Some weeks ago, I caught Peter Weir’s Gallipoli for the first time on Amazon Prime. The movie drew accolades when it came out in 1981. I caught scenes here and there on TV, but never watched from beginning to end. Anyway, from those snatched, distracted viewings, I got the idea that it’d be another bloated epic from the 80s that had been much praised when it came out but that didn’t hold up. But, man, was I wrong!
Gallipoli is a war movie about the disastrous WW I campaign, in which Australian and New Zealander soldiers were slaughtered at Anzac as the Allies attempted to open up a sea route through the Dardanelles. It sounds like an epic, but the emotional power of the movie lies in Weir’s focus on two Australian boys and their friendship. Archie Hamilton (Mark Lee) is 18, a naive, idealistic farm boy, living in the middle of the Australian outback with his family. In contrast, Frank Dunne (Mel Gibson) is from the “big city,” a few years older, street-wise and a bit of a hustler. The only thing they have in common is that they’re both talented runners.
To tell a big story, go small and take your time. So I’m going to analyze how David Williamson, the scriptwriter, and Weir structured the script. (This structure, by the way, can also work if your story has two protagonists.)
Act One – Set-up: Archie’s introduced. The movie opens with Archie’s grandfather and running coach (Bill Kerr) giving him a pep talk before a practice sprint. Archie’s likable from the get-go, but there’s a steely determination below his sunny demeanor. We first glimpse it when he bets a fellow cowboy that he can outrun a horse, resulting in bloody feet before a major race. This particular sequence serves several purposes. First, a race is always fun to watch, particularly one as bizarre as this one. Second, it adds depth to Archie’s character. He stops being a generic, sweet naif and becomes more human, more real and more compelling. Third, true to the dictum that character drives story, it moves the story forward. Archie’s stubbornness borders on self-destructiveness, — which he’ll display many times during the course of the movie. Ironically, this fatal flaw makes us root for him — even as we worry he’ll get into trouble. It also makes us more likely to buy Archie’s seemingly irrational last acts.
In the leisurely first act the filmmakers establish Archie’s hard-working, modest life with his family in the middle of the vast Australian outback. The result is that we empathize with Archie’s greatest desire: to join the cavalry, fight in the Great War, and experience the world. And the means by which he’ll accomplish this is the big race.
Act. Two, Part One: Archie and Frank become friends. On race day, Archie meets Frank, who’s also competing, except that Frank’s motivated by the prize money. In fact, Frank’s so cocky about his chances that he’s made an illegal bet he’ll win with the race organizers. They gladly take his money and warn him Archie’s the swiftest runner in the county. Sure enough, Archie wins and graciously apologizes to Frank, who rebuffs his friendly overtures. But their friendship finally takes off the next day when Frank, dead-broke, runs into Archie at the inn. Noticing Frank is hungry, Archie pretends he doesn’t want the rest of his breakfast and Frank swoops in, unable to let “good food go to waste.” Archie explains that he’s been turned away from the cavalry because he’s too young. As if to repay Archie’s kindness, Frank offers to help him get to Perth, where no one know will know he’s too young to enlist. This simple act reveals another dimension to Frank — he’s not all bluster and selfishness. These hidden traits make the likelihood that they could become friends believable. But their friendship solidifies as they encounter obstacles and solve them together.
Frank shows Archie how to jump the train. Unfortunately, the car they jumped on is unlatched from the train to Perth and the two find themselves stranded in a rundown depot in the middle of nowhere. The attendant tells them the next train to Perth won’t come through for two whole weeks. And between them and their destination are fifty miles of desert sands. Frank, who’s not even considering enlisting, doesn’t mind waiting. But Archie’s unfazed and sets out on foot toward his destination. Astonished, and likely feeling responsible for their predicament, Frank tags along. They bond as they cross 50 miles of desert with nothing but one bag of water and Archie’s watch to navigate. Frank sees for himself that Archie’s not just a goody-goody — there’s resourcefulness and mettle there, even if it might verge on suicidal. They’re rescued from imminent disaster when they chance upon a lone man on a camel.
Archie and Frank are put up for the night at a rich farmer’s house. When the farmer and his family learn that Archie’s enlisting, they raise their glasses to toast him. Seeing that Archie has also impressed the farmer’s pretty daughter, Frank has second thoughts about his decision to stay out of the war. By morning he’s decided to join Archie and try to the cavalry. There’s only one snag: Frank’s never been on a horse in his life. Archie gives Frank a quick and dirty lesson in mounting a horse while Frank uses his gift for conning to forge a birth certificate for Archie and helping him appear older. And it works! For Archie, at least. Alas, Frank can’t get his horse to move and fails to enter the cavalry.
Act Two, Part Two: Frank takes over the story. The two are separated when Archie goes to Egypt for basic training, leaving Frank behind and rudderless. Soon enough, though, Frank runs into some old friends and decides to join the infantry. At this point we get to know Frank better as he and his mates are sent to boot camp in Cairo. This is a fun, lighthearted section as we see them training (including a funny sequence in which they’re taught to use “French letters” — aka condoms –, so as not to contract venereal diseases during “horizontal recreation”). We also notice that Frank is a relative innocent, as he is thrown into a bigger, worldlier city than Perth. Cairo is full of exciting discoveries: French pornographic postcards, conniving antiques dealers, and the casbah’s bordellos packed with sensuous houris. Weir also gives a taste of the fraught relationship between British officers and the Australians who serve under them when Frank and his mates playfully ride mules and taunt two British officers in the souk.
Act. Three: Frank and Archie deepen their bond. Eventually Frank runs into Archie again during a war game involving the infantry and the cavalry. On opposite sides, they’re supposed to fight and kill each other. Instead, they whoop and embrace each other warmly, much to the officers’ annoyance. In the ensuing melee, we also get a chance to witness an English officer express his disdain for the Australians to Australian Major Barton (Bill Hunter). The exercise ends with all the troops playing dead, disgusting the English with their lack of discipline — and also foreshadowing their eventual fate.
From here on in, the structure mirrors Act Two, Part One, with the deepening of Frank and Archie’s friendship as the troops wait to be called to Gallipoli. They flirt with pretty nurses. They race to the Pyramids to win an argument about the best starting crouch for a runner. They carve their names on a Pyramid. The Cairo section not only deepens the audience’s understanding of Frank’s character, it’s also a vivid and engaging reminder that Frank and Archie are just rambunctious young men, barely out of their teens. They become real people, thereby further cementing the audience’s emotional connection to their story. If you as a writer take your time in developing a character, the audience will invest in him or her and the stakes will have more of an impact later.
Clearly Frank and Archie are kindred spirits and so they ask Major Barton if Frank can transfer to the cavalry. At first Major Barton refuses, but agrees when he realizes that Frank is as talented a runner as Archie. His mates in the infantry react with disgust when they find out he’s joined the light horse, ” he’ll sell his grandmother for tuppence, still make his way into heaven.” One of them shakes his head and declares it bad luck to leave your mates.
They crash an officer’s ball when Archie delivers a telegram to Major Barton: the troops are being called to battle. After reading this, Major Barton kindly tells Archie to have a few drinks before he returns to the barracks. The tone is poignant as the dance marks Frank and Archie’s last moments of carefree fun. The sequence closes with a long-shot of the officers dancing with nurses under a banner for the Australian and New Zealand Red Cross — yet another instance of foreshadowing.
Denouement. The tone shifts as Albinoni’s funereal Adagio in G Minor plays over the sequence in which the troops approach Gallipoli in boats under cover of night. Archie’s achieved his dream and he beams at Frank, who looks on the explosions on shore with trepidation. In the morning, although Frank’s growing understandably anxious, he and Archie take time out for some skinny-dipping. Although they’ve arrived at the battle site, the reality of war still hasn’t fully hit them. And then one of their fellow soldiers is grazed by a bullet while swimming. They carry him out, to cheers. Some days later, Archie and Frank arrive at the trenches where the more experienced soldiers laugh at their innocence. Little by little they get glimpses of the reality of war — fly-encrusted hardtack, a dead soldier’s bloated hand sticking out from the trenches. The other hardened soldiers deal with these grim reminders with black humor, much to Archie and Frank’s bewilderment. One night, Frank is overjoyed to run into his old mates from the infantry and introduces them to Archie.
In the meantime, Major Barton learns that the Australian and New Zealand troops are to mount an attack on Fort Nek in order to divert attention from the British troops that will be landing at the same time. Aware that he’d be sending his men to a certain death, Major Barton pushes back, politely, only to be told by English officers that the attack is not diversionary, but “tactical” since the ships’ guns will knock over the fort before the troops go over. They add, arrogantly, that it’s only a matter of time before the Allies take over Constantinople. Unconvinced, Major Barton realizes there’s nothing he can do but follow orders. The English tell him the attack will begin in 12 hours. Note the way the expository nature of the dialogue is delivered in a way that is emotionally pertinent to the story. Here is the point where the larger events intersect with our characters’ story so we’re paying attention to the military details — they’ll have an impact on our characters.
In the morning Frank tells his infantry mates that he’s set to mount the Ft. Nek offense. When their eyes widen with alarm, he reassures them that the ships’ cannons will take out the fort before he goes over. Later, at sunset, Frank and Archie contemplate their mission in a field studded with crosses. Archie asks him when his infantry mates are scheduled to fight. Just as Frank tells him they’re leaving now, in the distance they hear the whistle calling the men to attack. They listen, spellbound, at the soldiers’ battle yells, the rat-a-tat of machine guns, and the sounds of violence. The war is closing in on the two. A few hours later, Frank finds one of his friends, dazed, who tells him their mate Barney was mowed dead as he ran alongside him. Snowy, the youngest of the three, is wounded. When Frank checks in on Snowy, he asks Frank to visit his parents and given them his diary. Frank stumbles out of the tent. The reality of war has finally hit home. Archie reassures him that “no Turk in his right mind is going to waste a bullet on you.” Frank just stares back at Archie, stunned. Frank now knows that there are no guarantees of getting out; Archie’s still under youth’s delusion of invincibility. It’s the night before the Nek offensive, but Frank is not just worried for himself.
As the men prepare themselves for the next day’s battle, Major Barton tells Archie that he knows who he really is (and therefore that he’s underage.) Archie’s petrified, but Maj. Barton tells him he won’t report him, he just wants Archie as his runner during the offensive. But Archie balks — he’d rather fight. Maj. Barton tries to persuade him that his speed could save men’s lives, especially since telephone communications won’t last long under fire. Archie’s adamant and suggests Frank take his place as runner instead.
That night Maj. Barton takes comfort in listening to opera on his hand-cranked Victrola. (Note: Weir’s music choices are highly intentional throughout. In this case, Maj. Barton’s listening to a duet, Bizet’s “Au Fond du Temple Saint”, in which two friends profess their friendship for each other over their love for the same woman.)
In the morning Frank’s called to Maj. Barton’s tent and learns he’s been reassigned as a runner in Archie’s stead. Frank shoots a last, searching look at Archie. Archie good-naturedly tells him it was fate, and asks him to wish him good luck. Their seemingly casual good-bye is charged with meaning. Frank weaves his wave past the first wave of men preparing their bayonets. In the meantime, Archie writes a letter to his family in which he tells them he’s certain he’s doing the right thing.
Back in the trenches, Maj. Barton holds back the men, although the lookout urges him to send them out before the Turks go back into the trenches. He sends Frank for the telephone so he can find out if the English cannons are working on a final burst before the assault. An underling announces the Turks are back in their trenches. Frank brings the field phone. The English colonel demands Maj. Barton send the men. Maj. Barton tries to get him to back down by telling him that the Turks are back in the trenches. The colonel insists the attack go as planned. Frank’s observed the entire exchange, stunned. Back to the wall, Maj. Barton sends the first wave, who are promptly mowed down as soon as they climb over the wall. The second wave is sent and suffers the same fate. Maj. Barton refuses to send a third wave of men to their doom. The field phone rings and Frank hands it to a lieutenant. It’s the English colonel, demanding to know why they’re holding back. Intimidated, the lieutenant lies and says there was a report that one of the Allies’ flags was seen in the Turks’ trenches. Then line goes dead. Maj. Barton writes a note for Frank to take to the colonel. Frank delivers it to the colonel, who’s dead-set on continuing the attack. Frank explains that the men are being cut down before they reach five yards. But the colonel insists on believing the report that marker flags were seen in the Turk’s camp. “The attack must continue at all costs!”
Back in the trenches, Frank reports the colonel’s instructions to Maj. Barton. Maj. Barton’s questions his lieutenant about his claim that marker flags were reported in the Turkish trenches. True to his rebellious form, Frank suggests the major go above the colonel’s head and Maj. Barton agrees. “General Gardner. Go like the wind.” Frank dashes off. Unlike Archie, Frank understands the true cost of battle — he’s seen his close friends die. And here’s where we see how much Frank’s changed. At the start of the movie he was interested in his own welfare, and he was unwilling to die in war. Now, however, he’s intent on saving Archie. Frank risks taking a short-cut that’s under direct sniper fire so that he can get to General Gardner in time to save his friend along with the other men.
Frank arrives at Gen. Gardner’s tent with Maj. Barton’s plea. He checks with the telephone operator to see if the arriving British troops are under fire. When the operator reports there is no fire and they’re having tea, Gen. Gardner tells Frank he’s to tell Maj. Barton he’s reconsidering the situation. Overjoyed, Frank dashes back to the trenches. But he’s not as fast as Archie — and the lieutenant at the trenches restores the phone lines. There’s a beautiful somber sequence in which the soldiers wait for word. The camera pans over them as they pray, comfort each other, and write farewell letters to their families. The phone rings. It’s the English colonel. Weir intercuts to Frank running like mad to deliver Gen. Gardner’s verdict. Unaware that the British have already landed, the colonel insists the men push on. Maj. Barton can’t hold out any longer. He prepares to lead them over the wall himself. As the men around him stick mementos and letters to the trench walls with knives,
Finale. Archie recites his grandfather’s pep talk before a race. It’s the same one that opened the film: “How are you gonna run? As fast as a leopard. Then let’s see you do it!” Frank shouts for the men to clear the gangway, “Urgent message!” But it’s too late. He hears Maj. Barton blow the whistle. The men go over. Frank shouts, desperate. Archie takes off down no-man’s-land. It’s the last race of his young life. He’s instantly mowed down by enemy fire. THE END.
There’s a message here about war cutting down young men before they have a chance to fully reach their prime. Yet Weir’s point never feels preachy. The full impact of Archie’s death hits us viscerally, partly due to Weir’s choice to book-end the movie with the running mantra.