Gallipoli: 'It's not our bloody war'

Gallipoli: 'It's not our bloody war'
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The NFSA has completed a digital restoration of Gallipoli (1981).

Lost in the desert, on their way to join up, Archy (Mark Lee) and Frank (Mel Gibson) discuss politics, patriotism and the reasons for war.

Gallipoli remains one of the most loved of all Australian films. It’s one of Weir’s most nakedly emotional films and one of his most poetic.

Summary by Paul Byrnes.

Gallipoli is partly a film about innocence and purity of heart, and landscape is an important element in that theme. The stark desert setting for this scene is almost abstract, as if the two friends are crossing from one state of mind to another – perhaps from boyhood to manhood. It also has Biblical overtones, as a trial in the desert that must be overcome before they can proceed to their destinations.

Before this scene, the Western Australian landscape is shown more realistically. The stylisation in this clip emphasises that the characters are undergoing a transition. The dialogue, about the politics of the war, also reflects differences in attitude – Archy’s obedience versus Frank’s pragmatism.

Gallipoli synopsis

In Western Australia in 1915 two young men join up to fight in the First World War. Archy Hamilton (Mark Lee) is the patriotic son of a grazier. Frank Dunne (Mel Gibson) is a drifter with no great desire to fight for the British Empire. They meet as runners in an outback footrace and become best mates. After training in Egypt, they land at Gallipoli, just as the great allied assaults of August 1915 are to begin.

Gallipoli curator's notes

Gallipoli created a national and international debate when it premiered in 1981. It was a huge hit in Australia, but British historians took it to task for factual inaccuracies and alleged bias against the British commanders of the campaign.

The charge at The Nek on August 7, 1915, which provides the film’s climax, did take place but an Australian, rather than a British officer, ordered the final charge. The film gives the opposite impression, something Peter Weir has said he regrets. 'The implication was that we were Pom bashing,’ he told David Stratton, 'whereas they had fought valiantly and suffered terribly alongside us. Apart from that the events were portrayed pretty accurately’. Historians are still divided over the wider question of whether the British commanders of the campaign were incompetent.

The film remains one of the most loved of all Australian films, partly because of its intense nationalism. Its mixture of innocence and sacrifice, youthful high spirits and brutal, industrialised murder, helped to redefine how Australians thought about the First World War. In dramatic terms, it’s one of Weir’s most nakedly emotional films and one of his most poetic, especially during the elegiac finale. It is packed with religious imagery, the final freeze-frame being a form of crucifixion.

It opened shortly after Breaker Morant, another film that presented a vision of Australian soldiers (even if Morant was actually British) as lambs to a British slaughter.

Notes by Paul Byrnes.


Education notes

This clip shows Archy Hamilton (Mark Lee) and Frank Dunne (Mel Gibson) walking across the desert on their way to enlist to fight in the First World War. They disagree about motives for joining up and Archy, who is more patriotic, calls Frank a coward. Continuing, they become lost, with Archy’s attempts at navigation failing. The clip finishes with a shot of the two figures in the distance, a great arc of footprints behind them.

Educational value points

  • The clip exemplifies director Peter Weir’s poetic use of film language. Although there is little dialogue, the action, framing, depth of shots, focus and sound eloquently create the Australian landscape and the characters’ isolation. Archy and Frank often occupy opposite sides of the frame, reinforcing their philosophical distance from each other. The wind and amplification of footsteps emphasise the vast emptiness of the desert and Frank’s blurred figure following Archy evokes the shimmering heat.
  • When war broke out in 1914, approximately 40 per cent of adult Australian men aged 18–45 enlisted voluntarily to serve in the Australian Imperial Forces, reflecting the prevailing mood of patriotic affection for the British Empire. This figure dropped sharply after the defeat at Gallipoli and once the enormous number of casualties on the Western Front and the increasing cost of the war on the home front became known.
  • The situation in the clip recreates a national debate, both historical and current, about Australia’s involvement in foreign wars. Australian soldiers have been deployed to fight in many wars abroad despite the opposition expressed at home. During the First World War the nation was divided politically, socially and religiously, and this debate reached a climax in the conscription referendums of 1916 and 1917, both of which were narrowly defeated. Religious opposition was significant as many Australians of Irish Catholic descent resented the call to fight for Britain following the British suppression of the 1916 Easter Uprising in Ireland.
  • The landscape was used in Australian films of the 1970s and 1980s to underscore themes of white Australian national identity. The characters struggle with the emptiness and harshness of the landscape, while the camera also appreciates its beauty. There is an irony in the vulnerability of the white characters and their fear of perishing in a hostile environment that has supported Australian Indigenous people for thousands of years.
  • The clip illustrates the developing filmic iconography of the Australian male hero, the digger, and his relationship with his mates. Depending on each other in the desert, the two men show characteristics of the stoic, laconic soldiers they will become later in the film, using humour to overcome adversity and berating each other while their affection for each other grows. In the film, survival in battle, as in the bush, depends on mutual loyalty, initiative and endurance. Weir thereby places mateship at the heart of the male heroes’ relationship.
  • Mel Gibson (1956–) is shown in a role that contributed to his rise to fame. Gibson became known for his portrayal of ordinary reckless young men who become reluctant heroes struggling against adversity, in some ways similar to the role he played in the Mad Max series (1979, 1981, 1985). He won an Australian Film Institute (AFI) Award for Best Actor in a Lead Role (1981) for playing Frank in Gallipoli. This early success has culminated in his status as one of the world’s most well-known actors. He is also an acclaimed director, having won an Academy Award for Braveheart (1995). The humour in this clip also hints at his comedic skills, further demonstrated in a string of comedy hits.

Education notes provided by The Learning Federation and Education Services Australia.

Production company:
Associated R & R Films
Robert Stigwood, Patricia Lovell
Peter Weir
Screenplay by:
David Williamson
From a story by:
Peter Weir
Mel Gibson, Robert Grubb, Harold Hopkins, Bill Hunter, Bill Kerr (AKA Willie Kerr), Mark Lee

Two men stride through the desert, engaged in strident discussion.
Archy You of all people should be going.
Frank Why me of all people?
Archy Because you’re an athlete.
Frank Haha! What’s that got to do with it?
Archy I’ve got mates who’d be lucky to run the 100 in 12, and they’re gonna do their bit. So why shouldn’t you?
Frank Because it’s not our bloody war!
Archy What do you mean, not our war?
Frank It’s an English war. It’s got nothing to do with us.
Archy You know what you are? You’re a bloody coward.
Frank There’s only one reason why I haven’t knocked you down, mate.
Archy What?
Frank Because I don’t feel like carrying you to the next bloody waterhole. Now shut up, and don’t open your yap about the war again.

They walk on. Frank stops for a drink. They seem to be lost.
Frank Where’s your sun now?
They keep walking.