Australian mateship: Forming identity on the battlefield and TV

By | | comments |
Mel Gibson and Mark Lee starring in Peter Weir's 'Gallipoli' (Screenshot via YouTube).

Andione Raneses analyses the film 'Gallipoli' and video game 'Battlefield 1' as WWI narratives of Australian values and identity.

SOMETHING MANY people will find in their first time meeting an Australian is a unique and even amusing quirk of using the term “mate” to address a friend or acquaintance — or anyone.

We’ve seen this in popular media where the Australian persona would call everyone “mate.”

Historian Dr Nick Dyrenfurth in his 2015 book 'Mateship: A Very Australian History':

I call my friends mate, I call taxi drivers mate, people I have no relationship with whatsoever; of course, the best usage of mate I've found over my lifetime is when you've completely forgotten the name of someone you've met on many occasions. It's a very Australian thing to do.

As entertaining as it seems, this unique Australian culture is rooted in a much more significant virtue, which has become a part of the Australian national identity, “mateship”.

The concept of mateship can be traced all the way back to Australia’s history of colonisation. The inhospitable environment that the convicts and settlers found themselves in drove the populous to closely rely on each other for survival. The word “mate” became more than just a term for a friend, but is a term that implied a sense of the shared similar experience of struggle, respect and mutual support.

Mateship has been a part of Australian history and therefore a major part of Australian national character.

In respect to this, historian Russel Ward once commented:

'... national character... is a people's idea of itself and this stereotype, though often absurdly romanticised and exaggerated, it is always connected with reality in two ways. It springs largely from a people's past experience and it often modifies current events by coloring men’s ideas of how they ought typically to behave.'

This idea of how the Australian ought to behave through mateship has not only been embedded in Australian character but it has also become a part of popular culture in film and video games. Here, I'll look at two relevant materials when it comes to mateship: Peter Weir’s Gallipoli, starring Mel Gibson and Mark Lee, and EA DICE’s critically acclaimed World War One video game, Battlefield 1.


Gallipoli is an Australian drama anti-war film that revolves around the story of several rural Western Australian men who join the Anzac during World War One in the Gallipoli Campaign. The film won eight AFI Awards in 1981 and was nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Foreign Film in 1982.

The narrative follows the story of Frank and Archie, two Australian athletes who meet each other in a sprint race. Archie enlists to be a soldier in the light horse cavalry division and encourages Frank to join in. Frank hesitantly enlists but doesn't make it to the light horse and instead joins the infantry. The film depicts the agonising boredom the innocent volunteers have to endure before experiencing combat. After being reunited in Egypt, Frank transfers to the light horse to be with his friend Archie.

The two are then deployed in the battlefield at Gallipoli in 1915 and Frank’s running prowess is tested when he is assigned as a runner for the commanders of the trenches. Every second Frank takes delivering the message on foot means life or death for the men on the battlefield, including his good friend Archie. Regarding representation, the Australians in the film, particularly the Anzac soldiers, were depicted as rowdy and immoral — especially during their time in training in Egypt. They were particularly represented as behaving less civilised than their English superiors which was evident during rare encounters with the English commanders.

This depiction echoes Russel Ward's definition of a "typical Australian":

'... an independent person who hates officiousness and authority especially when these qualities are embodied in military officers, in policemen. Yet he is very hospitable and, above all, will stick to mates through thick and thus, even if he thinks they may be in the wrong.'

Ward’s description perfectly characterises Archie and Frank, specifically in being hospitable and unconditionally loyal to their mates. The film explores how Australians form a unique kind of brotherhood which develops into mateship through their similar experiences of endurance and survival in the harsh environment of Australia. Particularly, the Anzac soldiers shared similar experiences during enlistment and training. They bring this brotherhood and mateship outside their country, when they are deployed halfway around the world to fight a war that isn’t theirs to fight.

It reveals a certain innocence in war. Australians in the film saw war as a rite of passage and a noble adventure. This innocence allowed them to maintain their sense of brotherhood and mateship despite the dire conditions of one of the bloodiest conflict in human history.


Next, take a look at a revolutionary next-generation video game depicting World War One. Video game Battlefield 1 puts us in the shoes of various soldiers in one of the world’s bloodiest conflicts. Wielding antique early-1900 weaponry, Battlefield 1’s singleplayer campaign immerses us in the touching stories of different people from various parts of the war. 

This leads us to a very special level of Battlefield 1 entitled 'The Runner'.  This level is an extensive overview of the Gallipoli Campaign in 1915 fought between Turkish forces and the Anzac. The protagonist you take control of in the game, Frederick Bishop, is a brave and stoic elderly message runner in the Anzac. Bishop deals with having to let a younger, overly enthusiastic and patriotic volunteer, Jack Foster, tag along with him as a runner. 

Throughout the game, Bishop grows more and more compassionate and caring for his much younger partner, Foster. At the end of the level, we find Bishop making the ultimate sacrifice. He lets himself be left behind to finish the job of holding off a fort until Foster and the rest can fall back safely to the beaches before artillery rains down on Bishop’s position. 'The Runner' shows us the heroism and noble nature of the Anzac soldiers in their questionless fight for a cause they don't fully understand.

Nonetheless, the willingness to fight and to seek adventure is further emphasised by the young Jack, contrasted by the wisdom and fortitude of Bishop. In addition, the father-son relationship we see develop between Bishop and Foster is another unique form of mateship — one which grows between strangers who greatly differ in age yet share a similar experience, mutual respect and support. It is no surprise why 'The Runner' contributed to the great success of Battlefield 1 upon its release in 2016, with ten nominations in various game awards in the same year.


Beyond the amusing nature of a typical view of Australians referring to each other as "mates", we can learn a thing or two about Australian identity when it comes to finding our national identity and forming a brotherhood with our fellow countrymen. In order to find a national character, there must be shared experience where they can derive certain virtues and values from.

For Australians, according to Russel Ward:

'The ‘Australian spirit’ is somehow intimately connected with the bush and that it derives rather from the common folk than from the more respectable and cultivated sections of society.'

Robert Mann, in 2007, wrote on the tragedy of World War One in an article titled 'The war myth that made us' and stated that:

'Australians came to believe that during the terrible eight months on Gallipoli, fixed features of the national character had been revealed. Australians were innocent and fit; stoical and laconic; irreverent in the face of hidebound authority; naturally egalitarian and disdainful of British class differences. Above all, in times of trouble, they stood by their mates.'

Gallipoli and Battlefield 1’s 'The Runner' each perfectly describe this Australian virtue of finding brotherhood in the battlefield.

Andione Raneses is a third year Media and Entertainment Management student at the University Of Asia and the Pacific in Manila, Philippines, where he is also senior editor for the University's student publication.

Support independent journalism Subscribe to IA.

Recent articles by Andione Raneses
Australian mateship: Forming identity on the battlefield and TV

Andione Raneses analyses the film 'Gallipoli' and video game 'Battlefield 1' as WWI ...  
Join the conversation
comments powered by Disqus

Support IAIndependent Australia

Subscribe to IA and investigate Australia today.

Close Subscribe Donate