For many years, I actively avoided seeing Peter Weir’s 1981 film ‘Gallipoli’. In hindsight it was a dumb thing to do, especially considering Weir’s ‘Picnic at Hanging Rock’ (1975) is my favourite Australian film, but I was sure what I would find would be the kind of flag-waving nationalistic mythologising that made me uncomfortable about our relationship with one of the most important events in our nation’s history. Part of me couldn’t handle the idea of celebration disguised as remembrance, which to me was far more important and the reason I would always wake up early to go to the dawn service on ANZAC Day. Then in my early twenties, I finally caved, deciding I might as well get it out of the way and cross it off my list. What I found though genuinely shocked me. Instead of a legend, I was witnessing something far more human and far more devastating, and understood importance and tragedy of the Gallipoli landing better than thanks to any high school history textbook.
Weir had decided to tackle the Gallipoli story after visiting the battlefields at the Dardanelles, still filled with visible artefacts of the campaign. However, instead of trying to capture the full scale of the battle, what Weir and screenwriter David Williamson crafted with ‘Gallipoli’ was a far more personal story, pulling from Bill Gammage’s ‘The Broken Years’, a collection of diary entries and letters from soldiers who fought in the campaign. It tells the story of two fictional young men, Archie Hamilton (Mark Lee) and Frank Dunne (Mel Gibson), both short-distance runners who meet in outback Western Australia in May 1915. With news of the gallant adventures being had by soldiers on the shores of Gallipoli, the two young men enlist in the 3rd Light Horse Brigade. In the film, the war itself becomes a backdrop to the story of the friendship between the two young men and the connections they make with their fellow soldiers, until its looming presence overwhelms and engulfs them.
It’s this emphasis on the personal and on character relationships that makes ‘Gallipoli’ one of the most distinct and extraordinary war films ever made. In fact, it seems almost disingenuous to call it a war film at all. We don’t reach the shores of Gallipoli until two-thirds into the film, and even then Weir holds back on depicting actual warfare until the last moment. Unlike most war films, there’s no rush to the energy and horror of battle. Before we can see these young men be driven to their doom, we have to fall in love with them first. One of the reasons the Gallipoli landing is so significant to our nation’s history and national identity is that our innocence and ignorance drove us to rush into a situation we had no comprehension of. It’s something countless films and television series have shown us with baby-faced boys looking horrified at bullet-ridden corpses, but that concept has never been as palpable or devastating as in ‘Gallipoli’. By investing the time to show us the world Archie and Frank have come from, their larrikin charm and cheekiness, the moment they are faced with the realisation of what they have to do hits like a sledgehammer to the chest.
Weir is also not interested in playing into the "myth" of Gallipoli, choosing instead to present it in the most respectful and objective manner possible. The elegance of the film means that themes of mateship and brotherhood, the foundations of the ANZAC legend, aren’t abstract concepts or clichés, and characters aren’t arbitrarily wedged in for no other reason than to satisfy a trope. In ‘Gallipoli’, these themes are realities, remarkable in how unremarkable they are. These were young men ill-equipped to cope with the impossible task put before them, and only together were they able to hold as long as they could. In many ways, even though none of the characters in the film are directly based on real people, they honour those who died in the campaign by how ordinary each of them is.
Because of its subject, it’s sometimes difficult to divorce the emotional and see ‘Gallipoli’ as a piece of filmmaking, but part of what makes the film so extraordinary is the skill and craft that went into it. ‘Gallipoli’ represents the Australian film industry at the height of its power. Peter Weir’s direction is exacting and classical, managing to make the period setting and landscapes feel vitally modern, even 34 years after it was made. He and cinematographer Russell Boyd photograph the film with immediacy that both capture the larrikin spirit of Archie, Frank and their mates, and the solemn certainty of the inevitable tragedy. Williamson, at that time already one of the most acclaimed Australian playwrights, crafts absolute magic in his screenplay from the minute it begins. The structure of the narrative is staggering, often returning to key phrases and images at vital moments when they land with significant power. Archie is pinned as one of the fastest runners of his generation, an athlete of tremendous promise, and the inherent poetry and tragedy of that isn’t lost on Williamson or Weir. You know in the opening minutes, seeing Archie train against an outback sunset, that we will return to this image again, and when we do it will break our hearts.
‘Gallipoli’ isn’t interested in showing war as a thrilling adventure or a gallant sacrifice.
As the two protagonists, Lee and Gibson are absolutely superb. ‘Gallipoli’ finds Gibson on the cusp of his stardom, so he still has that distinct playfulness that captured the attention of audiences. In many ways, it’s his finest performance, especially when we see Frank come to grips with the enormity of their situation. Just as impressive though is Mark Lee, whose wide-eyed innocence as Archie only adds to the beauty and tragedy of the film. The film is strongest though when the two men are on screen together, and their wonderful chemistry is what drives the film. The supporting cast is also fantastic, but in his small part as Major Barton, Bill Hunter almost steals the film. As he prepares to send his troops into battle and certain death, the nuances in his performance become overwhelmingly affecting.
‘Gallipoli’ culminates in the Battle of the Nek on 7th of August 1915, one of the great catastrophes of the campaign. Over the course of two hours, we’ve followed Archie from outback Western Australia to the sands of Cairo, and we finally find him preparing to leap out of the trenches and into battle. It’s here that Weir delivers his final and most devastating blow to the audience, and his final statement. ‘Gallipoli’ isn’t interested in showing war as a thrilling adventure or a gallant sacrifice. In this film, war is exactly what it is - two lines of men mowing one another down. There are no enemies or heroes, no glory to be had or gained. It is a tragedy, a waste of human life and potential, a series of mistakes and ill-conceived plans being enacted by those ill-equipped to fulfil them. For all the books and merchandise that we’ll see this year on the centenary of the landing, I doubt anything will come close to honouring and commemorating the tragedy at Gallipoli as powerfully or as perfectly as this film. ‘Gallipoli’ is one of the finest films this country has ever produced, and one of the finest films ever made on the subject of war. After years of avoiding it, I now speak of it with the reverence and respect it deserves. As we honour those Australians and New Zealanders lost on those beaches, and every human being lost to war in the past hundred years, revisiting Peter Weir’s masterpiece is one of the finest ways of remembering them.
This week, Twentieth Century Fox have released ‘Gallipoli’ in a special Commemorative Edition Blu-ray and DVD. The film has been remastered in high definition and in DTS-HD MA 5.1, and the set includes a second disc with all the features from the original DVD Special Edition, along with a new interview with Mark Lee. It’s a terrific set that does justice to this important film.