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Interview: Sam Neill

In the Maori TV documentary Anzac: Tides of Blood, Sam Neill explores a century of Anzac myth and his family’s soldiering history

Anzac: Tides of Blood, Anzac Day
Anzac: Tides of Blood, Anzac Day

The documentary spans 100 years of New Zealand military history – were there times when you thought you’d been too ambitious?
It’s the piece of string conundrum – we could have made a six-hour series, or we could have made 45 minutes, but an hour-and-a-half seemed about right. One of the threads that runs through the film is my own family and the effects of war on my family. I’m anxious to point out there’s nothing particularly distinguished about them except that a lot of them were soldiers, but my family stands with millions of other families. There’s my grandmother who was widowed in the First World War, although that’s by no means a unique experience. What was it – 12 million widows at the end of that war? I think there was something like 50 million people died in the second war. When you consider all those men who came back from the Great War in 1919-20, they were considerably different men from when they left in 1914. Even today, I don’t think we understand nearly enough about what they used to call shellshock and the various degrees of trauma that most men who have served in theatres of war experience, just the impact that had on almost every family in New Zealand one way or another, and the impact of that which has been passed on through the generations.

Do you understand the impulse of the men who came back who didn’t want to talk about those experiences?
How can you articulate those experiences to people who have never been there? How could you explain the things that you’ve seen, the things that you’ve had to do? You can see why the RSA must have been such a refuge for so many of these men, but others like my father, he would never darken the door of an RSA, he had no interest in marching on Anzac Day or reunions; he didn’t want to talk about it at all, and he certainly never did until he was dying, really, and he just told us two or three stories at that point. It was a closed subject. I think they just wanted to get on with life. I’ve talked about this to Brian Turner, actually, because it’s popularly thought that the 50s in New Zealand were really boring. Brian Turner is of the view that the 50s weren’t boring, that people did things, they didn’t have iPhones and they didn’t watch television, they got out and they did stuff. I think they were boring, but they were boring for a reason – anything other than excitement was what those poor buggers wanted when they got back. They just wanted a bit of peace and quiet. I completely understand that, my God, no more excitement.

Did you discover new things about your family?
I’m continuing to discover things, for instance, my grandfather, whose death we go into in the film, I’ve just unearthed some letters from his friends that were with him on the day he died that were written to my great-grandmother, and those are a revelation in themselves. But I’m also discovering more and more about my relatives who fought in different things. I didn’t know this, but another one of my cousins – my father had about 50 first cousins, most of them fought in one war or another – and this particular one, he’s still alive, and he bailed out of two Spitfires. I mean, that’s amazing; he was shot down once, and another time he had engine failure, had to flip the Spitfire upside down and drop out of it and pull his parachute. He’s probably the only man left alive who’s bailed out of two Spitfires. I only discovered that last week. My great-grandfather, he was part of the conquest of Burma in 1880-81, something like that, and he was in Afghanistan. He was on the relief of Kandahar, one of the epic engagements in the history of the British empire. We’re still digging things up, it’s amazing really.

Sam and his grandmother, Ella Ingham
Sam and his grandmother, Ella Ingham

There’s a very emotional moment when you find your grandfather’s grave in Belgium – did you debate whether to leave that in or not?
That was very much in the hands of the director and they thought it was appropriate. It was a moment that took me entirely by surprise – I didn’t think it would get me quite like that, but it did. Might as well live with it. I think the response was because I was so much remembering my grandmother, who I loved so much, and thinking about what a loss for her. Thinking about what 50 years of widowhood would have meant for her, she loved old Bob til the end of her life, and I was thinking about my mother, who we lost about 10 years ago, who effectively never had a father. What really got me was it was the first time I’d seen the gravestone, and they give the name and the rank and when they were killed and their unit, but right at the end you could have a little motto that would be paid for by the family, so I didn’t know what would be on Bob’s grave, but whatever it was, I knew it would be there because my grandmother would have requested it. It was personal, that direct communication from my grandmother that sort-of socked me. Did you think it wasn’t appropriate?

Not at all – the personal viewpoint is a point of difference, and also you talk about the art that’s been made in response to the wars.
There are various threads that run through it, and one of them is the history of the cinema of warfare, and particularly Gallipoli, which is the foundational myth behind all of this. I’m interested in the art of war that runs through both our countries, but memorials have always fascinated me. The film is about how we remember, what we remember, why we should remember and the actual physical manifestation of what we remember. In every little town in New Zealand there’s a memorial, and you think, “there are so many names – look how small this place is, and there are so many names.” All that sacrifice – and what for? Those are the puzzling things, you think, “what was achieved here?” I know what was achieved in the second war, I don’t know what was achieved exactly in the first war. I’ve read so much about it and I still don’t really understand it. What’s clear in the film is that we don’t pretend to be authoritative about anything, the film’s as much about questions as it is about answers, and I think those questions we must continue to ask. We must continue to ask ourselves what is Anzac about, does it mean anything, is it valuable, is it real? And when that word is invoked, and it’s a very powerful word, a very powerful idea, when it’s used by politicians, you have to think, “is this relevant to what is being proposed?” These are very important questions and we need to keep asking them.

Do you think that our idea of Anzac is different now to what it was 100 years ago, or is there some thread there that still exists?
I think it does still exist. Anzac is actually a little bit more than just the idea of a force that sticks together in times of conflict. I think that whatever people will tell you during the World Cup, I think we are very closely tied to Australia; I certainly feel very much part of Australasia. I think we’re very, very closely tied on many, many different levels and I get really irritated when I hear us New Zealanders whinging about Australians, because we’re not that different.

At the Otago Peninsula war memorial
At the Otago Peninsula war memorial

We commemorate Gallipoli, but do you think we should pay more attention to the Somme and Passchendaele?
I do, not just the Somme and Passchendaele, but Alamein and Korea and Vietnam – and that’s one of the puzzles that we try to unlock in the course of this, why Gallipoli? Why is that so potent, particularly as it was such as stuff-up, it’s was a catastrophe. So it is a curiosity, really. But all these things need to be remembered, and we need to remember why they happened, what went wrong and what went right, and why we were there at all.

It’s commonly thought that it was the emergence of a distinct New Zealand character at Gallipoli, but do you think it would have been different if it hadn’t been such a stuff-up and the British had made a better fist of command?
I don’t know, that’s a very good question. Certainly in both wars there was a very strong feeling that we were often misused and taken for granted, so it’s in that adversity as well as facing an enemy that brought us together so much. These are things that historians are going to debate for a long, long time. One of the things that historians like to argue about is did we land on the wrong beach at Gallipoli? We rented a fishing boat and sailed into Gallipoli, and we took the same course as they did in 1915. They came in in the dark and when you come in in daylight, it becomes so apparent, so desperately obvious that you could not have landed in a worse place.

Was it quite eerie being there?
I don’t really want to go back. I’m not really interested in going there during the commemoration service with a whole lot of people. Most places where things have happened, I really like being on my own, actually. That was also in part to do with the light, it’s better to film in the early morning or the evening. When we were there, there were great crowds during the day, so we’d shoot somewhere else.

What will you be doing on April 25?
On April 25th, assuming I’m in New Zealand, I’ll be watching Maori TV, because the whole day is devoted to Anzac, and while we’re on the topic, bless Maori TV, as the quality of our national broadcaster seems to be in decline, Maori Television seems to be in the ascendant. I have to say, I’m very grateful for that, just as I am for National Radio.

ANZAC: TIDES OF BLOOD, Maori Television, Anzac Day, 7.00am and 8.00pm.

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