Gallipoli (1981 film)  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

Gallipoli is a 1981 Australian film, directed by Peter Weir and starring Mel Gibson and Mark Lee, about several young men from rural Western Australia who enlist in the Australian Army during the First World War. They are sent to Turkey, where they take part in the Gallipoli Campaign. During the course of the movie, the young men slowly lose their innocence about the purpose of war. The climax of the movie occurs on the Anzac battlefield at Gallipoli and depicts the futile attack at the Battle of the Nek on 7 August 1915.

Gallipoli provides a faithful portrayal of life in Australia in the 1910s—reminiscent of Weir's 1975 film Picnic at Hanging Rock set in 1900—and captures the ideals and character of the Australians who joined up to fight, as well as the conditions they endured on the battlefield. It does, however, modify events for dramatic purposes and contains a number of significant historical inaccuracies.

It followed the Australian New Wave war film Breaker Morant (1980) and preceded the 5-part TV series ANZACs (1985), and The Lighthorsemen (1987). Recurring themes of these films include the Australian identity, such as mateship and larrikinism, the loss of innocence in war, and the continued coming of age of the Australian nation and its soldiers (later called the ANZAC spirit).

The numerous running sequences in the film are set to Jean Michel Jarre's Oxygène.



Western Australia, May 1915. Archy Hamilton (Mark Lee), a 18-year old stockman and prize-winning sprinter, longs to enlist in the Australian Imperial Force. He is trained by his Uncle Jack (Bill Kerr) and idolises Harry Lascelles, the world champion over 100 yards.

During a cattle roundup, Archy gets into an argument with local bully Les McCann (Harold Hopkins). They race against each other, under the condition that Archy will run bare-foot and Les will ride his horse bareback. Archy wins, but his feet are horribly mangled, only a few days before an athletics carnival.

Later, Archy listens as uncle reads The Jungle Book to the younger children of the family. The passage wherein Mowgli reaches manhood and must leave the wolves that raised him moves him deeply. Archy's political beliefs are influenced as well, as he hears several conversations taking place that convince him of the need to join the military. Eventually, Archy and Uncle Jack journey to the athletics carnival.

Meanwhile, Frank Dunne (Mel Gibson) is an unemployed railway labourer who has run out of money. He's a fast runner, though, and hopes to win the prize money at the athletics carnival. However, he is deeply impressed when Archy defeats him. As a result, Frank approaches Archy, who has been turned away from the enlistment board for being under age. Ultimately, he and Frank decide to travel to Perth to enlist.

As Archy and Frank are flat broke, they secretly hop on a freight train only to awaken at an isolated station. They walk across the desert while debating politics. After receiving directions from a camel rider, Archy and Frank stop for the night at a nearby cattle station. Upon arriving in Perth, they arrange to stay with Frank's father, an Irish immigrant.

Due to his Irish heritage and general cynicism, Frank has little desire to fight for the British Empire. However, loyalty to Archy persuades him to try to enlist in the Light Horse. Unable to ride a horse, Frank enlists in the infantry with three co-workers from the railway: Bill (Robert Grubb), Barney (Tim McKenzie), and Snowy (David Argue). Many of the motivations for enlistment are revealed: wartime ultra-nationalism, anti-German propaganda, a sense of adventure, and the attraction of the uniform.

After enlisting, all soldiers embark on a transport ship bound for Cairo. Frank and Archy are separated and embark on different troopships.

In Egypt for training, Frank and his fellow soldiers train near the Pyramids and spend their free time in Cairo, drinking and visiting brothels. During a training exercise, Frank and Archy meet once again; and Frank is able to transfer to the Light Horse, as they are now being sent to the Gallipoli peninsula as infantrymen.

Frank and Archy arrive at Anzac Cove in the dead of night and, over the next several days, endure the hardships and boredom of trench warfare. Frank's infantry friends fight in the Battle of Lone Pine on the evening of 6 August. Afterwards, a traumatized Billy tells Frank what happened to the others: Barney was shot and killed, and Snowy is in a hospital, but in such bad condition that he is denied food and water. His last request to Frank is that his diary be sent to his parents. The following morning, Archy and Frank are ordered to take part in the charge at the Nek, which is to act as a diversion in support of the British landing at Suvla Bay.

Archy is ordered by their commander, Major Barton (Bill Hunter), to be the message runner. He declines the offer and recommends Frank for the role.

The 8th and 10th Light Horse attack in three waves across a narrow stretch of exposed ground defended by Turkish machine gunners. The first wave is timed to go at 4:30 AM, the end of an artillery bombardment. Unfortunately, the commanders' watches are unsynchronized and the bombardment ends several minutes before the planned time of the attack. Nevertheless, the brigade's commander, Colonel Robinson, insists the attack proceed; the first wave goes over the top and is mercilessly cut down within seconds. Right before the second wave goes over, Archy recognizes his old rival Les and realizes he is about to go over with the second wave. The second wave goes over, and Les is one of the first to die. Major Barton wants to halt the attack to end the carnage, but Colonel Robinson says that somebody told him ANZAC marker flags were seen in the Turkish trenches, indicating that the attack was at least partially successful. Moments later, the phone line goes dead. Barton gives Frank a message to carry to Robinson at brigade HQ; but, when he arrives, the Colonel insists the attack continue.

Frank returns to Barton and suggests going over the Colonel's head to the Division Commander, General Gardner. Lieutenant Gray (Peter Ford), Barton's aide and second-in-command, admits to Barton that he was the soldier who said that he saw marker flags. However, Gray only heard there were marker flags in the trenches but does not know who said it. Frank hurries to Gardner's headquarters down on the beach. The General is informed that, at Suvla, the British landing party is brewing tea on the beach. He tells Frank that he is reconsidering the attack. As Frank frantically sprints back, the phone lines are repaired and the Colonel orders Barton to push on. Barton joins his men in the attack by climbing out of the trench, pistol in hand, and signaling his men to charge. After being given time to pray, write letters, and save their possessions to be sent to their families, Archy joins the last wave; going over the top and into no man's land. Frank arrives seconds too late and lets out a scream of anguish and despair. As all his companions are cut down by machine gun fire, Archy drops his rifle and runs as hard as he can. The final frame freezes on him being riddled with bullets in an image which evokes Robert Capa's The Falling Soldier.


A major theme of the film is loss of innocence and the coming of age of the Australian soldiers and of their country. An early scene in the film depicts Uncle Jack reading from The Jungle Book about how Mowgli has reached manhood and now must leave the family of wolves that raised him. Actor Mel Gibson commented, “Gallipoli was the birth of a nation. It was the shattering of a dream for Australia. They had banded together to fight the Hun and died by the thousands in a dirty little trench war."

The film draws a parallel between sport and warfare, with a recruiter for the Light Horse at the Kimberley Gift race calling war "the greatest game of them all."


Peter Weir cast Mel Gibson in the role of the cynical Frank Dunne, and newcomer Mark Lee was recruited to play the idealistic Archy Hamilton after participating in a photo session for the director. Gibson explained the director's reasons for casting the two leads:

"I'd auditioned for an earlier film and he told me right up front, ‘I'm not going to cast you for this part. You're not old enough. But thanks for coming in, I just wanted to meet you.’ He told me he wanted me for Gallipoli a couple of years later because I wasn't the archetypal Australian. He had Mark Lee, the angelic-looking, ideal Australian kid, and he wanted something of a modern sensibility. He thought the audience needed someone to relate to of their own time."

Gibson described the film as "Not really a war movie. That's just the backdrop. It's really the story of two young men."

The screenplay is by David Williamson and original music was provided by Australian composer Brian May (who had also scored Mad Max). However the most striking feature of the soundtrack was the use of excerpts from Oxygène by French electronic music pioneer Jean Michel Jarre during running scenes. Quiet or sombre moments at Gallipoli, and the closing credits, feature the Adagio in G minor. The use of the adagio (Major Barton is heard playing it before the final attack) is a historical oddity. A fragment of the composition purportedly discovered in 1958 by composer Thomaso Albinoni's biographer, Remo Giazotto, in the ruins of a Dresden museum after it was destroyed during World War II, was in fact an entirely new work by Giazotto. Whether a musical hoax or not, the music would not have been known at the time of the battle.

It took three years for the filmmakers to secure funding for the film, and government's film agency declined support because the film was deemed "not commercial." With a cost of $2.8 million, Gallipoli had the highest budget of an Australian film to date. The film was eventually produced by R&R Films, a production company owned by Robert Stigwood and media proprietor Rupert Murdoch. Murdoch's father, Keith Murdoch, was a journalist during the First World War. He visited Gallipoli briefly in September 1915 and became an influential agitator against the conduct of the campaign by the British.

Gallipoli was filmed primarily in South Australia. The cattle station scenes were shot in Beltana, the salt lake at Lake Torrens, the station at Adelaide Railway Station, and the coastline near Port Lincoln was transformed into the Gallipoli Peninsula. The pyramid and bazaar scenes were fimed on location in Egypt.


Gallipoli proved to be a success domestically at the box office earning $11,740,000. Roadshow Video also successfully distributed Gallipoli through video-cassette with the film topping the list in Australian Film Rental in 1981 earning a further $2,854,000. Gallipoli was also released in both the United Kingdom and America despite an icy reception by several international critics.

Rotten Tomatoes gives it an Average Rating of 7.9/10 from 15 reviews. Metacritic gives it 65 (generally favorable reviews) from 6 reviews.

Gallipoli was nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Foreign Film.

Historical criticism

Gallipoli shows much of the conditions and events that soldiers endured in the Gallipoli theater of war. Archy Hamilton's athlete character was inspired by a line from C.E.W. Bean's Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-1918 describing Private Wilfred Harper of the 10th Light Horse during the attack at the Nek:

"Wilfred... was last seen running forward like a schoolboy in a foot-race, with all the speed he could compass."

The most notable deviation of the film from reality, and the one for which it has been most criticized, is its portrayal of the chain of command at the Nek. Although he is seen wearing an AIF uniform, Colonel Robinson is often mistaken for an Englishman due to his accent, which is in fact a clipped Anglo-Australian accent typical of the time and not a deliberate attempt to mislead the audience.

In any case, Colonel Robinson's character equates to the brigade-major of the 3rd Brigade, Colonel J.M. Antill, an Australian Boer War veteran. Indeed very little British command and control was exercised at the Nek. In his best-selling history, Gallipoli (2001) Les Carlyon agrees that the film unfairly portrays the English during the battle and Carlyon lays the blame squarely at the feet of Antill and 3rd Australian Light Horse Brigade commander Brigadier General Frederic Hughes - "The scale of the tragedy of the Nek was mostly the work of two Australian incompetents, Hughes and Antill."

The film implies that the fictional and benevolent General Gardiner called off the attack, when in reality the attack petered out when half of the 4th wave charged without orders whilst the surviving regimental commander in the trenches, Lieutenant Colonel Noel Brazier, attempted to get the attack called off.

Other critics, Carlyon included, have pointed out that the Australian attack at the Nek was a diversion for the New Zealanders' attack on Sari Bair, not the British landing at Suvla. The British were therefore not 'drinking tea on the beach' while Australians died for them. Moreover two companies of a British regiment, the Royal Welsh Fusiliers, in fact suffered very heavy losses trying to support the Australian attack at the Nek once it was realized that the offensive was in trouble. Some have also criticized the film for its portrayal of British officers and their disdain for Australian discipline behind the lines. According to Robert R. James, no evidence for any such disdain on the part of British commanders for their Australian troops actually exists; However, the British command's low regard for the discipline of Australian troops behind the lines has been widely documented by old historians (such as C.W. Bean) and new ones (Les Carlyon) alike and by oral tradition of the survivors.

See also

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Gallipoli (1981 film)" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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