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The birth of a legend: reinforcing Australian mythology in Peter Weir's Gallipoli.

When Gallipoli was released in 1981, it became an instant classic of the Australian screen. Amid the centenary of the Gallipoli campaign, this is a fitting time to re-examine the film, its intentions and its significance in upholding the Anzac national myth, writes BRIDGET CURRAN.

There has been much written and said on the Anzac legend and its role in creating an Australian identity. The tragic Gallipoli campaign has often been discussed in relation to the Australian ideals of mateship, courage and ingenuity in the face of overwhelming odds. Despite being a great military failure for ANZAC and other Allied troops, the emphasis on bravery and sacrifice at Gallipoli has been so constant and powerful that many commentators have focused solely on the aspirational, heroic aspects of the campaign, turning it into an indisputable point of pride.

Among the nation-building rhetoric and the nostalgic commemorations are the very real and painful stories of human loss. The conflict in Gallipoli cost thousands of lives and damaged many more, as survivors were left with emotional, psychological and physical wounds. Communities back home were then left to pick up the pieces of damaged lives and mourn the loss of missing and deceased loved ones.

Many of these stories of tragedy could be made into compelling films. But the stories that Australian filmmakers have chosen to tell, and those they have excluded, can tell us a great deal about how we see the Anzac legend and how we choose to commemorate World War I. In the case of Gallipoli (1981), director Peter Weir and screenwriter David Williamson chose to illustrate one of the most powerful and dramatic chapters in modern Australian history through a story that does not draw on any single 'true' account, but rather combines several stories of wartime. This article explores how Weir and Williamson have embraced the Anzac myth in Gallipoli, but may have missed an opportunity to also critique it in any new or meaningful way.


The reception of a film based on such an iconic event in history will necessarily be affected by the emotional and cultural expectations of an Australian audience. Even its title, Gallipoli, immediately conjures images of Anzac stereotypes: brave young men--loyal larrikins--who make the ultimate sacrifice for their country. The audience comes to this film knowing that many bad things will happen, and the tension lies in watching those things unfold and seeing just how bad it gets. Weir has spoken of his original intention to make a war film about one of the French campaigns, (1) but in choosing to focus on Gallipoli he has presented a location that evokes tragic and uniquely 'Anzac' images more powerfully than any other.

Gallipoli exploits the power of its location very effectively. The innocence of the Australian people in the face of war is palpable, as the characters in the film struggle to even pronounce 'Gallipoli', a word that will soon enough become laden with meaning for all Australians raised under the shadow of the Anzac legend. The lighthearted expectations of the characters early in the film--they want to see the world, help the Empire and beat the enemy--drown out the voices of the few characters with life experience that hint at the realities of war.

In one of the most telling scenes, Frank (Mel Gibson), an unemployed ex-railway labourer who lives largely by his considerable wits, and his co-workers Bill (Robert Grubb), Barney (Tim McKenzie) and Snowy (David Argue) talk about enlisting for the war after having read a newspaper article on the Turkish defence system. Snowy and Bill decide to 'join up', then try to convince Barney to do so, too, by reassuring them that 'the girls go wild over a uniform'. Frank, however, refuses to take part: 'No thanks. If you blokes all want to go and get yourselves shot, go ahead.' Snowy--illustrating the positive, and perhaps naive, outlook towards war at the time--heroically professes, 'Well, I'm not scared to die for my country, Frank.'


Archy (Mark Lee) is an eighteen-year-old stockman who is simple, kind-hearted and hardworking--an excellent symbol of the young Australian nation. Naive but eager, and with a natural unaffected talent and humility, his only fatal flaw is his belief that his own home isn't enough; he needs to go out and explore the world. Most notably, there is a sense in Gallipoli that this character feels all the invincibility of youth. Archy's uncle Jack (Bill Kerr) is the first to challenge his dream of joining the war effort. Archy draws an analogy between Jack's adventures as a young man and his own hopes for military glory. The nature of Jack's youthful exploits are not elaborated on, but there is definitely a dark tone to their conversation and an implication that Jack knows how terrible war can be. Ultimately, Jack insists there is no comparison: 'I judged the risks and took my chances. War's different [...] It's just different!'

Jack's subtle warnings fall on deaf ears: Archy insists on enlisting despite the fact that he's too young to do so legally. It takes two attempts and an illegal name-change before he is finally accepted into the Light Horse troops; he adopts the surname of his hero, the world sprinting champion Harry Lascelles, to finally get in.

Not long after Jack warns Archy to forget about enlisting, there is a poignant moment as the gruff uncle reads The Jungle Book to an enthralled group of children. A particular passage describes Mowgli's fear, pain and confusion as he experiences tears for the first time when faced with losing his companions, reaching manhood and having to leave the family of wolves that raised him:

'I do not wish to leave the jungle, and I do not know what this is. Am I dying, Bagheera?'

'No, Little Brother. That is only tears such as men use,'said Bagheera. 'Now I know thou art a man, and a man's cub no longer. [...] Let them fall, Mowgli. They are only tears.' So Mowgli sat and cried as though his heart would break; and he had never cried in all his life before.

'Now,' he said, 'I will go to men'. (2)

The passage, and the scene, presages the tears shed over fallen soldiers, and the tears of fear as men prepare for almost-certain death in the trenches. The moments of doubt and darkness are few and far between at the beginning of the film, but they are used to great effect to create a potent sense of foreboding. Archy's emotional departure sees Jack farewell his nephew with a few tears and a brisk 'God bless you, boy.'

From this point on, Major Barton (Bill Hunter) takes on his role as the stern but kindly older figure who hints at knowing too much about the horrors of war. One of Barton's tenderest moments comes as Archy delivers a message to him at a lavish party. Frank takes the opportunity to sneak into the party at the same time, though Barton asks Archy to inform Frank that 'this is a dance for officers only'. Barton then unfolds the note that Archy has just handed him; it reads:

July 15,1915

Major Barton, Embarking Alexandria, 0600 hours tomorrow.

Following that discovery, Barton tells Archy, 'Lasalles, have one or two drinks before you go.' Well aware that this is a turning point in these young men's lives, Barton allows them a last evening of fun before they face their uncertain future.


Mateship is a central element of the Anzac myth. It is often portrayed as the main motivation for fighting, and the secret weapon of the ANZAC soldier--a source of strength and comfort in difficult times. The loss of innocence and the resultant coming-of-age of Australian soldiers--and, by extension, of Australia--are central to both the Anzac legend and Gallipoli.

Indeed, the story of two mates forms the focal point of the film: an eighteen-year-old on the cusp of manhood and his friend who comes to war unwillingly.

While training in Egypt, Bill makes some deeply poignant reflections on the pyramids, describing them as 'man's first attempt to beat death'. It is one of the film's shrewdest insights into man's efforts to be remembered, and it is reinforced when characters face their own deaths at Gallipoli. Archy and Frank had climbed the pyramids and carved their names and the year in the ancient stone, as many graffitists did before them; they were creating memorials to themselves and to their enduring friendship. Their carving includes the phrase 'RIP 1915'. Their motivation for this sombre addition isn't really explained; perhaps it is a touch of black humour and a cheeky acknowledgement that they are sitting on ancient tombs. For the audience, it is nevertheless a grim presentiment of the dangers that await them and the very real threat to the lives of the two friends.


Men racing is a powerful visual motif throughout the film. The film opens with Archy training for a race in the Australian outback; Jack is stern but proud of his nephew and his legs, the latter referred to throughout as 'Springs. Steel springs.' Frank is also seen running on several occasions. Like Archy, he is a great sprinter, but he uses his skill to very different ends--making money (through betting or winning prizes) or illegally catching a train, for example. Frank doesn't see running as a noble endeavour or dream, like Archy does. The two men meet at a race, and from there their friendship develops. It is continually tested as they put their bodies through all kinds of trials: running to catch a train, walking across salt lakes in the Australian wilderness and, later, racing to the pyramids when they are united again in Egypt.

Archy's passion for sprinting is an important source of identity and pride. Early in the film he runs barefoot in a race against Les (Harold Hopkins), an arrogant stockman who agrees to ride bareback to even the odds. Astoundingly Archy wins, although his feet are torn to shreds in the process. The scene shows Archy's tough spirit, sense of humour and faith in himself. Significantly, it also evidences a perception that spirit and talent are enough to overcome any obstacle. This belief is also present in the moments before Archy's first and final battle, when he repeats the pre-race mantra taught to him by his uncle so many miles away back in Western Australia. It is a source of comfort, perhaps, but also a hope against hope that his 'steel spring' legs will carry him to victory against all odds once again.

Sadly, Archy's optimism is destroyed in the final moments of the film, with Weir cleverly painting how this young man's skill and spirit may count for nothing in the face of enemy fire and overwhelmingly unfavourable circumstances. The audience has already seen Archy triumph against amazing odds; can he pull it off again? Tension is heightened as many viewers are familiar with Gallipoli's history, and would know that the chances of outrunning gunfire and emerging unscathed are highly unlikely. At a crucial moment, army officials become convinced that renewed attacks on the Turkish forces are doomed and must be stopped immediately. With communication systems down, it's up to a single messenger to carry the news to the Australian commanding officer able to stop the slaughter of Australian troops on the front line. Who better for such a crucial role than a champion sprinter?

Archy is originally asked to carry the messages but turns down this opportunity; instead, he recommends Frank, knowing it could protect his friend from a pointless battle. Frank runs as though his life depends on it--in fact, he knows many lives depend on it--but he doesn't make it to the front line in time to stop the attack. All of Frank's strength and speed is not enough to save Archy and many nameless other men when they are called in to sacrifice their lives in a futile effort against enemy forces.

The brave, optimistic Anzac spirit, so lovingly crafted and reinforced in the Australian psyche, is personified in the character of Archy. His death is a tragic reminder that all the courage and positivity in the world can falter in the face of overwhelming odds and the cruel, harsh realities of war. The racing analogy that is so skilfully reinforced throughout the film is beautifully poignant when Archy dies at the Battle of the Nek. In the film's iconic final shot, he runs for his life and is hit by enemy fire. The still frame of the moment of impact fading to black is a memorable and powerful image of the tragedy and pointlessness of war. Freezing this moment affords viewers a chance to hold their breath--to take in Archy's shocked face, his strong body bent back by the force of the fast bullets that seem to come from nowhere. The heart of the film, and the personification of the Anzac spirit, is crushed in one senseless instant.


Weir's film perpetuates the Anzac myth to great effect, but fails to offer any new analysis of Gallipoli or the legend surrounding it. Perhaps the real tension between the will to challenge the myth and the desire to reinforce it lies in the confused feelings of the filmmaker. Indeed, any Australian who has grown up with annual Anzac Day marches and memorials will probably be able to sympathise with Weir's admission that 'despite careful research the core of the myth of ANZAC eluded us'.3 There is something intangible about national myths that allows them to defy attempts to elucidate where they began and why they endure. When they have become as firmly entrenched as the Anzac legend has, they become even more difficult to analyse. As Weir writes:

Our story became more about the journey than the destination, about people rather than events. To go back to [Russian film director Sergei] Eisenstein and his breakthrough on Alexander Nevsky: 'it was no longer stones that appealed to us and told us their history, but the people who had laid them.' (4)

The strength of the Anzac myth can be attributed to its ability to give meaning to death when life has been taken so needlessly; for the legend to be seriously challenged, it is the people who drive and benefit from its perpetuation, rather than the events repeatedly retold, that need to be the starting point. The Anzac story has long been built on the heavy stones of guilt and mourning, and as Gallipoli proves, they are not easily overturned.

Bridget Curran is a writer and researcher for film and television whose credits include arts and history documentaries for the ABC and SBS and Miracles of Mary for Allen & Unwin. She has over eighteen years of experience curating historical collections for museums and government bodies.


(1) Peter Weir, interview, Gallipoli, special-edition DVD, 20th Century Fox, 2005.

(2) Rudyard Kipling, 'Mowgli's Brothers', The Jungle Book, 2006 [1894], available at Project Gutenberg, <http://www.gutenberg. org/files/236/236-h/236-h.htm>, accessed 14 April 2015.

(3) Peter Weir, preface to Bill Gammage, The Story of Gallipoli, Penguin, Ringwood, Victoria, 1981, p. 6.

(4) ibid.
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Title Annotation:WWI REMEMBERED
Author:Curran, Bridget
Publication:Screen Education
Date:Jul 1, 2015
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