Opinion: How a Mel Gibson film stole the 'NZ' from ANZAC

Weir's Gallipoli was incredibly successful
Weir's Gallipoli was incredibly successful

In 1981, an Australian film, Gallipoli, was released to much fanfare across the Tasman. Starring a young, bronzed Mel Gibson and directed by the darling of Australia's cinematic new wave, Peter Weir, Gallipoli not only contained a powerful anti-war message, but it also painted an evocative picture of emerging Australian nationhood.

The film was artful but contained plenty of realism -- the suicidal attack by Australian troops at the film's climax especially so.

The problem with Weir's Gallipoli, however, is that while the attack at the Nek by Australian Light Horse troops did actually take place, he changed the basic facts of why it occurred to suit his own needs.

In Weir's Gallipoli, the reason the Australian troops attack is to support British troops landing further down the peninsula. They are ordered to their deaths by a callow British officer, who seemingly has no regard for the lives of the Australians under his command.

In reality, the Light Horse attacked the Nek to support New Zealand troops in their advance on Chunuk Bair, and was ordered to do so not by a British officer, but an Australian Colonel. Weir knew full well this was the case, but wanted his Gallipoli to be about Australia's relationship with Great Britain, not New Zealand.

In fact, despite the final third of the film being set entirely at Anzac Cove, Weir does not portray a single New Zealander in his film. The New Zealand part of ANZAC does not exist in Weir's vision of Gallipoli.

Weir's Gallipoli was incredibly successful, and almost single-handily revived Australia's interest in the Gallipoli campaign. Crowds started to swell at Anzac Day commemorations across Australia, while the trickle of Aussie pilgrims visiting the Gallipoli battlefields suddenly turned into a flood. Dozens of new Gallipoli books, films and television series followed in its wake.

In 1985, TV Series Anzacs went to further lengths to scrub New Zealand from the ANZAC story. The words "New Zealand" aren't mentioned once in 10 hours of television. In this series ANZAC essentially means Aussies; Kiwis didn't exist in this portrayal of World War I.

On Thursday, a new animated documentary about Gallipoli, 25 April is being released in New Zealand cinemas. Directed by Leanne Pooley, the film sets out to tell the New Zealand story, but still includes the Australian, with one of its six main characters an Australian nurse.

All the characters are based on real people who were at Gallipoli, and the words are from their own diaries and letters. Pooley even portrays the Australian Light Horse attack at the Nek.

Pooley recently premiered the film in Australia at the Canberra Film Festival. She told me after its showing an Australian woman approached her and said: "I didn't realise there were any New Zealanders at Gallipoli."

Perhaps she can thank Weir and Gibson for her ignorance.

Newshub.

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