Australian filmmaker Peter Weir re-created the tragic and notorious World War I debacle of Gallipoli – a blundered campaign that saw the massacre of the Australian Tenth Light Horse Regiment at the Battle of the Nek in 1915 – with atmosphere and harrowing action, producing one of the classic films on war’s folly and waste.
Sporting rivals and pals, two fleet-footed young Australian runners – Frank Dunne (Mel Gibson) a rough and charming Irish-Australian ex-railroad worker and Archy Hamilton (Mark Lee) a middle-class rancher’s son and sensitive idealist – enlist into the Great War, joining the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) in Perth and journeying across the world for the British Empire, finding comradeship, courage, and horror in the trenches of the Dardanelles.
At Gallipoli, the Light Horse regiments are asked to take offensive action across open ground, despite the presence of Turkish gunners at the ground site. The Turks slaughter the ﬁrst wave in a matter of seconds. The second wave is also annihilated.
Major Barton (Bill Hunter) wants to halt the assault, but his commanding ofﬁcer, Colonel Robinson (John Morris), is resistant. When the phone line goes dead, Barton dispatches Frank on foot to brigade headquarters to try and get the attack halted, but Robinson insists that it continue.
Frank suggests going over the colonel’s head and appealing to General Gardner (Graham Dow) to stop the offensive. Frank sprints to Gardner’s headquarters and the general tells him that he is indeed reconsidering the whole situation.
Frank then sprints back to share the news with Barton, but in the interim, the phone lines have been repaired and Colonel Robinson demands that the attack move forward. Barton leads his men over the top, with Archy among the ranks.
Arriving mere seconds too late to stop the attack, Frank screams in anguish. As his comrades fall by the score, Archy drops his riﬂe and runs as fast toward the enemy positions as he can.
“What are your legs? Springs, steel springs. What are they going to do? They’re going to hold me down the track. How fast can you run? As fast as a leopard. How fast are you going to run? As fast as a leopard. Then let’s see you do it!”
The film’s haunting last image is a freeze-frame at the moment of Archy’s death – Weir’s homage to a famous photograph taken by Robert Capa in 1936 during the Spanish Civil War.
Weir distinguishes himself by creating a strong sense of time, place, culture clash and intimate human drama while imbuing even simple acts with beauty and mystery.
Like much of Weir’s work, Gallipoli radiates intelligence, humanity, and warmth through many such small moments.
Gibson, of course, is the one who went on to international superstardom, with Hollywood persuaded by Gallipoli that Mad Max was not just a tough guy but one who looked like a romantic leading man.
The film’s Art Director, Herbert Pinter, found topographically perfect locations for ANZAC Cove and the Nek at Farm Beach (now known as Gallipoli Beach) and Dutton Beach, respectively, both on the western side of the Lower Eyre Peninsula in South Australia, about 100 miles due west of Adelaide.
Gallipoli proved to be a box office hit in Australia, grossing $11,740,000 AUD – four times its $2.8 million AUD production budget. Box office receipts for international releases were more modest. For example, the movie earned only $5.7 million in the United States where exhibition was limited to art house cinemas.
The film was nominated for the 1981 Australian Film Institute Awards in ten categories and won in eight of them: Best Film, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor, Best Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Sound, and Best Editing.
The real Australian attack at the Nek was in actuality a diversion for the New Zealanders’ attack on Sari Bair, not the British landing at Suvla, as depicted in the ﬁlm. The British were therefore not “drinking tea on the beach” while Australians died by the score.
Because of Colonel Robinson’s clipped, upper-class Australian accent, viewers tended to misidentify him as a British ofﬁcer (even though he is wearing an AIF uniform). In point of fact, the Battle of the Nek was exclusively an Australian operation.