Peter Jackson’s re-definition of awesome – the Gallipoli diorama, close up

Last weekend I visited Sir Peter Jackson’s giant diorama of New Zealand’s attack on Chunuk Bair at the height of the Gallipoli campaign in August 1915. Giant? You betcha. With 5000 custom-posed 54-mm figures, individually painted by volunteer wargamers from around New Zealand, the only word is wow! Here are my photos.

The only word is wow... Close-up I took hand-held with my SLR...
The only word is wow… Close-up I took hand-held with my SLR…
Tail of the diorama - which filled an immense room.
Tail of the diorama.

The whole thing was assembled by Weta Workshop. The project was overseen by a former head of the Defence Force  Lt-Gen Rhys Jones. The models, made for the project by Perry Miniatures, include special custom figures – William Malone, commanding the New Zealand forces atop the hill, is recognisable. So too are some of the artists who contributed. Blogging friend Roly Hermans – ‘Arteis’ – is one of them.

So for me there was a good deal of anticipation – but my wife and I missed the opening by a day when we first visited Jackson’s First World War exhibition, and it was only last weekend we finally got to see it.

To say I was blown away is an understatement. The hills of Chunuk Bair – an exact replica of the real terrain – stretched out before me in 1/32 scale, studded with foliage and people.  The model was enormous. I scrabbled to re-set my camera. What particularly blew me away was the attention to detail – including no-holds-barred representations of casualties. Woah!

This is just a PART of the whole thing. Wow!
This is just a PART of the whole thing. Wow!
Another section of this immense diorama.
Another section of this immense diorama – all behind glass, of course.

The battle for Chunuk Bair has long been considered New Zealand’s defining moment – when we ‘came of age’ as a nation. As a historian I dispute that those of the day saw it that way immediately – it emerged afterwards. But that’s not to dispute its validity. The idea re-emerged in the 1980s, in part on the back of Maurice Shadbolt’s play ‘Once On Chunuk Bair’, which rehabilitated the image of Malone; but also buoyed by New Zealand’s re-invention of itself as a proper nation on the world stage – rather than a dependent appendage of Britain.

Here's Colonel William Malone - custom-modelled - just behind the ridge at Chunuk Bair. Another hand-held closeup I took with my zoom...
Here’s Colonel William Malone – custom-modelled – just behind the ridge at Chunuk Bair. Another hand-held closeup I took with my zoom, provoking various depth-of-field issues…

Chunuk Bair was the main effort to break out of the lodgement above Anzac Cove and reach the forts on the far side of the Gallipoli peninsula – the original first-day objective of the landings back in April 1915. It failed, though only just. At the time, Malone became scapegoat – and the near-miss aspects of the battle fed into the deep national inferiority complex of the day (‘most dutiful of Britain’s children’ rather than ‘confident emerging nation’), creating a mythology of New Zealand – especially militarily – as a nation of also-rans.

Another hand-held close-up of the diorama...
Detail from another hand-held close-up I took of the diorama…

A friend of mine, Chris Pugsley, subsequently dislodged that idea altogether in his book Gallipoli (Reed 1985) – which remains in print today and where he defined not just a new view of New Zealand’s Gallipoli campaign, but a new way of approaching military history.

Some of the nearly 5000 miniatures - all individually painted and many custom-posed - that feature in the diorama.
Some of the nearly 5000 miniatures – all individually painted and many custom-posed – that feature in the diorama.

I covered Gallipoli myself, later, in my book Shattered Glory (Penguin 2010), which looked at the way the war experience destroyed innocence. And one of the vehicles for that, on Gallipoli, was Chunuk Bair. So it was doubly amazing for me to be able to look at this amazing diorama, and think back to the accounts I’d read of the time – the desperation, the heroism, the arguments, and the dangers of a battlefield that could be swept from end to end by machine gun fire.

Quite apart from the fact that we’ve now got this totally awesome model of it – right here in New Zealand.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

12 thoughts on “Peter Jackson’s re-definition of awesome – the Gallipoli diorama, close up

  1. It was great to read about your impressions of the diorama. I’m really pleased it met your expectations. It certainly was the most amazing project to work on, with such a team of talented painters and modellers.

    I’ll have to visit this diorama again myself, as I gather some more interpretation panels have been added since I was last there. For example, I believe there are now maps to help visitors orientate themselves and identify exactly what they are looking at.

    I’ve posted a link to your article onto the ‘Mustering The Troops’ blog:

    1. Thank you! Yes, it was an amazing experience – I’ll certainly be going back myself. I did think of checking out your avatar & getting a photo, but it was such a huge diorama I wasn’t sure where to start looking! I knew “you” were there somewhere.

    1. I haven’t been able to get there yet – despite living in Wellington. Every time we’ve gone, the lines have been out the door. The historical advisors on both displays are good friends of mine but it hasn’t given me better place in the queue… 🙂

    2. Bear in mind there are TWO different WW1 exhibitions in Wellington, confusingly both involving Weta Workshop. The diorama featured in Matthew’s posting is part of ‘The Great War Exhibition’ at the old Dominion Museum. The larger-than-life figures are at ‘Gallipoli: The Scale Of Our War’ at Te Papa, a kilometre or so away.

        1. The two are similar in style – the same organisations are involved in both, with support from Culture and Heritage experts in both cases. Incidentally (apropos my comment on your blog) I really MUST do something about the misapprehension in the ‘Scale of War’ over the Gallipoli casualties. MCH’s historian David Green has published a paper on it, but there are other questions to be answered. The problem flows from the fact that there was a good deal of to-and-fro transfer in and out of the Gallipoli lodgement over the 8-month campaign, which resulted in double-counting. Whether the documentation carries answers isn’t clear yet.

        2. Yes, I think quite a few people aren’t aware that there are the two exhibitions.

          There are indeed some great dioramas at Te Papa besides the larger-than-life figures. The Great War Exhibition also has some other dioramas besides the Chunuk Bair one.

          But the Chunuk Bair diorama is the grand-daddy of them all in terms of sheer size of the terrain and the visual/emotional impact.

Comments are closed.