Australian Cultural Memory and Weir’s ‘Gallipoli’

Peter Weir’s iconic 1981 film Gallipoli signified a marked shift in Australian representations of identity and war. The dominant place that the Anzac myth has come to occupy in the national psyche is thoroughly explored in this masterpiece, which is as much about how Australia came to see itself post-war than a WW1 reflection.

As a part of Revelation Film Festival’s ‘April Australian Revelations,’ and on the eve of dawn services, last posts, and remembrance marches around the nation, Gallipoli was screened followed by a Q & A session with the film’s star Mark Lee who played Archy Hamilton. This immersive experience offered a rare opportunity to reflect upon the meaning of a film, an event, and its consequential myth that continues to inhabit national memory.

Gallipoli follows blue-eyed, blonde-haired, and the ever idealistic, sprinter Archy and his mate the darker, more antiwar, Frank Dunne played by Mel Gibson and their journey from rural Western Australia to the frontline on the Turkish peninsula. The film captures a drastic shift in national identity from idealistic Archy enlisting for a sense of adventure and excitement as many young diggers did, to the loss of innocence, life, and purpose the brutalities of battle produced.

As Weir has previously stated and Lee reiterated during the Q & A, Gallipoli was never meant to be viewed as an antiwar film. Although it was made in a post-Vietnam era, where antiwar sentiment often culminated in an antipathy and ambivalence towards Anzac Day and veterans, Lee suggested that by the 1980s there was a “softening” in sentiment. Perhaps as American dominant representations sought to fight the ‘Vietnam Syndrome’ through action heroes, Australian New Wave war cinema shifted to highlighting ordinary soldiers as reflections of national identity.

This sense of ‘ordinariness’ is vital to understanding the Anzac myth and the place it holds in Australia’s national memory. As Lee stated, and Gallipoli explores, the diggers embodied “ordinary men thrust into extraordinary circumstances.” Whilst many other nations often glorify and memorialise decorated war generals, or strong politicians, the digger archetype commemorates the everyday.

From its inception, the Anzac Legend and its digger archetype became a vehicle to understand Australia’s place in a post-war world. As a battle Gallipoli became the young nation’s ‘baptism of fire,’ and notions of identity were born through these young men’s sacrifice.

The essential characteristics of early ‘Australianess,’ and a shift from British identity and authority are intrinsically woven into Weir’s film. From larikin symbolism of diggers mocking their British superiors, bonds of mateship formed in the trenches, and a general sense of anti-authoritativeness as they are exploited by the British forces are all ingredients of what became the ‘traditional’ national identity.

In possibly one of the most famous stills in Australian cinematic history, Gallipoli’s final climactic scene does not merely represent the end of one young soldier’s life as cannon fodder. Rather, it came to embody the death of a certain form of national narrative. Archy’s youthful idealism and British duty made way for Frank’s dry humour, abhorrence to authority, and markedly Australian identity.

As a society, our national narratives become imbued with certain images and archetypes. However, the reality of certain events become lost among the tradition of cultural remembrance. A lot can be learnt about a nation via the stories they choose to remember, and ‘hold up’ as the embodiment of themselves.

Thirty-six years on Weir’s Gallipoli remains a pivotal vehicle to explore Australia’s national memory. More than a film about two young men thrust into the horrors of World War One, it is an exploration of the creation of an identity. Whilst notions of identity have markedly shifted over one hundred years, and the day is very much about remembrance, in several ways Gallipoli remains this country’s ‘official’ birth story.