In Western Australia, May 1915, Archy Hamilton (Mark Lee), an 18-year-old stockman and prize-winning sprinter, longs to enlist in the Australian Imperial Force. He is trained by his uncle Jack (Bill Kerr) and idolises Harry Lascelles, the world champion over 100 yards. Archy wins a race with a bullying farmhand, Les McCann (Harold Hopkins), Archy running bare-foot and Les riding his horse bareback.
Frank Dunne (Mel Gibson) is an unemployed ex-railway labourer who has run out of money. He's an accomplished sprinter and hopes to win the prize money at the athletics carnival, he also bets a lot of money on himself winning. Archy and Uncle Jack journey to the athletics carnival. Frank is surprised when Archy defeats him, and is bitter at first and feels robbed of his bet. Eventually Frank approaches Archy in a cafe after getting over his loss and they both decide to travel to Perth to enlist. Before leaving, Archy gives all the prize money he won at the race to Jack and tells him that he will not be coming home for he has decided to enlist.
As Archy and Frank are penniless, they secretly hop on a freight train, then walk across the desert and stop for the night at a cattle station. Upon arriving in Perth, they arrange to stay with Frank's father, an Irish immigrant. Due to Frank's Irish heritage and general cynicism, he has little desire to fight for the British Empire. However, Archy persuades him to try to enlist in the Light Horse. Failing to ride a horse, Frank enlists in the infantry with three co-workers from the railway: Bill (Robert Grubb), Barney (Tim McKenzie), and Snowy (David Argue). Many of the motivations for enlistment are revealed: wartime ultra-nationalism, anti-German propaganda, a sense of adventure and the attraction of the uniform. All soldiers embark on a transport ship bound for Cairo. Frank and Archy are separated and embark on different troopships.
Some months later, Frank and his fellow soldiers train near the Pyramids and spend their free time in Cairo, drinking and visiting brothels. During a training exercise, Frank and Archy meet once again; Frank is able to transfer to the Light Horse, as they are now being sent to the Gallipoli peninsula as infantrymen.
The soldiers arrive at Anzac Cove and endure several days of hardships and boredom in the trenches. Frank's infantry friends fight in the Battle of Lone Pine on the 6 August. Afterwards, a traumatized Billy tells Frank what happened to the others: Barney has been shot and killed, and Snowy is in a hospital, but in such bad condition that he is denied food and water. The following morning, Archy and Frank are ordered to take part in the charge at the Nek, a diversion in support of the British landing at Suvla Bay. Archy is ordered by Major Barton (Bill Hunter) to be the message runner. He declines the offer and recommends Frank for the role.
The Light Horse are to attack in three waves across a stretch of ground defended by Turkish machine gunners. The first wave is to go at 4:30 AM, after an artillery bombardment. Unfortunately, the commanders' watches are unsynchronized and the bombardment ends too early. The brigade's commander, Colonel Robinson, insists the ANZAC attack proceed; the first wave is cut down by the Turks within seconds. The second wave goes over, to a similar fate. Major Barton wants to halt the attack to end the carnage, but the Colonel says that somebody told him ANZAC marker flags were seen in the Turkish trenches, indicating that the attack was partially successful. The phone line goes dead. Barton gives Frank a message to carry to Brigade HQ but, when he arrives, the Colonel insists the attack continue.
Lieutenant Gray (Peter Ford), Major Barton's second-in-command, admits to Barton that he was the soldier who said that he saw marker flags, though he did not remember who told him. Frank suggests to the Major that he goes over the Colonel's head to General Gardner. Frank hurries to Gardner's headquarters down on the beach. The General is informed that, at Suvla, the British landing party is brewing tea on the beach. He tells Frank that he is reconsidering the attack. Frank sprints back to convey this news, but the phone lines are repaired and Colonel Robinson orders the attack to continue. Barton joins his men in the attack, climbs out of the trench pistol in hand, and signals his men to charge. Archy joins the last wave and goes over the top. Frank arrives seconds too late and lets out a scream of anguish and despair. As Archy's companions are cut down by gun fire he drops his rifle and runs as hard as he can. The final frame freezes on Archy being hit by bullets across his chest, head back, as if breaking the tape at the finish of a 100-yard sprint, and falling backwards.Mark Lee as Archy Hamilton
Mel Gibson as Frank Dunne
Bill Kerr as Jack
Harold Hopkins as Les McCann
Charles Yunupingu as Zac
Ron Graham as Wallace Hamilton
Gerda Nicolson as Rose Hamilton
Robert Grubb as Billy
Tim McKenzie as Barney
David Argue as Snowy
Steve Dodd as Billy Snakeskin
Robyn Galwey as Mary
Don Quin as Lionel
Phyllis Burford as Laura
Marjorie Irving as Gran
Bill Hunter as Major Barton
Diane Chamberlain as Mrs Barton
Peter Ford as Lieutenant Gray
Geoff Parry as Sergeant Sayers
John Morris as Colonel Robinson
Stan Green as Sergeant Major
Max Wearing as Colonel White
A major theme of the film is loss of innocence and the coming of age of the Australian soldiers and of their country. An early scene in the film depicts Uncle Jack reading from The Jungle Book about how Mowgli has reached manhood and now must leave the family of wolves that raised him. Actor Mel Gibson commented, “Gallipoli was the birth of a nation. It was the shattering of a dream for Australia. They had banded together to fight the Hun and died by the thousands in a dirty little trench war."
In an examination of Gallipoli's enduring legacy, SBS Movies notes "The soldiers of Gallipoli head to war because it is expected of them, just as Australia headed to war because, as part of the British Empire, it was expected of the nation.
Peter Weir had wanted to make a film about the Gallipoli campaign since visiting Gallipoli in 1976 and discovering an empty Eno bottle on the beach. He wrote an outline of the script and gave it to David Williamson to turn into a screenplay. The script went through many variations - the South Australian Film Corporation did not like an early draft and said they did not want to fund the film, which then had a proposed budget of A$4.5 million, as it was. In May 1979 Weir asked Patricia Lovell to produce. The script then began to focus on the story of two runners. Lovell managed to raise $850,000, which was not enough to make the movie.
Then in May 1980 Rupert Murdoch and Robert Stigwood announced they were forming a film company, Associated R&R Films. Lovell approached them with the script, and they agreed to fund it provided the budget did not exceed $3 million. Lovell later said the final budget was $2.8 million - really $2.4 million with the rest consisting of fees. This was the highest budget of an Australian film to date. Rupert Murdoch's father, Keith Murdoch, was a journalist during the First World War. He visited Gallipoli briefly in September 1915 and became an influential agitator against the conduct of the campaign by the British.
Peter Weir cast Mel Gibson in the role of the cynical Frank Dunne, and newcomer Mark Lee was recruited to play the idealistic Archy Hamilton after participating in a photo session for the director. Gibson explained the director's reasons for casting the two leads:
"I'd auditioned for an earlier film and he told me right up front, ‘I'm not going to cast you for this part. You're not old enough. But thanks for coming in, I just wanted to meet you.’ He told me he wanted me for Gallipoli a couple of years later because I wasn't the archetypal Australian. He had Mark Lee, the angelic-looking, ideal Australian kid, and he wanted something of a modern sensibility. He thought the audience needed someone to relate to of their own time."
Gibson described the film as "Not really a war movie. That's just the backdrop. It's really the story of two young men."
The original music was provided by Australian composer Brian May (who had also scored Mad Max). However the most striking feature of the soundtrack was the use of excerpts from Oxygène by French electronic music pioneer Jean Michel Jarre during running scenes. Quiet or sombre moments at Gallipoli, and the closing credits, feature the Adagio in G minor. The film also features the Pearl Fishers' Duet by Georges Bizet playing on Major Barton's gramophone before the final attack, drawing a parallel between the bond shared by the ill-fated soldiers of the film and the fishermen in Bizet's opera.
Gallipoli was filmed primarily in South Australia. The cattle station scenes were shot in Beltana, the salt lake at Lake Torrens, the station at Adelaide railway station, and the coastline near Port Lincoln was transformed into the Gallipoli Peninsula. The pyramid and bazaar scenes were filmed on location in Egypt.
David Williamson makes a cameo as an Australian soldier playing a game of Australian rules in Egypt.
The farewell ball scene was not in the original script but was an idea of Weir's during shooting. It cost an extra $60,000 to make.
Gallipoli proved to be a success domestically, grossing AUD 11,740,000 at the box office in Australia and won eight AFI Awards, including Best Film, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor, Best Screenplay and Best Cinematography. Although critically praised by many, the international releases were not quite as successful financially. Gallipoli only earned USD 5.7 million on the US market, but was nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Foreign Film.
Today, Rotten Tomatoes gives it a rating of 90% based on 40 reviews, while Metacritic gives it 65% (generally favourable reviews) based on six critics (mostly American).
Gallipoli shows much of the conditions and events that soldiers endured in the Gallipoli theatre of war. Archy Hamilton's athlete character was inspired by a line from Charles Bean's Official History of Australia in the War of 1914–1918, describing Private Wilfred Harper of the 10th Light Horse during the attack at the Nek:
"Wilfred... was last seen running forward like a schoolboy in a foot-race, with all the speed he could compass."
The most notable deviation of the film from reality, and the one for which it has been most criticized, is its portrayal of the chain of command at the Nek. Although he is seen wearing an AIF uniform, Colonel Robinson is often mistaken for an Englishman due to his accent. In reality, Col. Robinson speaks with a clipped accent typical for an upper class Australian of the period.
In any case, Colonel Robinson's character equates to the brigade-major of the 3rd Brigade, Colonel John Antill, an Australian Boer War veteran. Indeed, very little British command and control was exercised at the Nek. In his best-selling history, Gallipoli (2001), Les Carlyon agrees that the film unfairly portrays the English during the battle and Carlyon lays the blame squarely at the feet of Antill and 3rd Australian Light Horse Brigade commander Brigadier General Frederic Hughes—"The scale of the tragedy of the Nek was mostly the work of two Australian incompetents, Hughes and Antill."
The film implies that the fictional and benevolent General Gardiner called off the attack, when in reality the attack petered out when half of the 4th wave charged without orders whilst the surviving regimental commander in the trenches, Lieutenant Colonel Noel Brazier, attempted to get the attack called off.
Other critics, Carlyon included, have pointed out that the Australian attack at the Nek was a diversion for the New Zealanders' attack on Sari Bair, not the British landing at Suvla. The British were therefore not 'drinking tea on the beach' while Australians died for them. Moreover, two companies of a British regiment, the Royal Welsh Fusiliers, in fact suffered very heavy losses trying to support the Australian attack at the Nek once it was realized that the offensive was in trouble. Some have also criticized the film for its portrayal of British officers and their disdain for Australian discipline behind the lines. According to Robert R. James, no evidence for any such disdain on the part of British commanders for their Australian troops actually exists. However, the British command's low regard for the discipline of Australian troops behind the lines has been widely documented by earlier historians (such as Charles Bean) and more recent ones (Les Carlyon) alike, and by oral tradition of the survivors.
With a budget of $2.6 million, Gallipoli received heavy international promotion and distribution and helped to elevate the worldwide reputation of the Australian film industry and of later Australian New Wave films. The film also helped to launch the international career of actor Mel Gibson.
Due to the popularity of the Gallipoli battlefields as a tourist destination, the film is shown each night in a number of hostels and hotels in Eceabat and Çanakkale on the Dardanelles.
In the 20 to 1 episode "Great Aussie Films", Gallipoli was listed as Number 1.