b. August 21, 1944, Sydney, Australia
Commanding Waves: The Films of Peter Weir
Peter Weir helped to define the rebirth of Australian cinema, while addressing some of the most pressing concerns of the nation in the 1970s and 1980s. His intriguing images of Australia, evocative and transcendent, made an impact in the international art house scene, eager for compelling visions of geo-political areas and cultures overlooked by mainstream cinema. After achieving international recognition as an emblematic Australian filmmaker, Weir made his transition to Hollywood while maintaining a sense of experimentation and artistic exploration. His films, including his Hollywood ones, can not be pigeonholed in terms of themes, genres or geographical locals; but they do display an approach to filmmaking, a sensibility, a drive, that amount to one of the most searching trajectories in contemporary cinema.
Weir’s work has received a considerable amount of journalistic and critical attention, including four scholarly books, each of which offers a sense of the Australian director as an auteur with identifiable characteristics. Don Shiach shows that Weir’s films repeatedly offer intimations of alternative realities; Mark Haltof argues that the tense encounter between distinct cultures is Weir’s dominant concern; Jonathan Rayner underscores Weir’s consistent amalgamation of European art-house characteristics with genre conventions; and Michael Bliss highlights Weir’s ability to evoke hallucinatory, dreamlike states. These illuminating views complement each other: Weir’s cinematic exploration is often realised in films in which generic conventions border on the iconoclastic, alternative realities and cultural incompatibilities abound, and numinous yearnings challenge staid conventionalities. One could add that Weir’s films are invariably concerned with the struggle for authenticity, and that his most memorable characters – often confronted with danger, uncertainty, or betrayal – become uneasy with the world as they have found it, or as it has found them. They are often exposed to unsettling aspects of their own realities – sometimes traumatic ones – that lead to their loss of innocence or naiveté. Weir’s camera draws their worlds of grief, confusion, or spiritual awakenings with adroit cinematic techniques that convey subjective states: oneiric compositions sometimes bordering on the surreal, distorted sounds, slow motion, and un-naturalistic light exposure. Weir is more of an observer, a dreamer, even a debunker, than a mythmaker, and his sensibility – sometimes bordering on, but never fully reaching, a comic pitch – is ironic rather than tragic. A glance at the careers of actors who have worked with him suggests that Weir has been a catalyst of their growth. He elicits natural performances from children and first-time actors, while extending the range of established talent from Mel Gibson to Robin Williams and Jim Carrey.
Always shunning the comfortable resolution, Weir’s signature films move audiences beyond the commonplace while keeping them in an unsettled state to the end. His own career has been one which parallels this aspect of his filmmaking: from the start he has preferred to take risks and to wait for a meaningful challenge, rather than follow a winning formula or style.
Born in 1944, and raised in the Sydney harbourside suburb of Vaucluse, Weir attended a private boys school before doing the first year of an Arts degree at the University of Sydney. After withdrawing from university, in 1965 he embarked on a ship voyage to Europe that would influence his life’s course. During the long trip he met his wife and future production designer, Wendy Stites, and made his first film, of sorts: using the ship’s closed circuit television system, he directed and filmed a comedy revue. Weir’s year abroad, most of which was spent in London working a variety of casual jobs, seems to have afforded him a fresh perspective from which to contemplate what it means to be an Australian, a question that would inform all his early full-length features.
Weir returned to Australia at a propitious moment. The earlier period of Australian film production, from the 1900s through to the 1930s, had long dwindled, and there was mounting governmental will to rekindle Australian film output (13 features were produced in Australia in the 1960s; 134 in the 1970s). Weir would benefit from this initiative, after making modest in-roads as a stagehand at the Channel Seven television network. At Channel Seven, Weir started learning his craft through directing what were in effect two short “student films”, Count Vim’s Last Exercise (1967) and The Life and Flight of the Rev. Buck Shotte (1968). On the potential evident in these first endeavours, Channel Seven offered him the opportunity to direct film clips for a television program: The Mavis Bramston Show. A year later, he became trainee director at the Commonwealth Film Unit, which was beginning to produce feature films after having subsidised mainly documentaries for decades. It was at the Commonwealth Film Unit that he would write and direct his first short feature: Michael (1969). The film was his contribution to a trilogy called Three to Go, with each segment fashioned by a different director, dealing with various aspects of contemporary Australian youth culture.
Michael won the 1970 Grand Prix award from the Australian Film Institute and Weir’s subsequent hour-long feature, Homesdale (1971), funded by the Experimental Film Fund, would win the same prize the following year. The success of these two films secured Weir a study grant from a government body appointed as a precursor to the Australian Film and Television School. Weir used the grant to return to England in 1971, where he spent time on film sets at Pinewood and Elstree studios in London. While travelling in Europe and the Middle East, he wrote the initial treatments of what would become The Cars that Ate Paris (1974), The Last Wave (1977) and The Plumber (1979) (1).
On returning to Australia in 1972, Weir resumed work at the Commonwealth Film Unit, directing a series of short documentaries, some intended as educational resources. In these early non-fiction pieces, Weir experiments with filmic elements that will become characteristic of his subsequent work: the inclusion of a film within a film; lighting inspired by German Expressionism; the incorporation of puppets, shadows and still photography; and shot compositions borrowed from the horror genre. These characteristics are all at play in Incredible Floridas (1972), a 12-minute portrait of the Australian composer, Richard Meale. More than a straight documentary, Weir’s film is an homage from one artist to another, and a celebration of the connections among the arts. In voice-over, the composer observes that the poetry of his muse, Arthur Rimbaud, “ … is filled with visions of horror, that appear to be evil, but in fact are not, [his work] is strange, you can’t fully penetrate it, it leaves you haunted”. It appears that Rimbaud, perhaps via Meale, may have also inspired Weir, as the composer’s reflections on the poet could serve as commentaries on Weir’s first signature works: Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975) and The Last Wave.
One of the most salient characteristics of Weir’s directorial style is his capacity to convey a range of subtle and shifting emotional responses, through close-ups of the human face, as a moving image (2). He was apparently already developing this skill while working on these early documentaries. Two of them – The Billiard Room (1972), an opaque seven-minute piece presenting two young men playing billiards as they discuss whether they should withdraw from university, and Australian Colour Diary #43, an 11-minute documentation of three visually and musically distinct bands performing live on stage – appear, in retrospect, to be studies in mastering the close-up shot, as repeated shots of faces provide a commentary on adolescent angst in the former, and artistic expression in the latter.
A longer documentary of 55 minutes, Whatever Happened to Green Valley? (1973), examines a failed social experiment. “Green Valley” refers to an estate, some 40 kilometres west of Sydney, developed to provide affordable housing to needy families but which was lacking adequate services, amenities or distractions. Weir shared the filmmaking project with six residents of the community whom he assisted in producing short films to document their personal experiences. He filmed a public forum, included in the documentary, in which he personally introduces the resident’s films and moderates an open discussion with the broader community regarding their content. The viewings are preceded by his own brief mockumentary, a parody of previous patronising reports of the community. Weir’s film does not make any overt political statement, yet succeeds in casting scepticism on public officials who ignore the voices of the people most directly affected by their policies. As Weir makes his transition to fictional features, these too will often convey implicit social commentary.
The Australian Feature Films
Weir’s first short feature opens dramatically with documentary-style footage of Sydney looking like a war zone, as rebellious youths attack the city. It soon becomes apparent that the events are being staged and filmed. The central actor, Grahame (Grahame Bond) a radical in “real life”, will later befriend Michael (Matthew Burton), the eponymous protagonist. These kinetic images of upheaval and abandon are juxtaposed with a shot that could pass as one from The Truman Show (1998), of identical suburban houses, out of which the suit-clad protagonist strides, newspaper neatly folded under arm. Despite Michael’s conservative garb, the earlier image of conflict represents his inner state. The opening sequence establishes the thrust of this early film, and an underlying concern throughout Weir’s oeuvre: that of the disconnect between inner feelings and vacuous conventions.
Dissatisfied with his stock broker colleagues and his conservative parents, with whom he lives, Michael befriends the group of radicals who filmed the staged “revolution” of the opening sequence. Michael feels out of place with the empty conventionality of his parent’s world, but will come to feel equally uneasy with the emotional shallowness of a “scene” whose experimentation with drugs and radical politics may amount to snobbery and posturing. The film ends inconclusively with a tracking shot of Michael looking forlorn, ambling away from his new friends in no particular direction, while heavy-handed lyrics on the soundtrack lament: “You’ve led me along this path and I don’t know what else I can do”. The vicissitudes of a character who does not feel entirely at home in any milieu is a theme that will underwrite much of Weir’s future work, and one that will become a central concern of The Last Wave, The Year of Living Dangerously (1982), Witness (1985) and Fearless (1993). The narrator of The Year of Living Dangerously, Billy Kwan, suggests that such a feeling of disenfranchisement may well be a preoccupation of Australia, as an immigrant nation: “We’re not really certain we’re Australian… we’re not quite at home in the world”.
In Michael, Weir was clearly consolidating his artistic sensibility. The continuous sense of movement, created through rapid editing, brief scenes and the layered effect of moving cameras filming moving subjects, is effective here in conveying social and personal upheaval and will become a characteristic of his directorial style. Viewing the film today, Weir appears to have exercised remarkable restraint with dialogue for a first-time feature director, suggesting unusual talent for telling a story through visual and other aural means. Some film theorists, most notably Rudolf Arnheim, have argued that exploitation of uniquely filmic devices is the principal hallmark of a great director. This early display of filmic acuity, which has evolved into Weir’s current mastery of visual storytelling, seems to have developed, to some degree, in response to a presumed obstacle: the Australian accent. In an interview with Sue Mathews, Weir explained it was so unusual in the 1970s to hear the Australian accent on film, that the actors were uncomfortable speaking, so he conceived alternative ways to move the story forward (3).
Weir’s subsequent film Homesdale (1971) was funded principally by the Experimental Film Board, and as such constitutes a persuasive argument for creating opportunities for young filmmakers to develop their skills in an environment free of market pressures. Various thematic and stylistic aspects of Weir’s later work are evident in this bold, at times rough, but charmingly inventive film, which, at 52 minutes, is approaching feature length.
“Homesdale” is a guesthouse, the nature of which is never made entirely clear, situated on a secluded island, run by a sadistic manager who receives groups of six guests for short visits. The manager entertains the guests with bizarre activities, at times cruel or threatening, some of which get out of hand. The film, with touches of macabre comedy and horror, begins with a group of guests arriving on the island. A sign adorns the imposing front gate, declaring: “Homesdale hunting lodge, health in hospice. A new experiment in togetherness”. “Hunting lodge” foreshadows the savagery that will indeed take place there, while “hospice” implies it might be a place for the dying. During the guests’ first meeting with the manager, it appears that each has come to Homesdale to recover from unresolved encounters with death. When they convene around a dinner table, their spontaneous revelations manifest various characteristics of traumatised psyches: disjointed, fractured speech patterns; inability to listen to others; obsessive focussing on the pain of past events or, conversely, denial of their gravity. As the film unfolds, like a melodramatic nightmare, we realise the manager, aided by a churlish gardener (played by then film student Philip Noyce), is apparently determined to break the guests’ already fragile egos.
Weir himself has a fleeting part as a performer in an evening organised by the manager, where the entertainment is a ploy to taunt and humiliate the guests. In one instance, the performers act out the words as they sing “one fine morning a dotty old man, without warning, shot someone”. An elderly guest, Mr. Levy (James Lear), who may have killed a man in bizarre circumstances, desperately pleads that they stop, so as not to reveal his shameful secret. Reactions as perturbed as Mr. Levy’s are also featured in a startling moment later in the film that anticipates the main conceit of The Cars that Ate Paris. During a dinner party, one of the residents, Kevin (Grahame Bond), comments: “Remember the Milo case? In 1927, he faked road accidents to kill his wives and here’s how he used to do it”, at which moment a motorbike crashes into the room, releasing a life-size doll of a woman hanging by her neck. The scene typifies the somewhat disjointed exuberance of a film whose creative kernels and underlying concerns will be more persuasively realised in future projects.
The Cars that Ate Paris
The offbeat Cars that Ate Paris extends Homesdale‘s macabre atmosphere, comedic register, horror film techniques, and preoccupation with death and trauma in a story that centres on the leaders of a small apocryphal town, Paris, set in an unspecified part of Australia. The residents of the town redirect passing traffic in order to cause road accidents and subsequently sell the damaged vehicles’ parts and conduct medical experiments on the survivors.
Arthur Waldo (Terry Camilleri), the meek protagonist of the film, falls prey to the town’s machinations after surviving a car crash (orchestrated by the town residents), in which his brother, the driver, dies. The event triggers a previous trauma: a year earlier, Arthur inadvertently killed an old man in a driving accident, and since then he has been unable to bring himself to operate a moving vehicle. He moves into the mayor’s home, a captive of sorts, and experiences the town as an extension of the politician’s dysfunctional family: “One thing close families don’t do – they don’t talk to outsiders …”, the mayor cautions.
Considering this was Weir’s first full-length feature (at 91 minutes), made on the tight budget of AUD240,000, in 27 shooting days, it remains an impressive achievement. Through bold mise en scène, Weir creates a grotesque and coherent portrait of a town made up of corrupt elders, rebellious youths, and “accident” victims who reside, predominantly, in the local hospital.
The corruption and hypocrisy of the conservative town leaders, as they orchestrate their death traps after attending church services, are surpassed by the younger generation. If the elders manipulate passing cars into accidents, the youth take the sadistic instinct further by themselves driving cars through town as weapons to taunt, and ultimately murder, the elders.
The final sequence of the annual fancy dress ball, abruptly interrupted by roaring vehicles, is a daring display of imaginative black humour by a young director learning his craft. The initial scene of the ball – a swirl of garish colours, with balloons and streamers floating amongst outlandish outfits of vicars, sailors, cowboys – cuts to a stark exterior night shot of a hilltop where a herd of car headlights menacingly appears. Animal sounds emanate from the vehicles, as a cut returns us to the town to show the cars – in fancy dress every bit as garish as the elders, with silver spikes and bumper bars boasting red teeth – wreaking havoc on the ball and eventually the entire town.
During the final chaotic melee, as the generations take up weapons against each other, Arthur obeys the Mayor’s order to kill one of the youths by repeatedly reversing a car into the victim’s decorated vehicle. Arthur obliges reluctantly at first, but then proceeds systematically with the killing. After the murder he exits his car, solemnly removes his hat in a grotesque gesture of respect for the dead, and stares at his victim in disturbing silence for a long take of 25 seconds. With calm relief, he finally observes, “I can drive” and, with a confident smile and against the Mayor’s protests, Arthur drives himself out of town.
The murder sequence is made up of a total of 12 assaults, each shown in consecutive individual shots, rapidly edited. The effect mirrors Arthur’s obsessive psychological state. Arthur had not deliberately caused the initial death that traumatised him, nor the death of his brother, yet was paralysed with guilt over both. In murdering the youth, he does act with volition, but overcomes the symptom of his guilt (his driving phobia) in the very act of killing. He has shifted from a neurotic state to a psychotic one. As Arthur gleefully departs Paris, we wonder if he might in fact be taking with him the sadistic practices and murderous heritage of the town he is abandoning.
Picnic at Hanging Rock
In his next project, Weir portrayed another insular community, in a rural environment, which collapses under pressures it cannot bear. But where The Cars that Ate Paris, with its highly-strung male protagonists and stylised town, borders on the absurd, Picnic at Hanging Rock explores the uncanny as it emerges from the realistic setting of a boarding school, at the dawn of the twentieth century, in the recognisable landscape of the Australian bush. Picnic‘s protagonists are vulnerable adolescent schoolgirls in white, flowing virginal dresses, who fall prey to their surroundings. In this, his second full-length feature, Weir’s assured cinematography, mise en scène composition and affecting sounds lull the audience into a dreamlike ambience, while simultaneously retaining an engaging rhythm that propels the story forward at a satisfying pace.
Picnic opens with a landscape composition covered in a veil of mist, which gradually clears to reveal a large rock. While our gaze rests on the rock, the mist reappears in the lower half of the frame, threatening to enshroud it once again (4). Instead the image slowly dissolves into a low-angle shot of the imposing monolith, now dominating the sky, its power palpable. The sequence is accompanied by an ominous sound, reminiscent of a didgeridoo, that seems to emanate from the earth itself. The hum fades as the subsequent shot introduces the comparatively feeble and prosaic colonial school boarding house.
As Valentine’s Day dawns in the year preceding Australia’s Federation, 1900, a group of pre-Raphaelite-looking adolescent girls of Appleyard College, Victoria, prepares for an excursion to nearby Hanging Rock. While they swoon over sentimental love letters and tighten each other’s corsets,
their adolescent romantic yearnings and fledgling sexuality mingle. As they are driven away in horse and cart from the confines of their institution, their delicate faces to the wind, they remove their white gloves and trustingly launch into their surroundings, only to return hours later, devastated by the unexplained disappearance of three students and a teacher.
Much of the film’s appeal lies in the disquieting effect of the enigmatic disappearances remaining unresolved. The girls’ absence at the core of the story, symbolised by the cavernous rock that seems to have devoured them, will command a disturbing presence in the life of their school and the town, now acutely aware of threatening possibilities and sudden loss. When one girl is found alive after a week alone on the rock and she is unable to recall any aspect of her ordeal, the intrigue only deepens. The film focuses on the community’s varied responses to the mystery, from hysteria in some to a quiet sense of desolation in others.
The incongruity of a privileged European-informed sensibility confronted with a forbidding new-world environment is the story’s underlying preoccupation. How do non-indigenous Australians of European heritage reconcile themselves with a landscape that confounds them? The nation may well be on the verge of federation, but its people still exercise no real control over their appropriated territory. The trappings of breeding and class, which signified power in the old world, are useless in the face of uncanny, intimidating natural forces.
Many consider Picnic to be the film that spearheaded what is often referred to as “the revival” of the Australian film industry in the 1970s (5). It was the artistic quality of Picnic, its sensibility for the uncanny coupled with its period-piece atmosphere, that garnered this film, and by extension the Australian film industry more generally, serious critical accolades abroad. The film certainly established Weir as a significant directorial talent.
The Last Wave
Weir more explicitly addresses the role of non-indigenous Australians in the new world in The Last Wave (“Wave”), focusing specifically on white Australia’s relationship to ancient Aboriginal culture and law. The story can be read as either a spiritual awakening or a psychological break down of the protagonist, David Burton (Richard Chamberlain), a white corporate lawyer, married with two daughters, who is called upon by a friend at legal aid, Michael Zeadler (Peter Caroll) to defend four Aboriginal men charged with murder. While working on the case, David comes to believe he may be a spirit from the Aboriginal Dreamtime and he finds it increasingly difficult to function as a family man and professional in white society.
The film incorporates many of the same filmic techniques as Picnic – slow motion, timelapse photography and eerie sound effects – to create as intense an uncanny atmosphere, and as intriguing a mysterious undercurrent. However, where Picnic is a study in restraint, Wave approaches the excessive in its surrealistic elements (rain pouring in through car radio), expository dialogue (“You’re in trouble, you don’t know what dreams are anymore”) and the introduction of more complex elements than the film can fully integrate, including the suggestion that Aboriginal culture may have had ancient contacts with the pre-Columbian world of the Americas. In an interview, Weir explains that Wave evolved out of a period of reading and talking about Aboriginal culture and that he remains frustrated that in the film he captured so little of what he learnt (6).
Despite his own frustrations with the finished product, we do see in this film Weir’s effective use of creative cinematic techniques to convey ineffable qualities. In a series of scenes in which David is conversing with other characters, for example, the background of his shots, unlike that of his companions, is infused with over-exposed lighting, subtly suggesting the prophetic, supernatural gift the script suggests David possesses. When, later in the film, David’s eldest daughter talks of dreams in which “there was a beautiful light”, we wonder whether she too may share his gift.
An early sequence of David and his family (including his stepfather, an Anglican minister) at a backyard barbeque, overshadowed by a prominent church, recalls a similar scene in Michael, of the protagonist and his family exiting a church service. The scene in the earlier film served to illustrate the extent to which Michael felt alienated from his environment; here too, the church will come to symbolise that with which David cannot reconcile himself, namely the Western tradition of rationalising mysteries. The explicit references to Western religion both foretell what will become the protagonist’s spiritual awakening and serve as a counterpoint to Aboriginal mysticism, which Weir implies embraces mysteries and, in so doing, is privy to powerful insight.
Weir was aware that any film of this kind is vulnerable to charges of romanticising (or “orientalising”, in postcolonial discourse) an indigenous culture (7). With this in mind, it makes sense that he would insert a dialogue within the film to address the propensity to represent non-Western cultures in a patronising way. When David suggests to his legal aid colleague that there may be more going on with the Aborigines on trial than is superficially apparent, the pragmatic solicitor retorts: “That middle-class patronising attitude towards the blacks revolts me … you come in here with this idiotic, romantic crap about tribal people”.
Funded and, crucially, distributed in part by American finance and starring the American actor Richard Chamberlain, Wave was Weir’s first film to reach and impress American audiences. It was in the wake of its success that Picnic was released in the United States and quickly became a favourite of art-house cinemas.
After the positive reception of Picnic at Hanging Rock and The Last Wave, Weir went on to direct a small-scale television movie. A psychological thriller funded by the South Australian Film Corporation and Australian television’s Channel Nine, The Plumber incorporates absurdist touches and disconcerting psychological portrayals.
As in Wave, The Plumber features a character – anthropology student, Jill (Judy Morris) – who is left troubled after an encounter with a non-Western culture. Jill has recently returned from fieldwork in New Guinea where, while undertaking research for her Masters thesis, she experienced a threatening encounter with a male sorcerer who entered her tent uninvited. Jill seems to have felt both afraid for herself and uneasy about her own intrusion into the lives of an indigenous people. The trauma of this encounter will be triggered once Jill is back in Australia living in university housing with her husband, a medical doctor specialising in the nutrition of indigenous peoples. She is visited by Max (Ivar Kants), a plumber who proceeds to wreak havoc in her bathroom, as well as with her politically correct disposition, which is already troubled by the incident in New Guinea. When the sorcerer intruded upon Jill during her fieldwork, Jill apparently chose not to expel the interloper or to leave the tent herself. Instead, she defended herself by throwing a bowl of goat’s milk in the sorcerer’s face, which caused him to break into tears. Jill appears to feel confused and guilty in the face of his unexpected reaction: “It was really awful, he cried, just like a child”, she explains to her husband.
The plumber makes much of the class and educational differences that separate him from Jill, compelling us to see him, like the sorcerer, as very much an “other” with respect to Jill’s norm. Weir makes adroit use of shot compositions and editing to subtly convey the internal association Jill is constructing between the plumber and the sorcerer. When she walks into her apartment, undresses and then, on hearing, “Is that you Jilly?” realises the plumber is present, threatening music accompanies a close-up of Jill looking panic-struck. Weir immediately cuts to still photos of indigenous research subjects. Later, as Jill struggles with her disabled kitchen taps, the soundtrack introduces the drumming from her research tapes, as she yells “bloody plumber”. A cut then reveals an ingenious zoom shot symbolising her mental superimposition of Max’s behaviour onto her previous trauma. An interior shot of the black face of a male statuette shares the screen space with Max’s face, outside the apartment, spying through a window. The split image forms a single face, half black and half white. As the camera zooms in on Max, drawing him into the apartment, the shot retains only a trace of the black image. The sequence, then, simultaneously depicts Max’s actual spying and Jill’s troubled mind, in which the plumber seems to be displacing the sorcerer as tormenter.
It would also seem that Jill is reliving the emotional impact of her experience with the sorcerer when, rather than taking immediate measures to expel the raucous plumber from her home, she allows him to destroy the bathroom and drive her to a state of emotional distress. Her sense of impotence is heightened by the unaccountable indifference to her pleas for help demonstrated by her husband, her best friend and the building’s administrator. To rid herself of the intruder, Jill frames Max for a theft he did not commit, ensuring the police will physically remove him from the premises. In so doing, she visits upon this intruder, as with the sorcerer before him, a humiliating fate, which is simultaneously emotionally unsettling to herself. From the moment she devises her unusual retaliation scheme, Jill appears in a dissociated state, able only to utter platitudes. Her confused feelings of fear, anger and guilt towards individuals of different cultural and class backgrounds proving too much to process, she cuts herself off from emotions altogether.
In this low-budget, television film, Weir demonstrates instincts remarkably well attuned to the psychology of trauma, as he portrays the repetitive patterns, protective mechanisms, and emotionally self-punishing behaviours often enacted by victims of trauma. He will continue to explore traumatic episodes in his next film, which makes a poignant statement about the expediency of war.
In Weir’s own words, Gallipoli (1981) is his “graduation film”, by which he means the first film he directed where he felt fully in control of his artistic resources (8). The screenplay, based on a story by Weir and written by David Williamson, takes on one of the founding myths of Australian nationalism: the 1915 Gallipoli campaign of the First World War, during which approximately 8,000 Australian soldiers were killed, and over 20,000 wounded, in a hopeless battle against the Turks.
Gallipoli was internationally received as a statement on the irrationality of warfare, and it continues to be a reference in select discussions surrounding the “Great War” (9). In Australia it was also received as a statement about the damaging results of British arrogance on the Australian psyche. Earlier film versions of Australian participation in the First World War, most notably Charles Chauvel’s Forty Thousand Horsemen (1940), highlighted Australian pride in its special role assisting the objectives of the British Empire. Weir, however, underscores the perils of the Australian connection to Britain, as the crux of the film rests on the premise that the British commanders knew that the operation was doomed to failure, and had little compunction in sacrificing the lives of Australia’s youth. In this sense, Gallipoli is closer to Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory (1957) in its anti-war sentiment than to Chauvel’s militaristic Forty Thousand Horsemen, but is no less nationalistic than its Australian antecedent.
Within the context of WWI, the film centres around the mateship between two young national-class sprinters from Western Australia, Archy Hamilton (Mark Lee) and Frank Dunne (Mel Gibson), who first meet as rivals in athletic competitions, but soon decide to enlist together, and eventually become part of the same Light Horse unit. The film consistently portrays Australia, in part through its emblematic protagonists, as young, affable and charmingly naïve, in contrast to the callously self-serving British. This sort of dichotomy, necessary to foster nationalistic sentiment, provides a telling contrast to the complex ambiguities of Weir’s previous work. Here he is developing a more linear, direct style of storytelling, with fewer obviously stylised effects, while still conjuring richly atmospheric moments to portray the subjective confusion of traumatic events. When a group of soldiers swims in the ocean before the main combat has started, bullets rain into the water, wounding one of them. The graceful, slight slow-motion, underwater sequence of calm movement, abruptly pierced by bullets, and the subsequent bloodflow staining the liquid image, is reminiscent of a surrealistic underwater shot from Wave of David sitting dazed in his submerged car, as corpses float around him. In Gallipoli, against a backdrop of dusty realism, the eerie beauty of this underwater sequence captures the surreal aspect of sending boys halfway around the world to be pawns in a military manoeuvre.
The grief at the heart of the story saturates the film with emotional resonance. It is evoked no sooner than the opening titles roll, accompanied by Albinoni’s mournful chords (Adagio for Strings and Organ) only to return brutally in the final image as we see Archy Hamilton, blond and muscular, caught in freeze frame arching forward to meet the bullets that will kill him. Australia here is grieving not just the loss of such handsome potential, but more portentously, its own lost innocence. The message of the film is plain: Australia entered the “Great War” in solidarity with the motherland, only to experience betrayal by the country to which it felt a loyal bond.
This is the stuff of self-righteous national definitions, and the film did play a role in identifying, and giving expression to, the emotional impact of the Gallipoli campaign on Australia for a new generation. Indeed, as Geoff Mayer has underscored, by emphasising Australia’s innocence and Britain’s guilt in the conflict, and by repressing any sense of Australian brutality and aggressive behaviour, Weir creates an image of Australian nationalism that struck a chord with contemporary audiences at a time when the nation was reconsidering its role in the changing geopolitical circumstances of the Pacific (10).
The Year of Living Dangerously
In many ways Weir’s last Australian production, The Year of Living Dangerously, another period piece again featuring David Williamson as screenwriter and Mel Gibson as lead actor, continues Gallipoli‘s exploration of Australia’s geo-political role in the world. Year resonates with a historical moment when Australia has distanced itself from the motherland and must define its role in its own geo-political region.
A young Australian journalist, Guy Hamilton (Gibson), described in voice-over as “ambitious, but naïve” by the narrator, Billy Kwan (a male character played in an Oscar-winning performance by Linda Hunt) is sent to Djakarta. His posting coincides with the months leading up to the overthrow of President Sukarno, the Indonesian leader. Guy gradually discovers that the relations between the Indonesian people and the expatriate community are more complex and treacherous than he had at first perceived. The Indonesian Wayang puppet theatre provides an apt metaphor throughout the film for the layers of manipulation taking place. While Guy, and we along with him, try to discern who is manipulating whom and to what end, he becomes enmeshed in manipulations of his own. When a British diplomat, Jill Bryant (Sigourney Weaver), with whom he has become romantically involved, offers him classified secrets that could secure his safety, Guy compromises her by publishing the information as a journalistic scoop to further his career.
Weir makes economic use of the film medium to subtly portray the psychological shift in Guy once he has betrayed Jill. On realising that he too is capable of betrayal, Guy immediately becomes suspicious of those around him, aware now that others may well betray him. His assistant, Kumar, exchanges hushed words with a local female assistant, and Guy looks on, wondering if he may be the subject of the exchange. The young woman smiles at Guy and his once easy grin now becomes an unsure tightening of the lips. That night, in Guy’s troubled dream, the same woman appears as a floating corpse, but as Guy swims toward her in a rescue effort, she playfully smiles at him only to suddenly turn fierce and hold his head under water, as he struggles in vain to free himself. Now, more cognisant of perfidy, Guy is no longer the naïve journalist that Billy Kwan described on the young Australian’s arrival in Djakarta.
As Guy’s self-respect diminishes, he cavorts with a brazen American journalist, Pete Curtis (Michael Murphy), whom he had previously held in disdain. Curtis drives him to visit the hordes of desperate young prostitutes who elicit business at the local cemetery. Guy becomes conscious of his own degradation when dozens of Indonesian women press their vulnerable bodies up against the car window, and he flees directly to Jill to try to mend their relationship and to curb his excessive opportunism. In a romantic twist, Guy risks his life to accompany Jill out of Indonesia, just at the moment when staying would secure his professional success.
This film represents a substantive step in Weir’s oeuvre: the portrayal of a sympathetic protagonist who betrays another and tries to redeem himself. If in his earlier work Weir had often focused on characters who are helpless victims of events beyond their control, this story involves the agency of those who feel responsible for their actions. Gallipoli closed with grief and anger at having been betrayed by the motherland. Year acknowledges Australia as an independent nation state, as capable of betrayal as any other, with Australia’s complicity in the 1969 overthrow of Sukarno the political parallel to Guy’s opportunistic drive.
The Hollywood Films
If Weir’s Australian projects can be read as working through various aspects of a young nation coming-of-age, his American projects throughout the 1990s can be read as further meditations on a recurrent theme, now devoid of nationalistic connotations: the search for an authentic individuality. Within this shift, Weir will continue to incorporate many of his signature themes and characteristics: the meeting of distinct cultures, confrontations with death and grief, spiritual dimensions, oneiric atmospheres, and traumatic episodes. It is impressive that despite significant studio pressures, Weir has managed to combine his arthouse sensibility within generic Hollywood expectations, as Jonathan Rayner has adeptly demonstrated (11).
Weir’s first entirely American feature is an amalgam of the Western and thriller genres, without being circumscribed by either. It was produced by Paramount Studios, with an all-American cast, starring one of Hollywood’s biggest box office names: Harrison Ford. The setting is also distinctively American: an Amish community in Pennsylvania renowned for living a simple life off the land and eschewing modern technology.
When a young boy from the community, Samuel Lapp (Lucas Haas), on his first trip away from his protective environment to the city of Philadelphia, inadvertently witnesses a brutal murder, he and his mother Rachel (Kelly McGillis) are exposed to lurid aspects of the contemporary, urban world their community has actively shunned. Having witnessed brutality, they will never be entirely free of it. When an elder of the pacifist Amish community, Eli (Jan Rubes), lectures Samuel against killing, the boy, now more aware of ethical complexities, answers “I would only kill a bad man… I can see what they do. I have seen it”.
Just as the boy encounters evil in the broader world beyond his community, the cop assigned the case, John Book (Ford), discovers corruption within his own tight knit community – the police force. The killing Samuel witnessed was committed by a policeman trying to conceal his involvement in the illicit sale of a drug haul. When an attempt is made on Book’s life, he realises his formerly trusted superior, Paul Schaeffer (Josef Sommer), is in on the scheme. Wounded, he flees with the boy and his mother to the Amish community, where he is offered shelter and care.
The story is all about seeing and, aptly, Weir employs uniquely cinematic tools to convey decisive points of character development through the act of looking. The early chapter of Samuel’s city trip features repeated sequences beginning with close-ups of the boy’s big, innocent eyes, followed by point of view shots of that which Samuel is observing for the first time, frequently captured at his eye level. The camera surveys the train station, and subsequently the police station, devouring the world at navel level, often pausing with a low-angle shot, as Samuel cranes his neck to take in more than an innocent boy should have to see: a murder, a suspect violently pressed up against a car window, an assailant in hand-cuffs.
Shots underscoring the act of seeing also convey the shifting emotions between Rachel and Book and, in turn, the community’s reaction to the couple’s burgeoning relationship. Rachel’s affectionate gaze itself becomes the subject of a point of view shot when an elderly woman tenders a disapproving glance at the young woman who is admiring Book from a distance. Although he depicts the Amish in soft focus, harmonious colour schemes, and endearing compositions, Weir does not shy away from exposing the inhibiting aspects of their restrictive codes. The pathos of Rachel and Book’s untenable relationship is interrupted when corrupt police officers arrive at the rural community: three dark silhouettes, wielding guns, bearing down on the town in a classic Western composition. The ferocity of the ensuing shoot-out violates the serenity of the Amish whose focused stares will save the lives of Book, Samuel, Rachel and Eli. As the four stand surrounded by Amish men and women, Schaeffer’s gun is rendered impotent: how can he shoot four defenceless people, with so many witnesses?
After this brutal invasion leaves Rachel terrified for her son’s life, and subsequently her own, she can no longer see herself in Book’s world or him in hers. In the aftermath of the violence, Samuel stares out his window at Book, surrounded by city law enforcement officers. The boy’s eyes are no longer trusting; they register suspicion. Rachel gently ushers him away from the window, assuming his vantage point, and observes with sad disdain the figures who have forever stripped her son of his innocence, before turning her back on them, and on Book. Defying generic imperatives, Weir concludes the film with Rachel and Book, each in silence, returning to their respective, incompatible worlds. In the film, an individual can be traumatised by witnessing an act of violence, or her agency violated by a community’s castigating gaze. Conversely, a collective gaze can prevent violence and in so doing bear witness to the protective power of a pacifist community’s beliefs. This is hardly the neat resolution one would expect from a big-budget Hollywood studio production.
The Mosquito Coast
Released the following year, The Mosquito Coast was the least commercially and critically successful of Weir’s Hollywood films. It was a script, adapted from Paul Theroux’s novel of the same title, that Weir had been keenly invested in directing for years before it was finally green-lit.
A somewhat eccentric, though technically savvy, American, Allie Fox (Harrison Ford), disgruntled with what he perceives to be the unwholesomeness of his own country, transfers his wife and three young children to the Central American jungle. Believing that the refrigeration of food can be a boon to the indigenous people of the area, he sets out to build an ice-making machine. His sense of mission is matched by another American, the proselytising preacher, Reverend Spellgood (André Gregory) persuaded that the locals are in need of his religious guidance. Both are imposing their preconceptions onto a world about which they know very little, and their misguided passions permit Weir to explore the hubris of men driven by a sense of superiority.
With the labour of locals, and the help of his wife and children, Allie develops a functional small town – on a piece of land known as Jeronimo – and succeeds in building an enormous ice-making machine. Just as the family is settling into their new environment, however, the realities of the local world prove too much for Allie’s idealism: he engages in a struggle with local armed bandits which leads to the destruction of his utopian hopes.
As with the novel that inspired the film, the story is narrated by Allie’s eldest son, Charlie Fox (River Phoenix), who is in the process of coming to terms with his father’s limitations. After Jeronimo burns down in an apocalyptic (and ingeniously choreographed) scene of explosions, flames and anguished cries, Allie’s fanaticism turns destructive and delusional. He tells his family, mingling his own previous predictions of nuclear attack on the United States with the actual devastation of Jeronimo, that America has been attacked and no longer exists. The younger children are confused and scared, but Charlie’s emotional response is more complex:
I knew Father had lied to us about America being blown up. That lie made me feel lonelier than I had ever felt before. I wanted to… tell him… I would stay and work beside him forever, if he would only take back the lie.
From that initial stage of lost innocence, Charlie will arrive, by the film’s close, to a point of seeing his father realistically, grieving his loss and feeling free to face the world, poised for adulthood. As the family sails from the confines of the river to the expanse of the ocean, Charlie comments in voiceover: “Once I had believed in father and the world had seemed small and old. Now he was gone and I wasn’t afraid … and the world seemed limitless.”
The images leading-up to Charlie’s catharsis display a directorial willingness to embrace ethical ambiguities. As the film draws to a close, Allie and his family – homeless, hungry and weather beaten – are making their way up the local river in a fragile boat, when they sail past the Reverend’s church. Allie, somewhat crazed, sets the church on fire, which in turn incites the preacher to violence. In a kinetic night-time sequence, combining extreme low-key lighting with a fire-blaze red colour scheme, Weir cuts between shots of Allie, making his getaway, and Spellgood pursuing him, rifle in hand, each man looking as out of control as the other. With his hellish colour scheme, moving camera and rapid editing, Weir creates a frenzied atmosphere, punctuated only briefly by a calm take, filmed with a static camera, of the back of Spellgood’s torso as he lowers his gun, after having shot Allie. The take is 3.5 seconds long, in a sequence comprised otherwise of typical brief action-sequence shots, of 1 to 1.5 seconds, and the frame is bathed in a mystical haze of soothing, cool blue. The shot is not long enough, nor discordant enough, to disrupt the action, but it works perfectly to offer, almost subliminally, a moment’s repose. A cut then reveals Allie collapsing, not dead but dying, followed by a shot of the family nursing him as they now sail home, positioned in the same calming blue and mystical mist that had enshrouded the preacher after he shot Allie. Scenes like these sanction Weir as a master of ironic ambiguity. In the sequence in which he establishes the preacher as an exploitative murderer, he simultaneously and subtly suggests that in fact it is through his killing that the family is released from a misguided patriarch and free to return to safety.
Dead Poets Society
Both The Mosquito Coast and Weir’s next feature, Dead Poets Society (1989), foreground fathers myopically invested in misguided personal aspirations. A significant critical and commercial success, Dead Poets Society is a period piece set in the 1950s in Welton College, a private boys school, at the heart of New England’s establishment. It is a study in the mechanisms with which the ruling class absorbs and expels rebellious influences before proceeding undeterred in its primary mission of reproducing itself.
As in Picnic
Why It’s Important
It’s hard to overstate the importance of Peter Weir’s Gallipoliin shaping both Australia’s cinema and its wider culture. Released in 1981, the film opened to impressive box office receipts, taking $11.7 million domestically from a $2.8 million budget, and received critical praise to match. The movie is part of the Australian New Wave, an era that – thanks largely to the foundation of the Australian Film, Television and Radio School and the government funding that came with it – heralded the birth of Australian cinema as a serious artistic force. Peter Weir was one of the most important figures of the movement, with his Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975) a significant film in the movement.
Gallipoli tells the tale of two young soldiers, Archy Hamilton (Mark Lee) and Frank Dunne (Mel Gibson). Each competitive runners, their initial rivalry soon transforms into a close friendship – or, rather, mateship. They each join the Anzacs, but Weir luxuriates in the quotidian details of their lives rather than rushing into battle. We watch as they train in sands of Cairo, as they swim in the seas of Gallipoli and, ultimately, as Archy is cut down by Turkish gunfire sprinting towards the enemy’s trenches. It is a story of mateship, of tragedy, of a young nation and the young men who sacrificed their lives in its name.
Decades after its release, the film retains a towering reputation; revisiting the film in 2002, both David Stratton and Margaret Pomeranz counted it among their favourite Australian films. Last year Guardian film critic Luke Buckmaster described it as “one of the best loved and most quintessentially “Australian” films.” Outside of the dated electronic sections of its score, it’s aged especially well.
But it’s in Australia’s modern perception of the Anzacs where Gallipoli’s legacy is mostly keenly felt. Released in an era when the Anzacs’ perceived significance was diminishing – Weir felt kids of the era regarded Anzacs as a “joke” – Gallipoli shifted the cultural conversation to reposition their sacrifice as central to Australian identity. (All this despite the film’s stridently anti-war themes.)
No surprise, then, that Weir’s film would re-emerge in public consciousness as the centenary of Anzac Day approaches, with widespread theatrical screenings and deluxe DVD and Blu-Ray commemorative editions – scheduled on and around Anzac Day, naturally – cementing Gallipoli as one of Australia’s enduring cinematic artefacts.
What’s It Really About?
Mel Gibson has described Gallipoli as “not really a war movie,” but “the story of two young men.” Frank and Archy: two men who went to war together. Two men who carved their names into the Great Pyramid of Giza together. Two mates. Gallipoli spends more time with Frank and Archy than it does in the trenches of Gallipoli, and along the way establishes the archetypical Australian notion of mateship.
Frank and Archy’s relationship is the heart of Gallipoli. We understand that Frank’s decision to join the army is to be with his mate. At the film’s climax, when Frank arrives too late to prevent a suicidal charge, we understand his anguished cries are for Archy. There’s a hint of homoeroticism in the closeness of the pair – particularly when they go skinny-dipping in the ocean together – but it’s kept implicit. What is clear is that there’s a unique Australianness to Frank and Archy’s mateship, the intensity of their bond paired with good-humoured shit-stirring.
The focus of the film’s first act is not the battlefield, but the running track. Frank and Archy are both short distance runners, able to cover a hundred metres in less than 10 seconds. But this rapidity goes hand-in-hand with a distinct lack of foresight – neither looks much further ahead than those 100 metres.
For example, the two mates jump on a train they believe is heading to Perth only to face a daunting desert trek when that belief proves mistaken. Once in Cairo, the darker side of Australian larrikinism is revealed as Frank trashes a local merchant’s store after a fellow soldier is ripped off, unaware that the swindler in question occupies another store entirely.
In this fashion, the two runners embody the actions of both Australia and Australia’s young men as depicted by Weir. Archy, in particular, seems almost oblivious to either his nation’s reasons for heading to war or the consequences of warfare, and he’s not alone. 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.
That blind faith is comprehensively betrayed in the film’s catastrophic, iconic climax, with Archy and Australia alike sacrificed for the good of the Empire. The nationalist lies of the propaganda machine leave only death; a freeze frame of Archy’s pained expression the perfect, horrible image with which to end the film. In this interpretation – supported by screenwriter David Williamson, who notes that “the tragic waste was our focus” – Gallipoli is an unambiguously anti-war film.
The Anzac Myth
Films, of course, are open to multiple readings, and while neither Weir nor Williamson set out to glorify the events of Gallipoli, the representation of Australia’s role in World War I offered in this film has since become the dominant Anzac myth – in ways that are not as explicitly anti-war as the filmmakers intended. In many ways, the film has been co-opted as a nationalist symbol, an updated version of the jingoistic recruiting propaganda presented – and implicitly criticised – in the film itself.
In the introduction to the book What’s Wrong with Anzac: The Militarisation of Australian History, Marilyn Lake argues that “[i]n no other country has military experience in foreign wars become so central to a nation’s sense of itself and its national identity.” Anzac Day – and the “Anzac spirit” – positions Australia as a country that survived its “baptism of fire” in Gallipoli and emerged triumphant, the sacrifices of its beautiful young men forming the foundation of today’s great nation. This militaristic rhetoric tends to sidestep some key facts about Gallipoli, such as that we invaded Turkey, whose casualties far outstripped ours, and that we lost the battle.
Unintentionally or otherwise, Gallipoli provides the framework upon which this narrative was built. Weir’s soldiers never fire a shot in anger, reinforcing the notion of Anzacs as victims rather than aggressors. (As Lake points out, “eulogies forget that soldiers don’t just die for their country, they also kill for it.”) The film dodges the fact that the Allies were invading Turkey, though, to be fair, that’s true of most Australian stories about Gallipoli.
The now prevalent narrative of England as the true villains of the battle – sending Australians to their death to provide a diversion for English soldiers – arguably originates here in the popular consciousness. The climax sees hundreds of Australian infantry sent to their deaths at the hands of Turkish machine guns. Why? To provide a diversion for the English troops. The tragic scene – a sharp contrast to the casual optimism of the movie that preceded it – is based in historical fact, though it’s worth noting that while many audiences assume Colonel Robinson (John Morris) is English from his accent, he’s actually an Australian officer).
None of this is to detract from Gallipoli or to impugn the modern rhetoric around Anzac Day; but it’s an effective example of how powerfully pop culture can shape the wider understanding of history.
What Should I Watch Next?
For a contemporary depiction of the Anzac myth, it’s hard to go past Russell Crowe’s AACTA Award-winning directorial debut, The Water Diviner (2014). It’s an accessible crowd-pleasing film; the kind of movie where Rusty takes out a bad guy with a cricket bat. But it’s also a considered deconstruction of the mainstream Anzac narrative. The Water Diviner refuses to uncritically venerate its Australian characters while simultaneously incorporating a robust Turkish perspective.
There are plenty of other modern representations of the Anzacs and Gallipoli, thanks to the 100th anniversary of Anzac Day. These include Channel Nine’s miniseries, Gallipoli, a gory depiction of life and death in the trenches; Foxtel’s recent four-part drama Deadline Gallipoli; and a host of documentaries like Gallipoli: The Power of Ten, The First ANZACs and The Waves of ANZAC Cove.
It’s worth noting that Gallipoli was not the only Australian New Wave film to focus on Australians at war. Both Bruce Beresford’s Breaker Morant (1980) – reportedly a significant influence on Gallipoli – and Simon Wincer’s The Lighthorsemen (1987) adapted true stories of Australian soldiers for the silver screen. Around the same time, the television series Anzacs (1985) – currently available on DVD – gave a more detailed depiction of Anzacs in World War.
There’s an intimidating list of reading materials on the Anzacs and Gallipoli alike, starting with pretty much any modern high school history textbook. Experience of Nationhood by K.J. Mason is a good place to start, while The Anzac Book is an invaluable resource for those after primary sources.
Those looking to put this history in context, and understand the ideological and political underpinning of the Anzac myth, are encouraged to check out Marilyn Lake and Henry Reynold’s What’s Wrong with Anzac: The Militarisation of Australian History. This collection of essays challenges the simplistic idea of Anzacs as noble sacrifices, providing a rich portrait of the complex politics of the time. It also attempts to explain the increasing importance of Gallipoli and Anzac Day in Australia, beginning around the 1980s. It’s well worth a read.
Finally, those looking for books related to directly to the film would do well to hunt down Bill Gammage’s The Story of Gallipoli, which appears to be out of print nowadays, but is stocked by a number of Australian libraries.
Watch the trailer for Gallipoli below: