By Stuart McLaren (Norwich, UK)
Having revisited this film recently, I was genuinely surprised at how well it has stood the test of time and what a cracking story it was. The film’s major backdrop is the disastrous Dardanelles campaign in the First World War and, in particular the role of Australian troops in that theatre of war. The film was directed by Peter Weir, of Picnic at Hanging Rock fame, and starred a young Mark Lee and a young Mel Gibson (…whatever became of him)? The stars were supported by a great cast of believable character actors.
The film also gave us, in its final scene, one of the most iconic still frames and film poster photographs from 20th Century cinema. For my money the Gallipoli final frame shot is up there with the female robot from Metropolis, Charles Foster Kane surrounded by newspapers and/or booming from the campaign lectern and the isolated rickety house on the hill from Psycho.
The early part of the film deals with the story of Archy (Lee) and Frank (Gibson) and how they meet, turn from rivals into friends and then go off to enlist in the Australian Army. Archy is the beaming eternal optimist of the pair, while Frank is the more experienced, world-weary, cynical, jack-the lad character. It should be mentioned that Archy is the better runner of the two protagonists, which we glean from a country fair prize-money race where Jack is well beaten by Archy. The athletic ability of the two runners will become significant later in the film.
Archy is coached by his Uncle Jack (Bill Kerr) and that element is one of the weaker points in the film, although not from an acting point of view, as the scenes involving Archy and Jack establish a very close bond and loving respect between the two characters, as Jack tries to compensate for Archy’s missing father. The weakness is the mantra that Jack instils in Archie to motivate him when running, which involves references to steel springs and leopards (an incongruous mix) and just doesn’t sound like the sort of thing that character would have said back in 1914/15 where the early part of the film is set. It almost feels like the film is trying to do an impression of Chariots of Fire (also 1981) in this respect; although as Chariots was released in May and Gallipoli in August of the same year, I guess that must just be coincidental.
The film then progresses to Archy & Frank’s journey across Australia to Perth. Having illegally jumped on a cattle train, without knowing its destination, they awake the next day to find that their carriage has been abandoned in a stockyard and the next train is 3 weeks away. At this point, they embark on a perilous foot journey across the desert. This is where the director really captures the heat and oppressive atmosphere and sheer scope of the Australian landscape, with plenty of wide panning and long-shots although, surprisingly, very few shimmering heat-wave at ground level shots. Maybe Mr. Weir thought the definitive heat wave long-shot had, famously, already been achieved by David Lean in Lawrence of Arabia (and nobody would seriously argue with that); or maybe he just didn’t have the right lens or camera to hand? Either way, we get the message that the duo are suffering from the heat and lack of water, and in very real danger of not surviving. Spoiler Alert: They do survive.
The desert journey plot leads to one of the very best scenes in the film when, by pure chance, they come across their saviour, a camel driver/traveller (beautifully played by Harold Baigent) who provides them with food and water. The scene around the campfire is brilliant. From the rancid, fly-infested meat that is offered to Archy & Frank – which nobody would eat unless they were starving – to the topic of conversation. Our heroes tell the traveller about going to Perth to enlist and join the war, to which he replies “What War”? When it is explained that Britain and its colonies, along with France and Russia, are at war with Germany, the traveller’s laconic response is simply…“I met a German once. Good fella, he was”. The subsequent conversation reveals the extent of the traveller’s ignorance – through no fault of his own – with regard to European nations and world geography, which just enhances how remote and out of touch the Australian hinterland would have been in those times. At one point he admits that he went to “a city” once, and “didn’t like it” – a speech that, funnily enough, is repeated virtually word for word in Crocodile Dundee which was released five years after Gallipoli.
The film then progresses to Archy and Frank’s attempt to join the glamorous Light Horse Regiment. Archy is underage, but that is overlooked because of his horsemanship, while Frank’s lack of affinity with horses is shown up when he attempts the simple riding test that acts as an entry requirement for the regiment. Frank’s failure to get a horse even moving, causing much amusement for the other volunteers and army personnel. So, the two friends are separated and Frank eventually joins the less glamorous infantry, along with a bunch of old work mates he runs into in a Perth bar.
The Australian army is then shipped overseas to Egypt for basic training, before being deployed into the war zone. There are some very amusing scenes of the “fish out of water” type regarding the soldier’s adventures in a foreign land, their dealings with the locals and first experience of a foreign culture and, for some, their first time being away from home. Frank’s mate Snowy (David Argue) does a good turn as the suspicious of everybody xenophobe. Other good scenes in this part of the film include a misunderstanding about a market stall, the infantry men mimicking upper class British cavalry officers, and a memorable speech by an infantry medical officer about the dangers and debilitating effects of venereal diseases, which he knows will fall on deaf ears. The actors/soldiers all manage to convey the sense of that unique form of male bonding, good natured ribaldry, laddish behaviour, rowdiness and “no-worries” attitude (known as “larrikinism” in Aussie slang) that Australians have become associated with throughout the world.
In an attempt to relieve the boredom, the high-ranking officers arrange a fake battle in the sand dunes between the Light Horse (by now on foot) and Infantry regiments. This descends into a free-for-all punch-up, and then gets even more chaotic as the soldiers realise that by playing dead (i.e. a casualty of the fake battle), they will not have to run around in the intense heat – at which point an exasperated Sergeant screams “You can’t all be dead”! However, Archy and Frank are reunited during the fake battle, and Archy subsequently persuades his Commanding Officer to allow Frank to transfer to the Light Horse, on the basis that the cavalry units will not be using horses in the war zone and that Frank is a good runner and would make a good army foot messenger, a vital function in trench warfare. Frank joins the Light Horse much to the chagrin of his infantry buddies who think he is being a snob and just fancies himself in the ostentatious uniform – which he clearly does.
Eventually the troops embark on the journey to the Dardanelles peninsular, and this is where the serious part of the film takes hold. The historic reference point is the Battle of the Nek (from bottleneck) in the Gallipoli campaign, which in truth was a disastrous attempt to attack Turkish machine-gun armoured emplacements by means of an uphill infantry charge from the Allied occupied trenches. While this may seem like a ridiculous strategy to modern eyes, it should be borne in mind that the First World War was the first full-scale industrialised war, in terms of armaments, so there was precious little direct officer experience of that kind of warfare at the time. The Battle of the Nek took place on 7th August 1915, WW1 had begun in July 1914 and Turkey had entered the war in October 1914.
One of my usual pet hates in “movieland” is glaring inaccuracies such a people using modern language in historical dramas, displaying modern sensibilities/political views that just wouldn’t have existed in the relevant era, etc. I think we all watch movies as a form of escapism, and to get fully immersed in the story and period being portrayed. Unfortunately, when a jarring inaccuracy occurs it throws your belief in the story and characters, which can ruin the rest of the film. Gallipoli, on the other hand, is in the very high percentiles for its historical accuracy and period detail, with just a few very minor tweaks to enhance the story and to emphasise the anti-war message.
So, some historical context. The Dardanelles campaign is often referred to as “Churchill’s folly”, or “Churchill’s biggest mistake” both of which are really misnomers. While it is true that the idea of attacking what he called “the soft underbelly of Europe” as an alternative to “chewing barbed wire” on the Western Front was Churchill’s idea – he was then First Lord of the Admiralty and, therefore, in charge of the Royal Navy – his idea was purely for a naval manoeuvre and attack. The idea being allied warships would progress through the Dardanelle Strait, bombarding the Turkish defences and then attack Constantinople/Istanbul from the sea. The overall aim (if successful) being to knock Turkey out of the war, and thus establish a second Eastern Front (Russia was already fighting on the first) from which to attack Germany, thus splitting the German forces. However, many of the warships used were outdated and subsequently sunk by Turkish bombardment from the land and/or the mines the Turks had laid in the narrow straits. 4 warships were damaged by mines, 3 of them sinking, on just one day of the campaign. It was only after the failure of the initial naval attack that an amphibious landing of troops was conceived, and not by Churchill alone, but by the British War Council.
For those who like their numbers, in all somewhere in the region of 450,000 Allied troops took part in the Gallipoli campaign, including British, French, Australian, New Zealand, Indian and Canadian troops. The Allies suffered around 250,000 casualties 46,000 dead, and most historians estimate that the Turkish forces would have suffered similar casualty rates. Undoubtedly the Allies underestimated the strength of the Turkish fortifications and armaments, and their determination to defend their homeland at all costs. The campaign ended in a humiliating defeat and withdrawal of the allied troops after a year of fighting, for no real gain. Churchill was, (rightly or wrongly) largely blamed for the strategic debacle and resigned from his Admiralty post, and subsequently took command of an Infantry Regiment on the Western Front.
Returning to the film, the scenes prior to the battle depicting the landings, the day to day boredom of trench warfare (punctuated by periods of extreme stress and danger) and the gallows humour and fears of those involved are depicted well. The film shows that the troops fully realised what a bad strategic position they were in, encamped on a cliff face, with Turkish fortifications and machine guns occupying higher ground. Scenes such as the Aussie Insurance Policy raffle just emphasise the troops awareness of their own predicament.
Of course, the film focuses on Australian troops, when other nationalities were involved in the campaign, but this is an Australian film. Moreover, Gallipoli had a real significance in the development of Australia as a nation, because WW1 was the first time that they had entered the world political/military stage (and made a huge human sacrifice) as a relatively new independent nation, having gained independence from Britain in 1901. Which is why the Australian involvement in WWI is solemnly commemorated on Anzac Day (Australian & New Zealand Army Corps.) and other remembrance events. Nearly all the accounts of the war, both from participants and academic historians, pay tribute to the fighting skills, courage, audacious bravery, tenacity and sheer “bloody-mindedness” not to accept defeat of the Anzac troops. Therefore, it would be an act of gross impertinence to criticise an Australian film director for highlighting and celebrating those martial attributes.
In the film, Frank’s friends take part in an attack where one dies and one is so badly wounded that he is refused food and water in the makeshift hospital, thus raising Frank’s awareness of the scale of carnage. A word here about Frank’s mates, good acting throughout the film particularly the character of Billy (Robert Grubb) and Les (Harold Hopkins).
As the film builds towards the Battle of the Nek, and the disastrous infantry charges, Archy is offered another chance by his commander (an athletics fan) to act as a messenger/runner. He refuses saying he wants to take part in the battle, Frank is the only messenger we see in action. Confusion surrounds the whole enterprise, as telephone and written messages travel between the various commanders. The exact timing of the attack is not synchronised. An artillery attack that is supposed to accompany the first wave of Aussie troops going over the top stops too early, allowing Turkish troops to re-occupy their gun posts and trenches.
The commander in the Allied trenches, Major Barton, (another good performance by Bill Hunter as a fatherly figure concerned for his troops, but ultimately prepared to be sacrificed with them) attempts to relay the futility of the attacks to his superiors via Frank’s message carrying; after phone lines have been damaged. We see Frank dodging through heavily congested trenches while delivering messages back and forth. These scenes are accompanied by brilliant use of music from Oxygene II by Jean-Michelle Jarre – whose Dad, Maurice, also knocked out a few good film tunes in his time. Although Oxygene is a modern piece, and not composed as a film score, it perfectly captures the urgency, anxiety and dangerous nature of running messengers in trenches. There is even an underlying counterpoint that sounds like sniper shots and shrapnel blasts. This music is so appropriate, that I can even forgive the use of the ubiquitous Albinoni’s Adagio elsewhere.
The messages from the trenches are ignored by the superior commander, who cites reports of allied marker flags having been seen in the Turkish trenches, and demands Major Barton continues with the 2nd, 3rd & 4th waves of infantry attack, which Barton considers to be equivalent to murdering his troops. Frank then suggests Major Barton goes above his own superior’s head, in the hope the attacks will be called off, sending Frank on another important errand.
Once again, you can’t fault the historical accuracy, even if names of commanders have been changed, no doubt for fear of lawsuits. The Artillery did cease the bombardment early. There was a lack of synchronisation of commander’s watches, which led to that error. The real-life Acting Brigade Commander, Major-General John Antill, was given reports that marker flags had been seen in the enemy trenches, thus (mistakenly) leading him to believe that the attacks were successful and should be continued. There really were four waves of charges, even though those directly involved knew it was pointless after the first wave were slaughtered. Incredibly, there really was an order given for the troops to advance on one charge with bayonets only and no bullets in their rifles, meaning, technically, they could not fire at the enemy until being given a counter-manding order. The real trench commander Colonel Noel Brazier (Major Barton in the film) did call the attacks “bloody murder” and attempted to get them stopped by going to the overall commander Colonel Frederic Hughes who, according to historians, took much longer to come to a decision than depicted in the film.
The only slight quibbles I have, and I only mention them because I am British, is that we are told in the film that “the British are making tea on the beach” when in fact British troops were supporting the attacks in the actual events. And secondly, the Antill equivalent character in the film, Colonel Robinson (John Morris), is portrayed as an upper-class British Officer, when in fact all the Allied decision-makers in the real battle were Australian officers. However, this is a well-established movie and television trope, and us Brits are used to it; honest! Examples would be all of the bad Roman’s in Spartacus, Sydney Greenstreet’s villains in both The Maltese Falcon and Casablanca; George Sanders in All About Eve and voicing Shere Khan the Tiger in Jungle Book; right through to Stewie at his most evil in Family Guy…“What the deuce”! All villains with upper-class British/English accents. Talk about stereotyping.
That digression aside, the film makers seem to have done their research thoroughly in order to depict the communication failures, tactical errors, and the futile waste of life that occurred in the actual event. If you have any doubts about that I would refer you to the comments of the Australian war historian L. A. Carylon, who memorably described the combatants as “Lions led by Donkeys”. The same author is also equally scathing of the real-life commanders involved, stating that…”Hughes was the Brigade Commander and didn’t command; Antill wasn’t the Brigade Commander and he did”.
In the film, Frank finally gets a decision from the most senior officer and scurries back through the trenches. Meanwhile, Archy, Major Barton and their compatriots are about to go over the top, leaving written notes, their watches and other valuables pinned to their trenches. Yet again, this did really happen, indicating that the soldiers knew they probably weren’t going to survive. Frank is well aware that time is of the essence and is busting his lungs to get to Major Barton’s position, just as he is nearing the relative area, he hears the whistles being blown as the signal for the fourth infantry charge to go over the top. As viewers, we share his anguish at not making it in time and, of course, the hidden implication is that Archy, as the better runner, may have made it in time and thus altered the result.
At that exact same moment, Archy is seen nervously reciting that mantra to himself before leaving the trenches and running like mad towards the enemy position, seemingly without even carrying his rifle. Leading to the superbly poignant final frame of the film. If any slightly cynical movie viewers (and I would include myself in that group) think that scene is a bit far-fetched, guess what …think again! Apart from the silly leopard/steel springs mantra, the rest is almost certainly based on a true event. There are first-hand accounts from survivors of the battle, as well as the official history, “The Story of Anzac” by C.E.W Bean, where reference is made to a soldier named Wilfrid Harper from Western Australia, serving with the 10th Australian Light Horse, who was killed in that final charge at The Nek. Wilfrid Harper was known for being a talented athlete and sprinter before the war, and according to the official account of the battle was… “last seen running forward like a schoolboy in a foot-race, with all the speed he could compass” (sic).
The losses at the Battle of The Nek may not have been the greatest in WWI, by comparison to the Somme, Ypres etc. on the Western Front, but the actual ratio of Australian casualties is horrifyingly alarming. The Light Horse (LH) Brigade consisted of 300 men from the 8th LH Regiment (234 casualties, of whom 154 were killed) and 300 men from the 10th LH Regiment (138 casualties, of whom 80 were killed).
Gallipoli, therefore, is a largely accurate depiction of a historical battle that is/was of great significance to Australia. Peter Weir has created a really good film that, without in any way minimising the tragic events and the huge sacrifices made, manages to pinpoint the accepted command errors, while maintaining the viewer’s investment in the story of the main characters. As such, this is a fitting tribute to those who made the ultimate sacrifice at The Nek, and a film that will probably remain meaningful for future generations, in a way that grainy footage written accounts from the actual events may not.
Gallipoli belongs firmly in the pantheon of great anti-war movies along with: All Quiet on the Western Front (original German version); The Big Parade; Paths of Glory; The Deer Hunter; Platoon and Born on the 4th July. There can be no finer praise for Mr. Weir’s film.