Film – GALLIPOLI (1981)


Gallipoli is an Australian war film produced by Patricia Lovell and Robert Stigwood, directed by Peter Weir, and starring Mel Gibson and Mark Lee, who play two young men from Western Australia who enlist in the Army during the First World War and participate in the failed British effort to capture Gallipoli from the Ottoman Turks.


On 2 October 1976, on a visit to the Dardanelles in northwest Turkey, Australian film director Peter Weir (The Last Wave) took a two-hour walk on the beaches of Gallipoli and decided that he had to make a film about the disastrous WWI British-ANZAC campaign against Ottoman Turkey that occurred there 61 years earlier. Weir subsequently wrote an outline and engaged playwright-screenwriter David Williamson to turn it into a screenplay. Weir and Williamson used C.E.W. Bean’s 12-volume Official History of Australia in the War of 1914–1918 (Australian War Memorial, 1921–43) as one of their primary sources. They also used diary excerpts and letters from soldiers who fought at Gallipoli, collected in Bill Gammage’s book The Broken Years: Australian Soldiers in the Great War (Australian National UP, 1974; Gammage also served as the project’s military advisor). Williamson crafted many script revisions before he narrowed the focus to two runners who become “mates” and comrades-in-arms. He also decided to focus the combat portion of the film on a single calamitous engagement during the Gallipoli campaign: the so-called Battle of the Nek (7 August 1915), when the 8th and 10th Regiments of the Australian 3rd Light Horse Brigade launched a series of failed bayonet attacks on Ottoman trenches that resulted in appalling losses: 238 dead and 134 wounded out of a force of 600 (a 62 percent casualty rate), while the Ottoman Turks suffered only 8 dead. Peter Weir initially secured an exclusive production deal with the South Australian Film Corporation (SAFC) but the deal was amended over “creative differences” and the SAFC ended up providing only partial funding. After raising 850,000 AUD between May 1979 and May 1980, Weir’s producer, Patricia Lovell, approached media mogul Rupert Murdoch and producer Robert Stigwood, who had just formed a new film company (Associated R&R Films). They agreed to provide the rest of the funding on the proviso that the budget come in under 3 million AUD—the highest budget of an Australian film at that time. Rupert Murdoch’s father, Keith Murdoch (1885–1952), a WWI journalist who visited Gallipoli in September 1915, was a leading critic of the way the British conducted the campaign.


On the strength of his starring role in George Miller’s Mad Max (1979), Mel Gibson was hired to play Frank Dunne, one of the co-leads. The other leading role, Archy Hamilton, went to Mark Lee, a 22-year-old unknown actor-musician from Sydney, after an impressive screen test. Gallipoli could not be filmed at Gallipoli; pine trees covered what had been open ground in 1915 so Weir’s art director, Herbert Pinter, found topographically perfect locations for ANZAC Cove and the Nek: Farm Beach (now known as Gallipoli Beach) and Dutton Beach, respectively, both on the western side of lower Eyre Peninsula in South Australia, about 100 miles due west of Adelaide. Other locations included Beltana (Archy’s home) and Lake Torrens (for the desert that Frank and Archy cross), also in South Australia. Scenes showing the 3rd Light Horse training in Egypt were shot in and around Cairo. Principal photography lasted 12 weeks, from mid-September to early December 1980, with the final battle scenes involving some 600 extras.

Plot Synopsis

The setting is Western Australia, May 1915. Trained by his Uncle Jack (Bill Kerr), 18-year-old stockman (rancher) Archy Hamilton (Mark Lee) proves his athletic prowess by winning a foot race, barefoot, against a horse, ridden bareback by a rival farmhand named Les McCann (Harold Hopkins). Frank Dunne (Mel Gibson), a destitute ex-railway worker and also a talented sprinter, sets his eyes on the prize money offered at a foot race in an athletics competition—and the side bets he placed on himself—but to his chagrin, he is defeated by Archy. Afterwards Frank approaches Archy in a café, and the pair decides to journey to Perth and enlist in the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) so that they can join the war in Europe. Once in Perth, they stay with Frank’s father (John Murphy), an Irish immigrant. Archy convinces Frank to enlist in the Light Horse Brigade, despite the fact that Frank is unable to ride a horse. Frank ends up enlisting in the infantry instead, along with three co-workers: Bill (Robert Grubb), Barney (Tim McKenzie), and Snowy (David Argue). Frank and Archy part ways during their journeys to Egypt, but come back together once in Cairo. Frank transfers to Light Horse as a member of the dismounted infantry in Gallipoli. At Gallipoli, Frank’s friends in the infantry fight in the Battle of Lone Pine (6 August 1915). Afterwards, Billy tells Frank that Barney was killed in action and that Snowy is in a hospital, badly wounded. The next day, Archy and Frank join a charge at the Nek in a supporting role to the British soldiers landing at Suvla Bay. The Light Horse regiments are then asked to take offensive action across open ground, despite the presence of Turkish gunners at the ground site. The first wave is scheduled to go over the top at 4:30 a.m., following an artillery bombardment; however, the Turks slaughter the first wave in a matter of seconds. The second wave attacks and is also annihilated. Major Barton (Bill Hunter) wants to halt the assault, but his commanding officer, Col. Robinson (John Morris), is resistant. When the phone line goes dead, Barton dispatches Frank to brigade headquarters to try and get the attack halted, but Col. Robinson insists that it continue. Lt. Gray (Peter Ford) admits to his commander, Barton, that he claimed to have sighted the marker flags, but can’t recall where the information originally came from. Frank suggests going over the colonel’s head and appealing to General Gardner (Graham Dow) about stopping the offensive. Frank sprints to Gardner’s headquarters, and the general tells him to that he is indeed “reconsidering the whole situation.” Frank sprints back to share the news with Barton, but in the interim, the phone lines have resumed functioning and Col. Robinson demands that the attack move forward. Barton leads his men over the top, Archy among the ranks. Arriving mere seconds too late to stop the attack, Frank screams in anguish. As Archy’s comrades fall by the score, he drops his rifle and runs as fast toward the enemy positions as he can. The final shot is a freeze frame at the moment of Archy’s death, as he is hit and hurled backward by a fusillade of bullets to the chest (a haunting image modeled after Robert Capa’s famous photograph, “The Falling Soldier,” taken in 1936 at the Battle of Cerro Muriano during the Spanish Civil War).


Gallipoli proved to be a box office hit in Australia, grossing 11,740,000 AUD—four times its 2.8 million AUD production budget. Box office receipts for international releases were more modest. For example, the movie earned only $5.7 million in the United States where exhibition was limited to art house cinemas. Gallipoli was nominated for the 1981 Australian Film Institute Awards in ten categories and won in eight of them: Best Film, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor, Best Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Sound, and Best Editing. Reviews were mostly positive, with many critics citing the film’s deeply affecting lyricism atypical of war films. Janet Maslin’s review nicely articulates the consensus opinion that “the film approaches the subject of war so obliquely that it can’t properly be termed a war movie … Mr. Weir’s work has a delicacy, gentleness, even wispiness that would seem not well suited to the subject. And yet his film has an uncommon beauty, warmth, and immediacy, and a touch of the mysterious, too.” Maslin concludes by noting that there’s “nothing pointed in Mr. Weir’s decorous approach, even when the material would seem to call for toughness. But if the lush mood makes Gallipoli a less weighty war film than it might be, it also makes it a more airborne adventure” (New York Times, 28 August 1981).

Reel History Versus Real History

As the film’s opening disclaimer declares, “Although based on events which took place on the Gallipoli Peninsula in 1915, the characters portrayed in this film are entirely fictitious.” Mel Gibson’s character, Frank, was invented from whole cloth, but the Archy Hamilton character was inspired by Pvt. Wilfred Lukin Harper of the 10th Light Horse, who died at the Battle of the Nek at the age of 25. He was described in Bean’s Official History of Australia in the War of 1914–1918 as “last seen running forward like a schoolboy in a foot-race, with all the speed he could compass.” Col. Robinson’s character equates to the actual brigade major (chief of staff) of the 3rd Brigade: Col. John Antill (1866–1937), an Australian Boer War veteran and a bit of a martinet. Because of Robinson’s clipped, upper-class Australian accent, viewers tend to misidentify him as a British officer, even though he is wearing an AIF uniform. In point of fact, the Battle of the Nek was exclusively an Australian operation, though it was planned and ordered by British staff officers serving directly under ANZAC commander Gen. William Birdwood: Lt. Col. Andrew Skeen and Col. W. G. Braithwaite, chief of staff for Gen. Alexander Godley, one of ANZAC’s divisional commanders. As Les Carlyon (Gallipoli, 2001) and other historians have noted, the blame for the senseless slaughter at The Nek rests squarely on the shoulders of Col. Antill and his immediate superior, 3rd Australian Light Horse Brigade commander Brigadier General Frederic Hughes (1858–1944). In the midst of the second wave, Hughes left his headquarters to observe the attack, cutting himself off from communication with Antill and the rest of his staff. After the third wave had been decimated, Hughes ordered the attack be discontinued, but not in time to save half of the fourth wave. In the film General Gardiner, Hughes’ fictional counterpart, suspends the attack after the second wave. In reality the attack fell apart when half of the fourth wave charged the Turkish lines without orders and were duly cut down. The movie’s Major Barton is modeled on Lt. Col. Noel Brazier, the surviving regimental commander in the trenches who attempted to get the attack cancelled. Carlyon and others have stated that the Australian attack at the Nek was in actuality a diversion for the New Zealanders’ attack on Sari Bair, not the British landing at Suvla, as depicted in the film. The British were therefore not “drinking tea on the beach” while Australians died by the score—an anti-British slur popular with Australian filmgoers.

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