out of print nowadays, but is stocked by a number of Australian libraries.
Watch the trailer for Gallipoli below:
Director: Peter Weir
Entertainment grade: A–
History grade: A–
Gallipoli was a first world war campaign, a joint offensive by allied forces intended to capture Constantinople and secure a sea route to Russia. It was also the first major engagement for Anzac, the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps. Gallipoli incurred one of the highest death tolls of the war while failing to achieve its objective.
The film opens in rural Western Australia in 1915, where a group of farmhands are reading news reports from Gallipoli. "The Turkish defences included wire entanglements on land and sea, and deep pits with spiked bottoms," reads one. "Bastards!" exclaims another. "That's it," says a third. "I'm gonna join up." Who knew a spiked bottom could be so persuasive? The film's fictional hero, Archie, befriends a fellow sportsman, Frank, and the two of them hike across the desert to join the 10th Light Horse Regiment in Perth. Such persistence may seem unlikely, but there are plenty of true stories to match it. One real recruit rode 300 miles on horseback out of the Kimberley region, and then hopped a boat to Fremantle, more than 2,000 miles away, to sign up for the 10th Light Horse.
The boys are shipped off to Egypt for training camp. This appears to involve playing rugby on the Giza plateau, in between the pyramids and the Sphinx. Mena Camp, where the Australians trained, was indeed around 10 miles outside the centre of Cairo, near the pyramids. The depiction of training-camp life is pretty accurate, down to the sexually transmitted disease prevention lectures and laboured practical jokes. On the other hand, the "antique" figurines that the lads buy in the bazaar look suspiciously like the gold sarcophagus of Tutankhamun, only discovered by Howard Carter in 1922.
Finally, the regiment makes its way to Turkey. The troops are forced to land on Anzac Beach in the middle of the night under heavy fire. In real life, that day's fighting alone saw 682 Australians killed or injured. The rest of the film is played out against an unceasing soundtrack of explosions and gunfire, just like real life in the trenches. It is true, as shown, that there were corpses lying around all over the place. If anything, the film doesn't go far enough. Men digging new trenches would regularly uncover the decomposing bodies of their fallen comrades. Unsurprisingly, Anzac troops stationed in the trenches started coming down with a very unpleasant infection, involving a lot of vomiting and septic sores.
The moving climax depicts the Battle of the Nek, a doomed push against the Turkish trenches by the 8th and 10th Light Horse. Much criticism has been made of Peter Weir for casting the fictional commanding officer, Robinson, as a Brit. In fact, Robinson is speaking with a posh Australian accent – and wearing an Australian uniform. The film even refrains from criticising the two Britons most commonly held responsible for the disaster of Gallipoli, namely Winston Churchill and Lord Kitchener. Meanwhile, what really happened at the Nek was similar to the story shown, only with different characters: an appalling case of miscommunication and misjudgment by colonels Jack Antill and FG Hughes. Lt Col Noel Brazier was the real officer who went back and forth between the two, trying to persuade them to stop sending troops over the top. The signal for a final row of 150 men to put themselves straight into the line of Turkish fire was indeed given while the commanding officers were dithering about their decision.
An excellent portrait of not one, but three historical settings: Western Australia in the 1910s, first world war army training camps in Egypt and trench warfare at the Nek. Moreover, this film debunks what was fast becoming the Reel History Curse of Mel Gibson. So far, all historical films he has directed or appeared in have been sent straight to the bottom of the class. Gallipoli, on the other hand, richly deserves its place at the top.