On Anzac Day 25 April I read that this Australian classic film is supposedly Australia's most popular war film. This is surprising in a way because the film is more than two thirds over by the time we get the first battlefield scenes in the film. Director Peter Weir and screen writer David Williamson choose not to dig too deeply into the historical debate as to why the Gallipoli landings were a military disaster,but choose instead to tell a much simpler story of two young men and their first experiences of war.
The film opens in May 1915 only a week or so after Australian troops had landed at the Dardenelles, and some Australians were still having difficulty pronouncing the word "Gallipoli" The two main characters, Frank (Mel Gibson)and Archie(Mark Lee),first cross paths at an athletics track event in rural Western Australia,and somewhat unintentionally become 'mates'.They travel by foot across the desert to enlist in the city,Archie through a sense of patriotism and duty,Frank reluctantly because of peer pressure. They both attempt to enlist in the elite light horse cavalry,Archie is accepted, while Frank is rejected because of his inability to ride. As Archie departs, Frank retires to the nearest hotel,where he is unexpectedly reunited with a group of his former mates,Bill,Barney and Snow,who have already enlisted in the infantry. Frank decides to join them. To complete their training,the troops depart from Fremantle,disembarking in Egypt,and Archie and Frank are reunited in opposing sides during military maneuvers. They reaffirm their friendship,when Frank is able to get transferred to the Light horse, and both eventually depart with the regiment to Gallipoli. The last scenes of the film are devoted to a detailed recreation of the Gallipoli beach head.
When I first saw this film in the 1980s, I was disappointed with the seemingly simplistic storyline and cliched stereotypical view of mateship laconic,larrikin Australian soldiers with poor attitudes to authority,but nevertheless good men. I think I was also disappointed that no attempt was made to explain the nature of the military debacle at Gallipoli. Over the years, I have come to reflect that this was a misreading of the film, as it seems to me now what Williamson was trying to recreate in the film, was the moment in time when Australian values as mateship were forged.
Weir offers us images of an Australia in 1915 that was a much different and less complex place to the Australia of the 1980s let alone Australia now. The values of rural Australia predominated,with the stock man,the athlete and the horseman as heroes, and loyalty to the British Empire important. On the other hand,much of rural Australia with its vast desert was isolated and insular in its attitudes to anything in the outside world. A lone camel driver that Archie and Frank encounter in the desert is unaware that a war with Germany is happening,but also expresses a healthy scepticism that any invasion was likely. When the mates leave Australia, they see the reality of the rest of the world for the first time,and show their naivety and innocence when dealing with middle eastern culture in Egypt,convinced that the Egyptians were out to 'gyp' them. Their training is a game not to be taken seriously,as discipline breaks down at maneuvers as opponents on both sides joke and play dead. Weir and Williamson allow the audience to draw their own inferences from the images rather than overstating the point.
The film does not celebrate simple minded patriotism, as Archie's desire to defend his country despite being under aged is not championed but is contrasted strongly with the more pragmatic Frank who would rather stay at home and start a business than take part in an unnecessary war,even though he does in the end. Both men join the celebrated Light horse ,but cavalry was irrelevant at Gallipoli,just as it was in the trenches of the western front. Based on books such as Bill Gammage's The Broken Years, the film with its series of authentic vignettes and images attempts to capture the spirit of the times.
The tone of the last scenes of the film is elegiac, as two of the mates die and the remainder are shattered. Then the soldiers prepare to go over the top in the futile Battle of the Nek, the audience see the men prepare for the deadly assault, close ups of men writing final letters to their loved ones, and Archie hanging his athletic medals on a bayonet in the side of the trench. Meanwhile, Frank runs back and forth,dodging enemy bullets,from command post to his own regiment,in a futile attempt to stop the attack, before the whistle blows to send the men over the top. While the details of the attack are not strictly historically accurate, Williamson uses this smaller incident of that debacle of the Battle of the Nek,as a symbol of the grander calamity of the whole campaign.
Peter Weir consolidated his directorial reputation with this film, and Gibson was on the point of international stardom when he made it. Their film is an appropriate memorial to the men who died on the first Anzac Day of 1915 , without being a glorification of war itself.