A Slice of Australiana in Five Films

Australiana, noun
– items relating to or characteristic of Australia.

As the Australian film critic Luke Buckmaster pointed out recently, the madly popular 1980s blockbuster Crocodile Dundee not only gave the world a less than flattering impression of Australians, it was also racist, sexist and homophobic. As fun as it may have seemed when I was growing up, watching bits of it here and there as an adult can most certainly confirm this – it is deeply offensive as well as being complete balderdash. Australian films have historically done mightily well outside of their own realm and have rarely earned the fiery chastisement of fussy critics – Dundee and Australia perhaps being the gigantic exceptions. Feel-good and sometimes corny films like Muriel’s Wedding, with its addictive ABBA soundtrack, or Red Dog, with its partially true story of a cute, on-the-loose kelpie, have endeared audiences and critics alike. Even edgier adult films like Mad Max or Wolf Creek have also managed critical praise and purse bulging from around the world. Essentially, when the Australians produce their own films, by and large they don’t make a hames of it.

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Although it may not be known too well, Hollywood supplanted some of their stars and ideas into Australian settings in the 1950s and 1960s: Kangaroo (1952) was directed by Lewis Milestone and had Maureen O’Hara in the lead role; On the Beach (1959) was a post-apocalyptic film set in Melbourne with Gregory Peck, Ava Gardner and Fred Astaire; The Sundowners (1960) was an ‘outback western’ directed by Fred Zinnemann, featuring Deborah Kerr and Robert Mitchum. Many of these films promoted the country as an adventurous and exotic destination to Americans but more importantly they helped sow the seeds for a successful homegrown film industry. The 1970s saw an upsurge in funding for film projects through the Whitlam government and thus a new wave of exciting and daring films began to appear – the pinnacle of arthouse mastery coming in 1975 with the seminal releases of Picnic at Hanging Rock by Peter Weir and Sunday Too Far Away by Ken Hannam. Worldwide successes followed with the Mad Max trilogy, historical epics such as Breaker Morant (1980) and Gallipoli (1981) and dramas such as The Man from Snowy River and We of the Never Never (both from 1982).

Last year I shared a post looking at films that had representations of Aboriginal AustraliansTen Canoes, Charlie’s Country, Walkabout, The Last Wave and Samson and Delilah to name a few – and many of these would very easily fit onto my list of favourite Australian films of all time. But I won’t tread the same ground twice, so here I will briefly look at five different, but equally brilliant, films from the vast and beautiful continent down under.

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Wake in Fright (1971 Ted Kotcheff)
Filmed at Broken Hill, New South Wales; Featuring Gary Bond, Donald Pleasance, Chips Rafferty and Jack Thompson

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“Discontent is the luxury of the well-to-do. If you’ve got to live here, you might as well like it.”

Wake in Fright was selected to be the official entry for Australia at Cannes in 1971 and subsequently received rave reviews. But after an initially poor showing at the box office, particularly in Australia, the film was quickly lost to the archives. Amazingly the original negative was not re-discovered until 32 years later when it was salvaged from a container labeled ‘for destruction’ in the US. Thankfully, the National Film and Sound Archive in Canberra immediately decided to restore and remaster this veritable classic of Australian cinema.

Wake in Fright is a brutal but beautiful film, basically centring around a wild weekend in a far-off mining town in the Australian outback. Who could live in such an arid and scorched wasteland? Well, the whole premise for Kenneth Cook’s novel, which the film is based on, was an attempt to discover this – to explore the individual characters, as well as the collective, of a white-male-dominated settlement back-dropped against the harshest of harsh landscapes in the middle of nowhere. A place unsuited, it would seem, for the inhabitants who populate it. Cook worked as a journalist in Broken Hill for a time in the early 1960s, describing it as an ‘unmitigated boil of horror’, and obviously transmitted this disdain into his novel. Kotcheff, himself a Canadian, thus tried to capture this in his direction by focusing on the essential element of Cook’s phrase: ‘horror’. Not that there is much horror in the physical sense but it is more borne out in the relentlessly sweltering sun, the cruelty and madness of its inhabitants and the pervading nihilism that enraptures the main character played by Gary Bond.

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Bond plays an innocent (in beer-drinking terms anyway) teacher who has been posted to a school in the desert for 12 months and who day-dreams of better times on Sydney beaches with his girlfriend. When a self-inflicted twist of fate at a gambling den sees him stranded during the Christmas holidays, he slowly begins to lose his mind in a dramatic series of alcohol-fueled events. Bond, with his starry eyes and his posh English accent, is excellent, while Donald Pleasance gives a quality, manic impression of a doctor, having somewhat lost his way in the past. The legendary and revered Chips Rafferty, who starred in many early Australian classics, plays his last film role as the overpowering policeman who more or less compounds Bond’s downfall by encouraging him to gamble and drink, and then drink some more.

For film connoisseurs, Wake in Fright is a hidden gem, but for kangaroo lovers, it may be best to stay away, or at least look the other way when you think Skippy has just arrived on the screen. The infamous ‘kangaroo hunt’ sequence was apparently filmed as documentary footage, where Kotcheff had cameras follow a prescribed hunt and observe their grisly methods of rounding the animals up and shooting them. It is not easy viewing. Overall though, Fright is a masterstroke of stylised film making, with that wonderful opening scene of the barren and isolated outback thoroughly engulfing you even before the film begins.

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The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith (1978 Fred Schepisi)
Filmed at Dubbo and Armidale, New South Wales; Featuring Tommy Lewis, Jack Thompson and Ray Barrett

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“In our own country, they took away our way of life. What for?”

Like Wake in Fright, The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith was not wholly embraced by cinema-goers upon its release in the late 1970s. This mass shunning affected director Schepisi so much that he decided to leave Australia a few years later. The film is indeed not to everyone’s taste. It is a raw and uncompromising account of an Aboriginal man who, as a young boy, is forced into servitude and loyalty to white Australians in the late nineteenth century, subsequently taking on his guilt by going on a mindless, murderous revenge rampage. The cruel, depraved and extremely racist treatment towards Aboriginal people by various characters is shown relentlessly and mercilessly in the first half of the film and is mirrored in the second half by the Aboriginal man’s own savage violence towards them in return. The thing about this film is that there is no respite for thought and reflection. This only comes at the end, when it is too late for the bloodshed to be reversed. It is all massively confronting, as it should be.

The film is based on Thomas Kenelley’s fictional and lyrical novel of the same name, which itself borrows from many historical accounts about a bush-ranger called Jimmy Governor, who after years of exploitation at the hands of colonists explodes with rage and, along with his brother, murders nine people in Central New South Wales. Schepisi’s film ekes out every last ounce of discomfort from this story. A story that is never told enough. Colonial guards and settlers in Australia carried out such despicable and depraved acts against Aboriginal people that it is not unreasonable to assume that they would inevitably lead to bloody uprisings. Ill-equipped and initiated on the spur of the moment, these uprisings were swiftly quashed and easily brushed under the carpet by the stronger firepower and the grisly executions conducted in secret by the outback police force. In the story of Jimmie Blacksmith/Jimmy Governor there was an exception – his crimes became public and his reputation grew notorious, at times evoking empathy from gossiping townsfolk.

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The tragedy and shame of early white Australian history is depicted here with abrupt violence and inescapable coldness. But it is equally presented with deep thought and intelligence on the part of Schepisi, and through the solid lead performance by Lewis. The horrific consequences of racial subjugation is effectively communicated. Not all colonial subjects are painted with the same brush – some characters are conflicted in their position and acknowledge the desperate plight of Aboriginal people and the slow erosion of their culture at the hands of an invasive population. However, the majority of men and women who Jimmie encounters through his life, and who provide the catalyst for his rampage, either possess a wilful ignorance and a lack of education or a perverse desire to see his people suffer. The conflict within Jimmie is cataclysmic and he spirals out of control. With an obvious ambiguity as to where the blame for his crimes are meant to lay, there is a clear indication in the film that the horrors would never have been manifested if this cruel treatment had not been enforced in the first place.

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Razorback (1984 Russell Mulcahy)
Filmed at Broken Hill, New South Wales; Featuring Gregory Harrison, Arkie Whiteley and Bill Kerr

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“There’s something about blasting the shit out of a razorback that brightens up my whole day.”

I found it a little perplexing to discover that the American author of the novel that Razorback is based on (Peter Brennan), is the same person who created Judge Judy. It may be useless information but there you go! Razorback was directed by Melbournian Russell Mulcahy who would later go on to direct Highlander. He clearly established his directing chops with this so-called D-grade horror movie. Indeed Razorback is so much more than D-grade. It may have all the hallmarks of an exploitative 1980s video nasty (blood-thirsty creature, gratuitous sex and violence, bad acting etc.) but it is so obviously tongue-in-cheek and captures enough wry Australian humour to keep the audience engaged. Of more note for me is that the film has a visually sumptuous narrative. Mulcahy captures some extraordinarily vivid background imagery – the dusty sunset with silhouettes of kangaroos at the beginning being a highlight. It is a wonderful example of utilising the Australian landscape in meaningful and affecting cinematography.

Some more-than-enthusiastic commentators have drawn parallels with Razorback to the tension and slow reveal of the ‘monster’ in Spielberg’s Jaws but I don’t think this observation is commensurate with the soul of the film. It is not like Jaws at all. The stalking, devilish pig creature that provides the central focus of the story is meant to be overwhelmingly terrifying for the viewer but watching Razorback these days, the animatronics do appear dated. When you couple this with the usual predictability of horror films, the thrill and excitement never raises too highly above the bar. However, the uneasiness of the story is supplemented with equally devilish human grubs, that would not be out of place in a Mad Max film, which adds a small matter of realism to the film. It is all a bit silly and there is no real ground-breaking, world-changing themes at present here, but Razorback deserves its status as a cult classic, and it has a true Australian feel to it.

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The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994 Stephen Elliot)
Filmed at Sydney and Broken Hill, New South Wales, Coober Pedy, South Australia and King’s Canyon, Northern Territory; Featuring Hugo Weaving, Guy Pearce, Terence Stamp and Bill Hunter

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“Don’t ‘darling’ me, darling. Look at you. You’ve got a face like a cat’s arse.”

I watched Priscilla for the first time last year. Which was very appropriate given that Australia passed same-sex marriage legislation in 2017…at long bloody-well last. Not that this is a topic directly focused on in Stephen Elliot’s classic but there are many allusions to a prudish and intolerant society here (aspects of society which reached peak-ugly at times during the lead-up to the referendum last year). Thankfully, Priscilla was only ever really made to be a feel-good movie, a sort of championing of exclusivity and tolerance without getting too deep into a debate about equal rights. Of course the subject of equal rights for the LGBTQI community is extremely important and I don’t want to diminish the plight of those who have fought staunchly for it, but I think Priscilla is more a remarkable film for having been released (and subsequently embraced by a wide audience) at a time when ‘being queer’ was not fully accepted in the mainstream yet. In many ways, it is ingenious for having achieved this.

Elliot admirably focused his script on the sometimes charming humanity of three people (two homosexual drag queens and a transgender woman) living in modern Sydney. Instead of making a depressing drama about their plight, he plays proceedings more for laughs and sets most of the story on the road in Australian’s untamed outback – a daring juxtaposition of their relatively comfortable base in Sydney’s centre. It can at times flaunt an overly loud and flamboyant tone (this should not be surprising), and sometimes, it must be said, paints a less-than-flattering picture of other minorities (Bill Hunter’s Filipino wife for example), but in general it never slices off too much cheese, rather establishing an atmosphere that is adventurous and positively wholesome. The trio, played with supreme conviction by Guy Pearce, Hugo Weaving and the astounding Terence Stamp, are always endearing as they embark on their respective journeys to shake off some personal strain or other. Pearce’s childish behavior at times becomes a jarring exception but then again, he forms an important bridging point of drama between the muddled Weaving and the wry, grieving matriarch of Stamp. The Australian outback too makes an unforgettable appearance – the epic surrounds of the Simpson Desert provides the stunning backdrop to the now iconic scene of the tour bus motoring along as Pearce’s enormous metallic scarf trails in the wind from the rooftop. It is a work of true cinematic brilliance.

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The Castle (1997 Rob Sitch)
Filmed at Melbourne, Victoria; Featuring Michael Caton, Eric Bana and Stephen Curry

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“Dad reckons fishing is 10% brains and 95% muscle, the rest is just good luck.”

Rob Sitch’s The Castle should not be mistaken for an Austrian film of the same name and released in the same year – this is an adaptation of Franz Kafka’s novel directed by the auteur Michael Haneke. They are two very different films! The uniqueness of The Castle I speak about here has never been replicated or bettered. It is what many people down under would call a homegrown classic. When you look at the figures of the film, it is quite surprising to note that it made over $10 million at the box office, meaning it made profits that were thirteen times its budget. It was shot in eleven days and completed over an astonishingly short five-week period. Not that this had a negative effect on the end product. Far from it. It is not the visuals or the cinematography that stands out here – to be honest, these look relatively amateurish – but I guess it’s more about…well…the vibe of the thing!

The script was conceived by a gang of four (Santo Cilauro, Tom Gleisner, Jane Kennedy and Rob Sitch) and offered an unforgettable blend of subtle but hilarious humour. And that humour is in many ways, very Australian – not in the vulgar sense, just in a very dry, often satirical sense. The Castle sets itself within the realm of the working class Australian in the mid-1990s (fashion and cultural references being a give-away). It also incorporates the idea of the ‘Aussie Battler’: a term largely utilised by opportunistic and condescending politicians to refer to underdogs who persevere through adversity i.e. to make the most of what you have, earn a crust for your kids and be a proud parent. The film could easily have veered into kitsch territory but thankfully it manages a healthy dose of reflection on aspects of working class culture while at the same time providing enough unforced comedic quips and natural timing to feel unique and refreshing. The drama too is not overly sentimental. One cannot help but empathise with the situation that the Kerrigan family and particularly Michael Caton’s proud dad find themselves in.

Their home is to be demolished for the expansion of Melbourne’s growing airport but no money in the world could allow this to happen since the values they place on it are implacable (despite the hilarious fact that the house is built on a toxic landfill site anyway). The ensuing court case is pure comedy gold, with uncertainties of the legal system abound and a desperately incompetent lawyer botching his argument at every turn. There are timely allusions made to the Native Title ruling for Aboriginal land rights established a few years earlier through the activism of Eddie Mabo. Mabo’s name rings out as a sort-of rallying cry for justice, which is hilariously misplaced given that the case here is about white Australians. It is a truly eccentric film, and Australian to the core.

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