One of the New Zealand military’s functions is to assist civilian organisations where no viable civilian resources are available. One such example of this support was in 1991 when the NZ Army provided expertise and personnel to help produce the movie, Chunuk Bair.
The high point of the New Zealand effort at Gallipoli was the capture of Chunuk Bair, a key feature on the Gallipoli Peninsula. Captured by the Wellington Battalion under Lieutenant-Colonel William Malone on 8 August 1915, the New Zealanders would hold the position against violent counterattacks by a motivated and well-led opponent until relieved by British Battalions on 9 August. The latter were driven off Chunuk Bair in a counterattack led by Mustafa Kemal on the early morning of 10 August.
The anti-Vietnam protest movement of the 1960s and 70s had caused anything related to the ANZAC legend to become unpopular in New Zealand, with ANZAC day commemorations mainly attended by veterans and serving military personnel. The 1981 Australian movie Gallipoli, with its powerful anti-British theme,was released and considered an ‘event of national significance in Australia. This spike of interest across the Tasman was a turning point and provided the springboard for New Zealand playwright Maurice Shadbolt to provide his contribution in enhancing the notion of Gallipoli as the birthplace of New Zealand as a nation with the events at Chunuk Bair as a source of national pride.
Shadbolt’s play Once on Chunuk Bair would open to much praise from the theatre gong public on ANZAC Day 1982 at Auckland’s Mercury Theatre and would reinforce Shadbolt’s view that Chunuk Bair marked the birth of the nation freed from the shackles of British Colonialism. Once on Chunuk Bair gave the battle of Chunuk Bair the same national significance to New Zealand that the Australians place on their magnificent debacle at Lone Pine and the Nek. Despite a short theatrical run, Shadbolt’s play would become popular in schools and universities as it was taught and performed as part of the educational experience in a similar way that the Australians use the movie Gallipoli.
With the 75th anniversary of Gallipoli observed in 1990, a shift in public consciousness toward Gallipoli was revived, and Once on Chunuk Bair was made into a movie during 1991. Produced on a low budget and aimed at a New Zealand audience. The Army Museum provided much technical advice, uniforms and props, with the Army also providing significant assistance to the production, including expertise in explosives and many Men as extras. RNZAOC ammunition technical officer (ATO) Ian Juno would be listed in the credits as providing the special effects, and a sizable quantity of soldiers from 1 Base Supply Battalion would feature in many scenes as extras.
With production compressed within four weeks, many of the Large-scale battle scenes were filmed on Wellington’s south coast, a near facsimile of the terrain of Gallipoli, with the more detailed scenes filmed in a specially constructed set at the Avalon studios.
Although the final product was disappointing and did not have the same polished attributes as the earlier Australian movie Gallipoli, it complements Christopher Pugsley’s 1984 TVNZ documentary Gallipoli: The New Zealand Story, the Voices of Gallipoli in establishing the Gallipoli Campaign and the Chunuk Bair battle as the cornerstones of the national identity.