Like the Anzacs 100 years ago Sam Neill journeys across oceans, seeking an answer to why a legend was born in Turkey on 25 April, 1915. Why our two island nations, separated by sea, still celebrate a botched military expedition. Submerging himself in the ebb and flow of a century of remembering and forgetting Sam is carried back and forth on tides that mingle truth and myth, the public and the personal.
From the Gallipoli Peninsula back to the Otago Peninsula, New Zealand, where he grew up; across the Tasman to Australia where he has lived for 35 years; and over to the killing fields of Belgium, France, Crete and Italy, Sam Neill probes why New Zealand and Australia are bound by the blood shed during a century of warfare. On the centenary of the disastrous Gallipoli landing, the film looks for answers as to why that particular event has become symbolic and is remembered more than any other in the two nations’ shared history. Personal photographs and letters are featured, as well as selected archival footage and interviews with historians.
Sam Neill comes from a long line of soldiers: his father, grandfather, great-grandfather and beyond, going back 200 years. But instead of becoming a soldier, Sam became an actor, living between Australia and New Zealand for 35 years. Three men in his family who died in the First World War are among those featured in the film. They are his grandfather, Bob Ingham; his grandfather’s first cousin, Guy Bridgeman and Sam’s great-uncle, Frank Williams. Guy Bridgeman and Frank Williams are remembered on a clifftop war memorial in Dunedin, on New Zealand’s South Island: their names carved into the stone. Despite growing up nearby, it is on camera that Sam Neill makes his first visit to the memorial. Neither Guy nor Frank died at Gallipoli. However, Guy Bridgeman landed at Anzac Cove not once, but twice.
Through letters, photographs and anecdotes, Sam reveals Guy as “a gentle man”, who was never to return to Kiatoa Station after enlisting with the Otago Mounted Rifles within days of Australia and New Zealand declaring war on Germany in August 1914.Guy Bridgeman lasted a month before succumbing to the “Gallipoli trots” (dysentery) and was back months later for the Chunuk Bair campaign, where he was shot through the lung and arm, but lived to fight again. He served at Passchendaele where he was shot for the second time, his arm and shoulder ripped apart. He received the Military Cross from the King at Buckingham Palace, but against his wishes was shipped back to New Zealand, where he died from flu in a military camp.
Frank Williams died on the third day of the final offensive of the Battle of the Somme. Sam makes intimate and personal observations about the effects of war on other members of his family, including his father, Dermot
Neill. Dermot had served throughout the Second World War in the British Army. Other than a couple of fleeting recollections and some notes in his memoirs, Dermot Neill almost never discussed his wartime service – and when he did, he only chose lighter moments to share with his son.
Sam talks about his beloved grandmother, Ella, who was widowed when her husband, Bob Ingham, died from wounds sustained at Messines during the First World War. Bob Ingham was a highly decorated soldier who left behind a widow and two little children, including Sam’s mother, who was four years old. Sam makes an emotional on-screen visit to his grandfather’s grave in Belgium: the first time he had been there.
The film traces the involvement of Maori and Aboriginal soldiers, starting with their commitment as volunteers in the First World War. Indigenous Australians were forbidden to fight, but throughout the war at least 1000 Aboriginal men defied the ban, with sympathetic enlistment panels turning a blind eye. Remarkably, five brothers from the Lovett family – Gunditjmara men from Western Victoria – fought for their country. John Lovett, whose father Herbert was one of the brothers to enlist, says he thinks there was a determination to maintain aspects of themselves as Aboriginal people and as Australians, to defend their country. It also follows the story of brilliant cricketer and rugby player,
Thomas Hami Grace, who had toured Australia with the Maori Rugby team in 1913, before war broke out. He was part of the main force at Gallipoli and lost his life at Chunuk Bair. The role of Maori soldiers continued throughout World War II and is contextualised by Maori historian, Monty Soutar. The film considers how the Anzac legend has been interpreted by Australian painters. Across 100 years, public sentiment toward the Anzac legend has fluctuated.
In 1981, Peter Weir’s film Gallipoli struck a chord with a younger generation. Since then, the fervour for the Anzac legend has been revived on both sides of the Tasman, despite ambivalence toward our participation in wars in the Middle East. For 100 years, the Anzac story has united and divided us and the film contemplates why we reach back to Gallipoli every Anzac Day, through a century of war and sacrifice.
Like the Anzac story itself, the film starts at Anzac Cove at Gallipoli in Turkey and returns there for the final scene, with Sam Neill reflecting on how the Anzac legend was forged - and how that legend has been reforging us ever since.
© 2014 Essential-Waves Holdings Pty Ltd, NZ On Air, Frame Up Films Ltd, the New Zealand Film Commission, Screen Australia and Australian Broadcasting Corporation