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 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.