Australian film and the First World War

Film has had a significant impact on the way war is remembered. Quite often, images associated with war come from what is seen in film. With reference to the Gallipoli campaign, the 1981 film Gallipoli arises frequently, whether in conversation, being broadcast on Anzac Day or shown to a class room of high school students, when referring to the nation’s past. The Anzac legend is prominent throughout Australian war films and has had a significant impact on how we remember the war, but why is it portrayed as it is in film?


Mel Gibson and Mark Lee in “Gallipoli”

The key figure in the Anzac legend is of course the Anzacs themselves. These Australians are depicted in film as embodying all of the Australian values, whilst also being the finest soldiers despite the lack of discipline for which they are remembered for. The creation of the Anzac image however, has its origins in the literature of the late 19th century. These writers deliberately swayed from British traditional images to create a new ‘hero’, devising the self-sufficient bushman and the larrikin. This image became central to early representations of Australians and thus was also used by the C.E.W. Bean, Australia’s official First World War historian, when constructing the Anzac legend.

Bean’s representation of the Anzacs has carried into recent Australian films, particularly The Lighthorsemen (1987) and Gallipoli (1981), all of which have had a significant effect on how the war is remembered. One of the most iconic representations of this is Paul Hogan’s character Pat Clearly in the mini-series Anzacs (1985), a role, which the producers state in the special features of the DVD edition, was created purely for him as the quintessential larrikin. Cleary is shown to be consistently talking back to his superiors, the breaking of all rules, and in particular assaulting an officer, as well as stealing copious amounts of alcohol from British supplies. Whilst this sentiment was not necessarily anti-British, it was done with intention to separate Australia from British traditions.


Paul Hogan as Pat Cleary in “Anzacs”

The depiction of the First World War in film serves all to favour the imagery of the Australians, in order to make them appear even greater.  The Turks are often remembered as the ‘noble Turk’ or ‘Johnny Turk’ and were commanded by more sinister influences, the Germans who are often cold and meticulous, often seen to be the true architects of the war, with the Turks becoming a victim of their warmongering. Shifting the blame for the war from the Turks to the Germans serves to present that Australia’s war with Turkey was unique, particularly as it has become an integral part of the Australian identity.  The mini-series 1915 depicts the armistice between the Australians and the Turks during which they exchange food and cigarettes. The resulting memory of the armistice is that the two forces had a mutual respect for one another, which also highlights notions of mateship. Any demonising of the Turkish forces jeopardises this identity, but would also have an impact on international relations, and of course multi-cultural policies.


Turkish and British soldiers exchange goods during the armistice.

As the Gallipoli campaign is often remembered as the birth of the Australian nation, the Anzac legend is also used in order to convey Australia’s independence from Britain.  In film however, this message is more clearly seen to be anti-British. The Gallipoli campaign itself, whilst known as a blunder, the fault is placed entirely on the British. The English are also caricaturised in film, featuring monocles and the traditional moustaches of the Imperial age, as opposed to the Australians who frequently don modern haircuts. Anti-British sentiment is continued further, as Australian films provide a stark contrast between the classed based, traditional British society and the Australians, who are depicted as egalitarian and anti-authoritarian.

As women did not play an active role on the battlefield, this fairly accounts for the lack of women depicted in war films. However, there is still a noticeable lack of women even in the Home Front, the setting of which is mostly rural Australia, serving only to promote masculinity and highlight the innocence of Australia. This has led to some arguing that the result is that women have no place in Australian myth. When women are depicted, it is alongside their male counterparts in roles such as a nurse, or to be supportive on the home front, typically serving a romantic purpose. The Anzac narrative places women in a secondary role who primarily serve their male counterparts in order to emphasise their greatness.


Martin Barrington and Nurse Kate Baker in “Anzacs”.

Thus, the portrayal of the First World War in film often strongly connects with the Australian mythology, particularly the Anzac legend. Often this stems from early representations of Australia and the unique images associated with it, notably the outback or ‘the bush’. This has had a significant impact on the shaping of the Australian soldier and the representation of the Anzac narrative. Often this is due to a desire to remove Australian identity from a British one, and establish a vocal form of independence, something which is particularly evident in Australian imagery and the frequent anti-British sentiment displayed in films.



Anzacs (mini-series). Dir. John Dixon, George I. Miller, Pino Amenta. Australia. Nine Network 1985 [DVD]

Beneath Hill 60. Dir. Jeremy Hartley Sims. Australia. Paramount Pictures 2010 [DVD]

Gallipoli. Dir. Peter Weir. Australia. Village Roadshow 1981 [DVD]

The Lighthorsemen. Dir. Simon Wincer. Australia. Hoyts 1987 [DVD]

1915 (mini-series) Dir. Chris Thomson, Di Drew. Australia. ABC. 1982 [DVD]


Bruce Scates, In Gallipoli’s Shadow: Pilgrimage, memory, mourning and the great war. Australian Historical Studies, 33:119, 1-21

Catherine Simpson, From Ruthless Foe to National Friend: Turkey, Gallipoli and Australian Nationalism. Media International Australia, Incorporating Culture & Policy, Nov 2010, Issue 137, p.58-66

Daniel Reynaud, Celluloid Anzacs: The Great War Through Australian Cinema, Australian Scholarly Publishing, Melbourne, 2007

Marek Haltof ‘In Quest of Self-Identity: Gallipoli, Mateship, and the Construction of Australian National Identity’, Journal of Popular Film and Television, 21:1 1993: 27-36.


6 comments on “Australian film and the First World War

  1. Hi Luke,
    I really enjoyed reading your post as I have always found the construction of the Anzac myth to be such an interesting topic and I think as you have rightly noted it plays such a crucial role in the formation of Australian national identity. I also really liked how you noted that the Anzac legend is often used when Australians try to reflect upon the first world war. I think that as you mentioned in your post the imagery of the ‘Australian bush legend’ is a very powerful one which in my own research seemed to most notably arise in depictions of Ned Kelly and then was further used to signify what Australian masculinity should look like and was reflected upon Anzac’s as well. The way that masculinity is depicted in Australian war films is a very interesting topic and I think the way that it is depicted in films about Australian men in the first world war poses many important questions for us to reflect upon.

    • lukewyld says:


      It’s amazing just how prevalent masculinity is in Australian film. I always believed that women, especially nurses, in war time were recognised for their importance, yet upon watching the relevant films and reading the scholarship, it appears that this isn’t the case, which is a rather depressing thought.

  2. curiousshoes says:

    First of all congratulations on a well written blog! I found it engaging and easy to read.

    One think I found interesting was the difference in representation between the Turks and the Germans. Do you think this evolved over time and was a way to represent Australia and the Turks as one in the same? ANZAC’s doing the bidding for Britain and the Turks for the Germans. Both victims dragged into the war?

    It looked as though the movies you made mention of (Gallipoli 1981, The Lighthorsemen 1987, and ANZAC’s 1985) were all made around a similar time. Showing the prevailing historiography of the time. Why do you think the ANZAC’s were a focus for film makers at this time?

    • lukewyld says:

      Hi and thank you!

      The difference in representation between the Turks and the Germans has earlier origins than what you’d might expect. Catherine Simpson’s in her article ‘From Ruthless Foe to National Friend’ notes that this difference is apparent in the 1940 film “Forty Thousand Horsemen” which had the intention of raising Australians into the war effort of the Second World War. The demonising the Germans can be attributed to that they were once more a foe to the Australians, and the more positive portrayal of the Turks being due to their alignment with Australia at that time. Having emerged out of those historical circumstances, I believe that the image stuck due to its popularity.

      I think that the reasoning for the influx of Australian war films in the 1980s, is that whilst support for Anzac dwindled during the Vietnam War, it was thus revived in the 1980s. This revival was spurred by Prime Minister Bob Hawke’s activism in this area, who breathed life back into the Anzac legend. Probably the most memorable event throughout his activism is the including Vietnam veterans into the Anzac Narrative, which occurred in 1985. This revival, coinciding with Australia still experiencing an era of successful cinema, coupled with the nation attempting to find a strong identity, resulted in what I think allowed the Anzac legend to become a perfect fit for film makers.

  3. curiousshoes says:

    Thanks for your reply Luke!! Its interesting how the historical memory of the Anzac’s is linked into the Second World War. I had no idea the Hawke was to help revive interest in the Anzac legend and was linked to the recognition of Vietnam vets.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s