The Effect of Australian New Wave Cinema on the “Anzac Legend” of WWI

Josh Downes

April 25 is Anzac Day in Australia and New Zealand. This national day is a commemoration in both countries of all those who have served and died in military operations. More specifically, this year marks the 108th anniversary of Australian and New Zealand troops landing on the shores of Gallipoli (in what is now Türkiye) during the First World War. The sacrifice of the Anzacs, short for “Australia and New Zealand Army Corps,” continues to be a source of pride in the two countries.

Alongside this remembrance is a concept known as the “Anzac Legend” or “Anzac Spirit.” This idea captures the notion that the Anzacs possessed a certain national character that defined the two young countries during the First World War. Shared virtues believed to have been possessed by the Anzacs include courage, endurance, mateship, and a healthy dose of irreverence. The legend has since become an important part of Australian identity. While the strength of the legend declined in the decades following the war, the 1970s film renaissance known as the “Australian New Wave” revitalized this spirit for a new generation. This has had a noteworthy effect on the popular memory of the First World War in Australia and of Australian soldiers of all eras.

When the First World War began in 1914, Australia had only been an independent country for about 13 years. Following Federation in 1901, Australia remained a dominion of the British Empire. When the war broke out, Australia naturally offered to fight beside its mother country. During the war over 400,000 Australians served and the country suffered 210,000 casualties, of which 61,519 were killed (one of the highest casualty ratios of any combatant nation). With relatively small militaries in 1914, Australia and New Zealand initially combined their forces into the Australia and New Zealand Army Corps (Anzac) to send as an expeditionary force to Europe. However, the entry of the Ottoman Empire into the conflict on the side of the Central Powers meant that the Anzacs were diverted to the Mediterranean.

After several months in Egypt protecting the Suez Canal, the Anzacs were dispatched as part of the force sent to Gallipoli in April 1915. The campaign was the brainchild of Winston Churchill, who saw the capture of Gallipoli, part of the Dardanelles Strait, as vital to capturing Constantinople, opening access to the Black Sea, and potentially knocking the Ottoman Turks out of the war. The campaign was ill-fated from the start. The combined Anzac, British, and French forces had difficulty breaking out of the beachheads due to rough terrain and tenacious Turkish defense. The Allies withdrew after ten months, having suffered 300,000 casualties. Over 7,500 Australians and 3,400 New Zealanders were killed in the battle.

The Anzac legend emerged even before the smoke had lifted at Gallipoli. Journalists and writers described how the Anzacs, or “Diggers” as the troops were also known, possessed a  unique sense of courage, mateship, and resourcefulness. They also reportedly had a strong sardonic sense of humor, irreverence towards authority, and general larrikin attitude. At the time, “larrikin” was a pejorative term for an ill-disciplined, rowdy person, much like a “hoodlum” or “hooligan.” However, Anzac association with the term gave it the positive connotation which continues to be reflected in Australian identity.

Dual pillars constitute the Anzac legend. One is the brave comradeship typified by John Simpson, an Anzac stretcher bearer. Alongside his faithful donkey, Simpson rescued dozens of wounded men in the early days of the Gallipoli campaign before he was killed. Simpson and his donkey continue to be a recognized illustration of the Anzac spirit despite the fact that much of the story has been mythologized. It is likely that several stretcher bearers used donkeys and that the legend of Simpson has been conflated with them. The second pillar is the impudence and bravado that has become celebrated as quintessentially Australian. This was portrayed as a direct challenge to British arrogance, incompetence, and snobbery which, accurately or not, characterized the wartime relationship between the former colonies and the mother country.

It is important to note how critical Gallipoli is to the Anzac myth. While the campaign was desperate and bloody, in 1916 a reformed and enlarged Anzac force was sent to the Western Front, where they suffered about six times the casualties over the next 3 years. To Australians, New Zealanders and Turks, Gallipoli represents a critical episode in the formation of each country. That the combatants more or less treated each other honorably during the battle encourages this shared sense of remembrance. The annual commemoration in Türkiye is a solemn occasion for all participants.

After the war, the legend continued with the introduction of Anzac Day commemoration and the efforts of the Returned and Services League of Australia, a veteran organization. The Second World War saw a reformation of the Anzac Force which fought in North Africa and the Pacific. While the legend is more closely associated with the First World War, the experiences of the over 22,000 Australians who were held as prisoners of war by the Japanese and forced to endure horrific conditions, torture, and forced labor typified the heroism and comradeship of the Anzac spirit.

By the 1960s and 1970s however, the myth had begun to fade. As veterans of the First World War began to die, the celebration of the Anzacs and Anzac Day waned. Historical reevaluation of Anzac behavior also highlighted uncomfortable episodes of rioting and misbehavior in Australia, France, and Egypt. Anti-war sentiment due to the Vietnam War also challenged nationalist commemorations. Additionally, critiques of the Anzac spirit emerged as some of the core characteristics of the spirit such as larrikinism were recognized as having overly masculine underpinnings, promoting misogyny and discrimination. The growing recognition of Aboriginal peoples and immigrants again conflicted with the legend which was created during the half-century of the White Australia Policy, which restricted immigration and persecuted Aboriginals. It was not until the emergence of the Australian New Wave that the Anzac legend rebounded.

The Australian New Wave film movement emerged in the 1970s and 1980s after several decades of a languishing Australian film industry, and was characterized by a distinctively Australian voice and identity. The movement produced a range of films that explored themes of Australian identity, history, and culture. It also helped establish the careers of many Australian directors and actors including George Miller, Peter Weir, Mel Gibson, Nicole Kidman and Sam Neill. Famous films of the movement include Mad Max, Picnic at Hanging Rock, and Crocodile Dundee. Films such as Gallipoli (1981), The Light Horsemen (1987), Breaker Morant (1980, actually about the 1899-1901 Boer War but still supported the Australian vs. British narrative) renewed interest in the legend and supported its core tenets while also challenging some notions of Australian wartime remembrance. To some degree, the films did reinforce a stereotypical view of the Anzac and perpetuated historical inaccuracies which became popular memory.

An excellent example of this era is the film Gallipoli, directed by Peter Weir. The story follows two young Anzacs (Mel Gibson and Mark Lee) as they enlist, travel to Egypt, and fight at Gallipoli. The film is by far the most popular Australian war film, but it  relies heavily on mythology. While essentially accurate in its depiction of the actual fighting and experience of Anzacs in the battle, the film continues to play into the idea that Australians were sent to their slaughter by incompetent British officers. The climax of the film depicts the disastrous Battle of the Nek in August 1915, but implies that the British were drinking tea while the Anzacs were getting slaughtered. In fact, the battle was commanded by Australian officers and several hundred British troops fought beside them. In fact, over 21,000 British soldiers were killed at Gallipoli, a fact which is not often highlighted in Australian narratives.

Depictions of the Anzac legend were not confined to the silver screen. Beginning in the 1980s and continuing into the 1990s and 2000s, Australian television shows and miniseries continued the trend of depicting Anzacs as characteristically good-humored, courageous, and willing to challenge authority. The best example of this is the 5-part miniseries Anzacs (1985). The series follows the story of a fictional group of young Australian men who enlist in the Army in 1914. The episodes cover the Battle of Gallipoli and the fighting on the Western Front from 1916-1918. Amongst the cast was a pre-Crocodile Dundee Paul Hogan, who played arguably the most stereotypical larrikin Digger in the role of Pat Cleary. The show was popular in Australia and continued the reinforcement of the Anzac spirit.

Well into the new millennium, the Anzac legend remains cemented in the Australian national identity. With the 2002 death of Alec Campbell, the last surviving Australian participant in Gallipoli, the battle faded from living memory, but the Anzac spirit continues in annual ceremonies worldwide and in the culture of the Australian Army.

Image: The Charge of the 3rd Light Horse Brigade at the Nek, 7 August 1915 by George Lambert (1924), Australian War Memorial, Licensed under Public Domain:

Joshua Downes is a candidate for a M.S. in Foreign Service and a M.A. in Global, International and Comparative History. He focuses on 19th and 20th century US foreign policy in Asia, European colonial history, and 19th century military reform and innovation.

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