Peter Galvin looks back at the impact of the Gallipoli movie on ANZAC Day celebrations.
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24 Apr 2012 - 2:05 PM  UPDATED 24 Apr 2012 - 2:05 PM

It's safe to suggest that most kids living in Australia right now understand what the ANZAC legend is about. Or, you might say, a version of it. But I recall a time when ANZAC Day felt very different to how it plays today.

This article, though, is not really about ANZAC, it's about Gallipoli, the 1981 movie. Written by David Williamson, already then a famous playwright and screenwriter, and directed by Peter Weir and starring Mel Gibson, Mark Lee and Bill Hunter, the $2.8million movie, shot in Egypt and South Australia, was a landmark moment in local cinema. Today, it's used as a primer in school history classes. For its makers, it was a solemn undertaking.

“I was the last generation where the battle was taught as sacred,” Weir said after the movie was completed. “Today, kids [in the early '80s] think of [ANZAC] as a joke.”

I was part of the generation that Weir was talking about. As a suburban boy of the '70s and '80s, the legend of Gallipoli and ANZAC didn't mean much. Most of our fathers were too young to have served in any war; those that did never talked about it. The annual parade, the hushed talk of bravery and the platitudes we heard about 'Australian spirit' seemed phoney to us. We thought, why celebrate such a terrible, appalling failure? Indeed, why celebrate death? ANZAC Day scratched our cultural cringe. Vietnam, the horror of the Burma railway, and Nazi prison camps were more alive to us, and that was because of movies like The Bridge on the River Kwai, The Great Escape, Apocalypse Now and The Deer Hunter. The waste of World War I and Australia's sacrifice never seemed to move us. We didn't understand how a 'historical footnote' could be a symbol for nationhood, even if we understood the appalling statistics.

In 1914 there were nearly 5 million Australians, and 330,000 of them went to fight in WWI – that's about 16% of the country's entire population. Sixty thousand of those died. Over 8,000 died in the Dardanelles on the Gallipoli peninsula. More than 19,000 were wounded. The New Zealand troops who took part in the battle (that's the NZ in the ANZAC we were told) were stricken heavily; some 7,000 of their men and more were killed or wounded.

It was a campaign under British command, an attempt to knock Turkey, a German ally, out of the war. By December 1915 the battle was over; the Allies had retreated. The Australian and New Zealand forces were in the minority; there were troops from Newfoundland, India and France, and the major force was British, and they lost over 70,000 dead or wounded. The Turkish suffered terribly, too, with 60 per cent of their force becoming casualties, about 250,000 men. “In military terms, in costs and results, Gallipoli was a minor campaign,” wrote Bill Gammage, war historian, and ultimately an advisor for Weir and Williamson on their film.*

His point was that more soldiers died in a week in France in 1916 than all the casualties at Gallipoli put together. We knew these facts but we hadn't learned or understood the meaning of the legend. “Gallipoli dared to touch a myth so strong and so fragile,” Gammage observed in the introduction to published screenplay. When we finally saw the movie, we found that it did not feel like Australian movies we knew; it was expensive (well, it looked it), spectacular and it was bigger than life. It was an Australian story and we were moved. That was a new experience.

When Peter Weir first visited the Gallipoli peninsula in October of 1976, the place was deserted. Rugged, remote, hard to get to, it only attracted 'the odd tourist' and, in those days, was still a military zone. At this point in his career, Weir had directed a string of imaginative, oddball films like Homesdale (1971) and The Cars That Ate Paris (1974), and had only one bona fide hit to his name, Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975). He knew he wanted to make a WWI movie, but was searching for a story, and this had led him to Gallipoli. He was, in his own words, looking for inspiration. He surveyed the remains of the tumbledown trenches. He swam in ANZAC cove and discovered relics from the battle – rusty tins, a live round of ammunition, a shrunken boot. That night in his hotel room, Weir nearly wept with an emotion he did not quite understand and told himself, “It did happen, they did die, we do have a past.” Weir, who already had a reputation as one who believed in cosmic possibilities, turned this experience into a mystical occurrence. He told a journalist later that night he had made 'a pact with Gallipoli's ghosts to tell their story'.

Originally, Williamson and Weir imagined a conventional war saga, a historical pageant that attempted to portray the campaign in detail, a bit like, say, A Bridge Too Far (1977). In the end, they decided it should be an intimate epic, a movie about mates: Archy (Mark Lee), a young patriot, and Frank (Mel Gibson), a worldly lad who doesn't believe in war, or much else, except perhaps the beauty of women and making a quick quid. The filmmakers read everything they could in researching ANZAC.

“The young men who enlisted wrote long letters to their loved ones, full of optimism,” says Williamson, “but that all changed once they were confronted with the horror of the front.”

Williamson met WWI veterans when preparing his script, “and not one of them had a kind word to say about war, the army, or any of it”. They, in Williamson's words, had been “conned, shafted” by the propaganda machine that had convinced them that war was somehow an “adventure”.

“It was the tragic waste that was our focus – and mateship,” he says.

That's why the film, says Williamson, uses arguably the most horrendous moment of the Gallipoli campaign: the suicidal charge on the Nek by WA recruits of the 8th and 10th Regiments of the Light Horse, which actually took place on 7th August, 1915.

“The veterans I spoke to said they felt they could not rely on the army or government [once in the battlefield]… they felt the only thing that could, and would, get them through was each other.” In interviews later, Williamson called the film a male “love story”, a description that some pundits scorned.

Gallipoli broke Australian box-office records, earning nearly $12m in theatres, an enormous sum at the time. It was a success in ways that the nascent Australian film industry could not anticipate.

According to some researchers, it helped grow an ANZAC industry in publishing and documentaries. Its wider cultural impact is inestimable. Nineteen eighty-two saw the largest turnout for ANZAC Day commemorations to that time; some journalists credited Gallipoli as the inspiration behind the swelled numbers.

Williamson did not in fact visit Gallipoli till four years ago. The veteran tourist guide told him that it was only after the film that the war memorial became a truly popular mass-appeal key destination for tourists.

Today, Williamson says: “I would not, and don't, credit the film with any special significance on the popularity of ANZAC or how it's perceived,” he says. “And while we never did deny the extraordinary heroism of the men of ANZAC, we never did feel that we were trumpeting those virtues that people like to attribute to Australians and their 'spirit', like manliness and toughness. Gallipoli was not meant to be patriotic. It's ironic when I see people wrapping themselves in the flag. Today, I think ANZAC has become [for some] something like a celebration. The movie is not.”

*Much of the historical detail here, including the origins of the film, come from the book, The Story of Gallipoli, by Bill Gammage, originally published in 1981 by Penguin, which includes the movie's screenplay by Williamson and a preface by Peter Weir.

All quotes from David Williamson are taken from a conversation with the writer in April, 2012.