by Paul Batters
War is perhaps the most extreme and traumatic experience which humanity subjects itself to. It is also the most tragic and the consequences of war are long lasting. War changes the course of history and its’ impact on individuals, communities and nations are lasting.
Cinema’s depiction of the experience of war often faces challenges in assuring authenticity, maintaining historical accuracy and avoiding becoming jingoistic propaganda. Sadly, there are a number of films, perhaps too many to name, which have failed in these areas, not least due to the practical realities of depicting history on film. Too often, we see the war film turn into a ‘flag-waver’ or worse still pornography, which exploits violence, death and the horrors of war for the delight of an audience. When this does occur, it not only does a disservice to history but more importantly it commits a terrible injustice against those who have served and made the ultimate sacrifice.
In the annals of Australian history, the events on the Gallipoli peninsula in 1915 during World War One have taken on near Spartan proportions. Oft called a ‘baptism of fire’, it has also become one of the most sacred moments in Australian history and its’ commemoration on ANZAC Day, April 25th the most important day on the Australian calendar. Partly mythologised and partly correct, Australians commemorate the day as symbolising the qualities of mateship, courage and sacrifice.
The events of Gallipoli are briefly as follows; at dawn on April 25th, 1915, Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZACs) landed on the beaches on the Gallipoli Peninsula in Turkey (a German ally) as part of a British plan to knock Turkey out of the war and take control of the Black Sea. Not only were they landed on the wrong spot but then had to storm steep, rugged cliffs under heavy Turkish fire at terrible cost. Yet despite this turbulent start to the campaign, the ANZACs managed to hold the position and showed incredible courage, tenacity and pragmatism. However, the overall campaign would be a disaster, with over 8,900 ANZACs killed and after nine months, the campaign would be called off, with the withdrawal the only real success.
Peter Weir’s Gallipoli (1981) is a masterpiece of Australian cinema, depicting with authenticity and historical accuracy the Australian experience of the First World War. Whilst it does not focus on the events of April 25th, the film’s climax does focus on the disastrous Battle Of The Nek. It has gone done in Australian military folklore, for its’ sheer tragedy. However, more importantly focuses on the story of the men who fought at Gallipoli and the underlying Australian experience of World War One – a ‘new nation’ who sought to make their mark and show the world what Australians were made of.
In discussing the film and doing justice to the discussion, it is impossible to avoid spoilers and so to avoid such disappointment; fair warning is given to the reader.
From the opening strains of Albinoni’s Adagio In G Minor, the fatalist mood is set, down to the titles done in blood red Gothic lettering on a star black screen. It sounds like a funeral dirge and this fatalism will remain with the audience till the film’s climax.
At this point, the first key character is introduced to the audience, young Archie Hamilton (Mark Lee), the 18 year old athlete son of a pastoralist from the Western Australian bush. Weir uses the character of Archie to represent the quintessential Australian archetype; the blond, bronzed boy from the bush. His innocence, his youth and the exuberance he displays heighten the sense of the tragedy that will unfold, and the beautiful and inspirational mantra of ‘being as fast as a leopard’ will take on greater meaning at the climax of the film. The audience discovers he is a talented runner and has potential that may see Archie as a champion, indicated not only by the first time the audience sees him run but also by the later bet he makes with Les (Harold Hopkins), an older stockman on his father’s property who tries to bully Archie but fails in the attempt. Interestingly, the bet also indicates Archie’s fearlessness and desire to take chances, reflecting the heart of not only his inner athlete but also his youth.
Archie is also symbolic of the ANZAC mythology, built up in great part by Australia’s official war historian C.W Bean. Archie, therefore, represents the flower of Australian youth and his reasons for wanting to join are also idealistic at best and naïve and innocent at worst. But they are more complex reasons than he may care to admit and here is where the director taps into the reality of why soldiers join up to fight. Yes the nationalistic fervour is present, as indicated by the singing of patriotic songs, propaganda and jingoism (particularly in the early stages of Australia’s involvement). He will see not wanting to ‘join up’ as cowardice. But Weir also indicates that while Archie publically indicates the need to fight the Germans ‘because he’d be ashamed of himself’ if he didn’t fight (which of course suggests a coming of age motive of boy becoming a man), Archie in his private moment seeks adventure and looks to see the world, whilst escaping his surroundings. Early in the film he reads a newspaper article folded up and kept inside a ‘Boy’s Own Adventure’ book and later is seen standing at his homestead gate, staring into the distance perhaps wondering what is out there in the bigger world. Later, he will agree with the sentiments of ‘not being pushed around for the rest of my bloody life’ suggesting far deeper motives for wanting to go to war.
Archie is also inspired by his Uncle Jack (Bill Kerr), who not only trains Archie but whose adventures have spurred Archie to seek adventure as his uncle once did. Interestingly, despite Archie’s upbringing, he has a strong friendship with Zac (Charles Yunupingu) a young Aboriginal stockman. When taunted by Les about ‘keeping the company of blacks’ and obviously reflecting the open and abhorrent racism of the period, Archie states very clearly ‘Zac’s my mate’. The weighting of the statement cannot be under-estimated, as the concept of a ‘mate’ in the Australian vernacular is suggestive of comradeship, closeness and equality. It is a testament to Archie and perhaps representative of a future Australia, where a younger generation will hold different views about their fellow Indigenous Australians.
The counterpart to Archie (and by extension the ANZAC myth) is Frank Dunne (Mel Gibson) who is a railway worker along with his three mates Bill (Robert Grubb), Barney (Tim McKenzie) and ‘Snow’ (David Argue). As the audience discovers these four, Barney and Bill are reading a newspaper report on the events at Gallipoli. Bill and Snow are clear on their desire to join up, whereas the lanky and unsure Barney is reluctant though shows interest when Bill declares ‘girls go wild over a uniform’. However, Frank is clear that he won’t be joining up and is not baited by Snow declaring that he’s ‘not scared to die for my country, Frank’. But Frank is unsettled and wants for more than to be a railway worker. The four decide to leave and whereas the other three will head off back to the city, fate will see Frank attend a country race – the very one which Archie is going to run in.
As the audience discovers, Frank represents another aspect of the Australian identity – he is of Irish background and therefore has been raised with little love for the British Empire. His larrikin sense of humour, deep cynicism and difficulty with accepting authority is perfectly conveyed by Gibson and permeates his performance throughout the film.
The race meet is an interesting moment in capturing the spirit of the age. A band plays ‘It’s A Long Way To Tipperary’ as men drink beer and watch the races. Fate will also see Frank lose the race (and all his money in a bet) while Archie wins the race and the medal, as well as a handsome amount of money. What is fascinating is the recruitment drive that follows, in the form of the Lighthorse, an elite cavalry regiment and symbolic of a bygone age, out of step with the modern, industrial war that soldiers will experience for the first time.
Archie tells his uncle that he will not be returning home but his attempt to join the Lighthorse is thwarted and he is stranded. But he meets the now unemployed Frank in a restaurant and the audience learns a little more about the seemingly more worldly young man. Frank is ‘from the city’ and aims to get back to Perth, where he states he will help Archie join up under an assumed name. Archie is galvanised into action and they hop a train only to find themselves stranded in a desert. The crossing is an opportunity for the two to bond as well as air their differences regarding the war. Frank states with a strong sense of Australian nationhood ‘that it’s not our bloody war…it’s an English war, it’s got nothing to do with us’, leaving Archie angry and horrified. Yet the two bond and an old camel driver in a fascinating and interesting moment in the film saves them during their journey. The old man is perhaps symbolic of Australia’s turn of the century isolation and distance from the rest of the world when he indicates he didn’t know there was a war on. Indeed, he adds that he’s never even seen a big city. Like Frank, he is also puzzled at why Australia is involved, stating he ‘cant see what it has to do with us’. The comment that follows is doused in the dry, cynical and amusing humour that is often present in Australian larrikin humour and a nice touch by Weir.
Crossing the desert, the boys reach a cattle station where the owner and his family entertain the two young men. Here, he finds himself compelled to try and join the Lighthorse but after they both reach Perth; it is only Archie who is successful, as Frank has never ridden a horse. The two are sadly parted but fate will see them meet again later in the story. Fate seems to be a recurring theme, which is a fitting to the story, as luck is the main reason given by soldiers as their reason for surviving.
But Frank is reunited with his three former mates and they all join together. Heading to Egypt, where Australian forces were stationed before heading to Gallipoli (and later the Western Front), the four mates indulge in ‘horizontal refreshment’ at a local brothel and experience the exotic nature of Cairo via their wits and their humour. Here, Weir expressly uses the characters and the storyline as vehicles for the Australian war narrative. The interactions between the Australians and the locals range between colourful and even abusive, fitting in with the stories and testimonies from former soldiers. In one memorable scene, Frank and his three mates come across some British officers on their horses and refuse to salute. As they ride away, the four friends follow on some donkeys, mimicking the upper-class British accents of the officers, yelling out ‘Tally-Ho!’ to which the officers declare them as ‘undisciplined…rabble’. It is (at least for Australians) a hilarious scene, which sums up the Australian attitude to authority as well as a response to the class system. In fairness, it plays on the stereotype/caricature of the arrogant, upper class British officer but it is not a stereotype monopolised by Australians. Indeed, the testimony of British soldiers (many from working class background) shows them sharing similar sentiments towards their superior officers and by 1916, the term ‘lions being led by donkeys’ had become commonplace.
During a training exercise in Egypt, Frank reunites with Archie. Frank uses his abilities as a runner, as leverage with the Major Barton (Bill Hunter) to join the Lighthorse, much to the disappointment of his three mates. The last night in Egypt before deployment to Gallipoli sees Frank and Archie enjoy a night of dancing with nurses and drinking champagne at an officer’s ball. It is an evening of happiness, as an atmosphere of joie de vie holds firm amongst the partygoers. It will be a sharp contrast as the screen cuts to a darkened screen and the familiar music from the opening titles reminds the audience that tragedy is to come.
At Gallipoli, Frank and Archie face life in the trenches and their innocence is tested by the harsh realities of war. The audience witnesses the pragmatism, dry humour and inventiveness which Australian soldiers were known for – from the bad food to making bombs out of old jam tins to shaking hands with a Turkish soldier’s corpse stuck inside a trench wall. Archie seems to be happy to be there, in the belief that he is part of something big whereas Frank struggles and survives by his wits. He discovers his old mates – Bill, Barney and Snow – arriving one night and their bond is renewed with classical Australian humour, putting aside the way they had parted in Egypt.
Yet the harsh realities of war will reach even harsher depths when Frank’s mates take part in the Battle Of Lone Pine. The experience of the battle is brilliantly handled by Weir. The audience never sees the battle but instead hears the cries of Australian soldiers as they leave their trenches to do battle against the Turks, followed by the ghastly sound of machine guns. Franks and Archie, along with an unnamed soldier, are standing in a gravesite, with a peaceful and beautiful sunrise behind them. It is a stark contrast to the horrors of war, experienced by the audience through the sounds of battle, allowing the imagination to visualise the horror, coupled with the looks on Frank’s and Archie’s faces.
As Frank seeks his friends out after the battle, the wounded and dying are everywhere being treated. Bill announces that Barney is dead, thinking that at first he had only tripped. Snow is wounded and dying, handing his diary to Frank to ‘let Mum and Dad know what I did’. Archie tries to comfort Frank in his moment of fear, as the next day they will be facing the enemy in the Battle Of The Nek.
The night before the battle, Major Barton is sitting in his tent drinking the champagne his wife gave him to drink on their anniversary. On his gramophone plays The Pearl Fishers’ Duet by Georges Bizet, which is heart-wrenching duet when placed in the context of the moment. In the duet, two men, best friends since childhood, declare their undying love for each other and that nothing will tear them apart. The parallels to not only the two main characters but to soldiers on both sides of the trenches, across all arenas of war, highlight the cruelty and immorality of war.
Before the battle takes place, Major Barton appoints Archie as the runner meaning he would not need to fight. Archie talks his way out, that he has ‘come a long way to be part of this’ and talks Barton into making Frank the company runner. It means Archie will be facing the Turks the next day.
What follows is perhaps one of the most heart-rending and tragic moments of war depicted on film. Weir re-creates the battle without resorting to over-dramatic resonance and despite Weir taking some poetic licence with history the audience sees a genuine recreation of the battle. Beginning with an artillery bombardment against the Turks, what follows are two waves of men who are slaughtered by the well-set Turkish machine guns. It seems pointless and as Barton declares ‘cold-blooded murder’. Mixed messages and the phone line going dead at a crucial moment create even more confusion and tension. Frank is sent back and forth, delivering messages between Barton and his commanding officer, Colonel Robinson (John Morris) who cruelly repeats the order to push on. The tension mounts as Frank receives the order from General Gardner (a fictional character) that he is ‘re-considering the situation’. But Frank will not make it back in time, as the phone line is repaired and the order from Robinson is to ‘push on’. The strains of Albinoni’s Adagio In G Minor return, recalling the link to the fatalist thread which began at the film’s titles.
As Frank rushes back, Archie practices his breathing, as he would normally do before a big race and begins to repeat the mantra that had inspired him as an athlete. Now it will become his epitaph, with such tragic overtones that the audience can barely contain their emotions. Archie and his fellow soldiers know what their fate is to be and they will face it unflinchingly. Major Barton states he would not ask his men to do what he would not do himself, goes over the top with them. Frank is only metres away as he hears the whistle blow, sending the men to their doom and lets go a blood-curdling scream of anguish.
The final moments show Archie running, before a series of bullets end his life. Archie’s moment of death is frozen in time and the screen fades to black. It signifies the end of the story, as Archie’s life has been snuffed out, stolen from him by a medley of jarring bullets. His body is arched like a runner crossing the line but it is Archie’s last race.
There are some touching moments employed by Weir in the final scenes, such as Archie encountering a weeping Les, who is contemplating his final moments, only seconds before he will go ‘over the top’ and get killed. Before the men go over the top, the audience watches them driving their bayonets into the trench wall, leaving on them letters, wedding rings and other personal items. Archie leaves his medal and the watch his uncle gave him, along with a final letter home. It was a practice sometimes observed on the Western Front and Weir uses the practice to heighten the tragedy of the moment. The frozen moment of Archie’s death is based on Robert Capa’s famous photo from the Spanish Civil War entitled ‘The Falling Soldier’.
Weir’s film certainly addresses many of the issues of war – from the horror of trench warfare and sheer madness of war. But it looks at other important themes as well. In the same way that Archie represents youth and all the excitement, strength, innocence and exuberance that comes with it, he also represents Australia in the same way. In 1915, Australia was a ‘young nation’ filled with hopes for its’ new nationhood and as a nation, Australia would lose its’ innocence and its’ youth on the battlefields of Gallipoli and the Western Front.
There are a few historical inaccuracies, which I will not go into here, as they have been discussed elsewhere. At any rate, they do not take away from the thematic concerns raised by Weir in the film. Additionally, Weir never overdoes the journey or the audience’s experience of that journey.
As a history teacher, who has viewed this film with students numerous times, it has never failed to be a powerful reminder of the cruelty of war and always moves me to tears as the tragedy of the story unfolds. As Australians, we certainly see a little of Archie and Frank in all of us and our connection to the humanity of that time has not diminished, even a hundred years after the guns finally fell silent. Sadly, there are still guns being fired around the world in anger and in hatred. If only we could learn the lessons which Gallipoli has to offer.
This article has been submitted for the 2018 World War One On Film Blogathon, hosted by Maddy Loves Her Classic Films. Please click on the link https://maddylovesherclassicfilms.wordpress.com/2018/11/08/the-ww1-on-film-blogathon-maddys-five-favourite-ww1-films/ for access to more articles for this blogathon.
Paul Batters teaches secondary school History in the Illawarra region and also lectures at the University Of Wollongong. In a previous life, he was involved in community radio and independent publications. Looking to a career in writing, Paul also has a passion for film history.