Peter Weir's Gallipoli (1981) recreates not just the battle but the culture patriotism and dreams of glory that inspired thousands of Australian men to enlist for a European war that otherwise had no effect on the island nation. It explores and challenges the mythology that has grown up around this defining event, celebrated in history books and song as a heroic display of courage in the face of overwhelming odds; Gallipoli was Australia's Alamo, where a kind of victory is found in military defeat. In the words of Weir scholar Marek Haltof, it was "for Australia, the baptism of fire and, consequently, the birth of a nation." That's an ambitious undertaking for Weir, coming off of acclaimed low-budget films like Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975) and The Last Wave (1977), and for the fledgling Australian film industry which was just beginning to find international success for its national cinema.
To bring it down to human terms, Weir and screenwriter David Williamson built their story around two men: Archy Hamilton, an 18-year-old star runner inspired to enlist through idealism and adventure, and Frank Dunne, older, more experienced and more cynical about the surge of patriotic sentiment. "It's not our bloody war," he argues. "It's an English war. It has nothing to do with us." But he signs on anyway, hoping to land a spot with Archy in the Light Horseman (despite the fact that he can't ride) and perhaps come home with a promotion and a career. They hop trains and hike across the outback of Western Australia to reach Perth and end up in another desert, training in the shadows of the great Pyramids and the Sphinx in Egypt, before they are deployed on the fateful invasion. The invasion itself occupies the final, fatal act of Gallipoli.
Mel Gibson had starred in Mad Max (1979) but was not yet a star when he was cast in the central role of Frank, the wise-guy city boy who befriends country boy Archy. Mark Lee was essentially cast as Archy from a photo session that the producers put together to illustrate the vision for potential investors. Their easy friendship, born of mutual respect (both are amateur athletes) and shared trials on the journey through the Australian desert, centers the drama; they are just a couple of mates who head off for a grand adventure and lose their innocence in the brutal grinder of war. Bill Hunter delivers the film's most measured performance as Major Barton, commander of the Light Horseman brigade. Both tough and paternal, he sees how the British commanders dismiss the Australian brigades as "rude and undisciplined" and understands that his men have been sacrificed as cannon fodder to cover the offensive of the more valuable British troops. Still, he's also a loyal soldier who follows his orders, no matter how misguided.
Weir was initially inspired to make this film after visiting the Gallipoli Memorial in Turkey in 1976, but his research (which included letters and diaries from the soldiers as well as advice from historian Bill Gammage) found the true story more ambivalent than the myth he had grown up with. That guided his treatment of the story and his portrait of the battle as a senseless slaughter, and informs his contrast between the easy-going, affable Australian rubes and the proper British officers who prize discipline and obedience to orders, no matter what the reality is on the ground.
Gallipoli became the biggest homegrown Australian production to that time. Funding was secured via a partnership between music mogul Robert Stigwood and Australian media mogul Rupert Murdoch (whose father was at Gallipoli). While the production traveled to Egypt to capture the scenes of the soldiers training and relaxing surrounded by the pyramids, most of the film was shot in Australia, with an isolated cliff-side beach in South Australia standing in for Gallipoli.
Gallipoli took home eight Australian Film Institute Awards in 1981, but more importantly to both the filmmakers and the Australian film industry, it was Weir's first film to receive wide distribution in the U.S. and it became an international hit. It helped carry director Peter Weir and actor Mel Gibson (who also made The Road Warrior in 1981) to international success and it showed that an Australian subject could have universal appeal. It also managed to celebrate the national myth of Gallipoli, which had romanticized the heroic tragedy of (in Weir's words) "the birth of our nation through a defeat." At the same time, it deflated the romantic notions of glory under fire to show the reality of Gallipoli and mourn the men who gave up their lives for a war they had no stake in.
Producers: Patricia Lovell, Robert Stigwood
Director: Peter Weir
Screenplay: David Williamson (screenplay); Peter Weir (story); Ernest Raymond (novel, uncredited)
Cinematography: Russell Boyd
Art Direction: Herbert Pinter
Music: Brian May
Film Editing: William Anderson
Cast: Mark Lee (Archy Hamilton), Bill Kerr (Jack), Harold Hopkins (Les McCann), Charles Yunupingu (Zac), Heath Harris (Stockman), Ron Graham (Wallace Hamilton), Gerda Nicolson (Rose Hamilton), Mel Gibson (Frank Dunne), Robert Grubb (Billy), Tim McKenzie (Barney).
by Sean Axmaker