Gallipoli Movie Essay Reviews

Director: Peter Weir
Entertainment grade: A–
History grade: A–

Gallipoli was a first world war campaign, a joint offensive by allied forces intended to capture Constantinople and secure a sea route to Russia. It was also the first major engagement for Anzac, the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps. Gallipoli incurred one of the highest death tolls of the war while failing to achieve its objective.

Joining up

The film opens in rural Western Australia in 1915, where a group of farmhands are reading news reports from Gallipoli. "The Turkish defences included wire entanglements on land and sea, and deep pits with spiked bottoms," reads one. "Bastards!" exclaims another. "That's it," says a third. "I'm gonna join up." Who knew a spiked bottom could be so persuasive? The film's fictional hero, Archie, befriends a fellow sportsman, Frank, and the two of them hike across the desert to join the 10th Light Horse Regiment in Perth. Such persistence may seem unlikely, but there are plenty of true stories to match it. One real recruit rode 300 miles on horseback out of the Kimberley region, and then hopped a boat to Fremantle, more than 2,000 miles away, to sign up for the 10th Light Horse.


The boys are shipped off to Egypt for training camp. This appears to involve playing rugby on the Giza plateau, in between the pyramids and the Sphinx. Mena Camp, where the Australians trained, was indeed around 10 miles outside the centre of Cairo, near the pyramids. The depiction of training-camp life is pretty accurate, down to the sexually transmitted disease prevention lectures and laboured practical jokes. On the other hand, the "antique" figurines that the lads buy in the bazaar look suspiciously like the gold sarcophagus of Tutankhamun, only discovered by Howard Carter in 1922.


Finally, the regiment makes its way to Turkey. The troops are forced to land on Anzac Beach in the middle of the night under heavy fire. In real life, that day's fighting alone saw 682 Australians killed or injured. The rest of the film is played out against an unceasing soundtrack of explosions and gunfire, just like real life in the trenches. It is true, as shown, that there were corpses lying around all over the place. If anything, the film doesn't go far enough. Men digging new trenches would regularly uncover the decomposing bodies of their fallen comrades. Unsurprisingly, Anzac troops stationed in the trenches started coming down with a very unpleasant infection, involving a lot of vomiting and septic sores.


The moving climax depicts the Battle of the Nek, a doomed push against the Turkish trenches by the 8th and 10th Light Horse. Much criticism has been made of Peter Weir for casting the fictional commanding officer, Robinson, as a Brit. In fact, Robinson is speaking with a posh Australian accent – and wearing an Australian uniform. The film even refrains from criticising the two Britons most commonly held responsible for the disaster of Gallipoli, namely Winston Churchill and Lord Kitchener. Meanwhile, what really happened at the Nek was similar to the story shown, only with different characters: an appalling case of miscommunication and misjudgment by colonels Jack Antill and FG Hughes. Lt Col Noel Brazier was the real officer who went back and forth between the two, trying to persuade them to stop sending troops over the top. The signal for a final row of 150 men to put themselves straight into the line of Turkish fire was indeed given while the commanding officers were dithering about their decision.


An excellent portrait of not one, but three historical settings: Western Australia in the 1910s, first world war army training camps in Egypt and trench warfare at the Nek. Moreover, this film debunks what was fast becoming the Reel History Curse of Mel Gibson. So far, all historical films he has directed or appeared in have been sent straight to the bottom of the class. Gallipoli, on the other hand, richly deserves its place at the top.

A haunting and moving tribute to the Australians who sacrificed their lives in WWI against not the Germans but the Turks at the lesser sung battle of Gallipoli from the assured hand of Peter Weir. Made not a year after the intellectual rattle of fellow Aussie anti-war movie Breaker Morant, Weir’s film takes a more obvious but, in many ways, more affecting route — the tragic loss of innocence.

These two prettified friends are virtually an anthem for lost youth in their own right. A young Mel Gibson, free of the acerbic undertones or fanaticism of his later career, is Frank a city kid who can surely run and meets equally beautiful and fleet-footed country-boy Archy Hamilton (Mark Lee) at a track meet. It is a moment of familiar destiny as their friendship draws them toward the war as an opportunity to find honour, glory, escape, all the patented offerings of a soldier’s life that tend to keep the abject horror and death to the fine print.

Here, like All Quiet On The Western Front and countless other observers of The Great War’s great losses, is a study of the illusory and real forces that propel dreamy young men into the fields of conflict. This is as much a matter of comradeship — there are whispers here of a homoerotic bond between the two heroes — as duty, men drawn to stand alongside each other. And Weir portrays this strange calling as an intimate elegy, shot with both candour and an fascinating counterpoint between the expanse of the Outback and the limits of the hot trenches, that reveals his unerring talent for opening up the sad hearts of men.

Rarely has the futility of war been so brilliantly presented.

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