April 28, 2021

Film

Revival

By Russell Marks

David Gulpilil, Jenny Agutter and Lucien John in Walkabout, 1971. Image © 20th Century Fox Film Corp / Alamy

Australian cinema’s New Wave turns 50

Fifty years ago next month, two films that screened at the increasingly prestigious festival in Cannes seemed to herald a kind of revival. Walkabout and Wake in Fright were both shot in Australia’s outback interior, which hadn’t really been seen on the big screen for over a decade. Two Westerns had appeared in 1960: The Sundowners, based on Jon Cleary’s novel, and Shadow of the Boomerang, made by American evangelist Billy Graham’s film company and set around his proselytising visit to Australia the previous year. But in these new films, the bush was more than a mere location for human drama. It seemed, as countless awestruck reviewers noted then and since, a kind of character all of its own. A menacing one.

Both films tell simple stories. Walkabout screened first, on May 6. John Meillon’s character drives his two children, a teenage girl and a young boy, from Sydney to the desolate outback, where he tries to shoot them dead. After he kills himself instead, the children set off for civilisation, dressed in their school uniforms. Just when they’re about to expire from exposure, they happen across David Gulpilil – “Gumpilil” in the credits – on “walkabout” as part of his rite of passage into Aboriginal manhood, a common event in many settler stories about Aboriginal people at the time. He leads them through the hostile bush toward a white settlement as they gradually lose their uniforms. Gulpilil’s character also commits suicide after his sexual advances toward the girl are spurned, and the white kids end up back in the city, where the girl marries a boring businessman and dreams of adventure.

Wake in Fright screened a week later, on May 13. John Grant is an indentured teacher in western New South Wales. On his way back to Sydney for Christmas, he stops off at Bundanyabba – “The Yabba” to the locals, or Broken Hill to audiences who recognised it – and becomes stranded there after risking his savings at two-up in a desperate effort to pay his way out of bondage. To his (and the audience’s) middle-class sensibilities the locals are hostile, their code of “mateship” really a demand for conformity to a life of drunken violence and debauchery. Then, as now, the film is principally recalled for its barbaric kangaroo hunt scene, with which its vegetarian director intended to shock audiences. The film was practically lost for decades before a print turned up in a shipping container in Pittsburgh; four years ago it was remade for Channel 10, the kangaroos replaced by feral pigs.

There were many kinds of revival promised by Walkabout and Wake in Fright. The hostile bush was itself a revived idea, one that reached back into the 19th century, and behind and beneath the mythology created by squatters, settlers and The Bulletin’s poet nationalists. First Nations owners had been pushed out, killed off or herded up. By the 1970s, settler Australians had convinced themselves they’d mastered the outback. Much of it had been divided into farms or huge, sprawling cattle stations. Even the proletariat had their own myths that established them as natives of the bush, as larrikins or jackaroos or shearers or swagmen. But here on screen was the wide brown land encountered by earlier settlers, one of dangerous creatures and unforgiving terrain; the beauty overwhelmed by the terror. Variations on the same theme became a staple: Picnic at Hanging Rock, Long Weekend, Mad Max, Razorback, Evil Angels.

There was another revival too. Australia had no film industry since World War Two, and probably since the first decade of the century, when production here surpassed that of anywhere else. The few films that still got made here in the 1950s and 1960s were mostly location productions by American or British studios. In hindsight, Walkabout and Wake in Fright heralded what became known as the Australian New Wave, a 15-year renaissance during which international critics and audiences made Australia’s brand of outback cinematography, ocker humour and period drama acclaimed and occasionally even popular.

In May 1971 the wheels of revival were already in motion. Spurred on by the new Australia Council for the Arts’ Film and Television Committee – and two of its members in particular, Barry Jones and Phillip Adams – John Gorton’s government had already committed to financing local films. Both Tim Burstall’s Stork (released in December 1971) and Bruce Beresford’s The Adventures of Barry McKenzie (October 1972) were early commercial successes for the government-sponsored film revival. Both Walkabout and Wake in Fright happened too early to take government money, but parliament had passed the necessary legislation before Christmas 1970. The renaissance was in train.

“It’s time to see our own landscapes, hear our own voices and dream our own dreams,” Adams wrote to Gorton in 1969 in a premonition of the jingle (Adams had no hand in it) that would help sweep Labor to power three years later. There were Australian landscapes in Walkabout and Wake in Fright, and Australian voices, notably Jack Thompson’s, John Meillon’s and David Gulpilil’s. At one level, Walkabout was a very familiar story based on settler fears of their children being lost in the bush. Ten years earlier Johnny Ashcroft made a hit record, “Little Boy Lost”, out of true events in the New England Ranges. And ten years after Walkabout came the apotheosis of this fear, when Azaria Chamberlain disappeared from an Uluru campground.

But many reviewers, especially those caught up in the “new nationalism” that was propelling the film and publishing industries’ revivals, were worried that Wake in Fright and especially Walkabout weren’t properly “Australian”. Each had an overseas director. The former, while based on Australian writer Kenneth Cook’s first novel, was adapted to film by Ted Kotcheff – the son of Bulgarian immigrants to Canada – and the Jamaican-born British screenwriter Evan Jones. It didn’t find an Australian audience. One story, apparently from an early screening here, is apocryphal. “That’s not us!” yelled an audience member, perhaps wanting something a little more celebratory of Australian masculinity. Jack Thompson then apparently retorted: “Sit down, mate, it is us.” (For the record, Australian audiences would respond much more favourably to Barry McKenzie – which Dennis Altman famously scorned as “the anti-homosexual film” – and Crocodile Dundee.)

Walkabout’s “Australianness” was even more ambiguous. While he was in South Australia’s mid-north working on The Sundowners, an English cinematographer, Nicolas Roeg, happened to read a book called The Children, apparently by James Vance Marshall, an outback travel writer and erstwhile friend of Henry Lawson who had been imprisoned for his anti-conscription campaigning during World War One. Published in 1959, The Children told the story of a sister and brother from South Carolina who are the only survivors when their plane crashes in the Sturt Desert. They commence walking south to Adelaide, almost succumb to the elements and are saved by a “bush boy” (also called “the darkie”) who helps them along. Eventually the Aboriginal boy catches a cold from the white boy and dies. Roeg wanted to adapt The Children, republished as Walkabout in 1961, for his first feature as sole director. He asked acclaimed playwright Edward Bond to write the script. But Bond had never been to Australia. Nor had Jenny Agutter, a ballet-trained child actor from Somerset, who played the sister. And the source novel hadn’t even been written by an Australian. Marshall had died in 1964 but somehow kept churning out novels. It turned out he’d simply lent his name to Donald Payne, a London writer whose father had grown up in New Zealand. Payne had merely holidayed to Australia as a child, and had Marshall’s surviving family’s permission to continue using his name as a pseudonym for his novels set here. In the end, these problems of identity and creative control were too much for the Australian National Film Board, which declared that Walkabout wasn’t a product of this country. It was officially a British entry at Cannes.

Walkabout was a smash hit with some critics, but not with Australian audiences, no doubt because it’s more of an art piece than a coherent film. However acclaimed Bond was as a screenwriter in the late 1960s, the changes he made to Payne’s plot were unfortunate and nonsensical. Half a century later, the film is clearly a product of its time. In a retrospective written just after its 30th anniversary, Louis Nowra pointed to obvious errors and incongruities in both Payne’s novel and Roeg’s film – fauna and flora in the wrong places, for instance – and suggested that Australian readers would “doubt that the author has ever been to Australia, let alone the Sturt Desert”. But when The Children was published, the outback was as foreign to city-based settler Australians – most of whom still thought of themselves as primarily British – as it was to Payne. Passenger four-wheel drives only arrived in Australia in 1958. And after more than half a century of what Bill Stanner would later call The Great Australian Silence, settler Australians had no more knowledge of First Nations culture and experience than residents of London or New York. As late as 1967, Aboriginal characters were played by Malaysian-born singer Kamahl and a blackfaced Ed Devereaux (the head ranger in Skippy) in Journey Out of Darkness, which mercifully flopped. No reviewer in 1971 noticed that Gulpilil was incongruously speaking an Arnhem Land language while on “walkabout” in the central desert. (Gulpilil did though. Profoundly homesick during filming, he prompted Roeg to shift the production closer to his own country.)

Whatever Roeg’s intentions when filming and cutting Walkabout, it looks and feels like a 90-minute perve on 16-year-old Agutter. Feminist scholar Laura Mulvey’s famous essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” was still four years away, so undergraduates and film reviewers weren’t yet talking about what she called the “male gaze” and the way movies often stimulate the pleasure of looking – scopophilia – among straight men. Walkabout’s male gaze overwhelms any ostensible effort to explore the naivety of adolescent sexuality. One loses count of the upskirt and down-blouse camera angles, assisted by the miniskirt and semi-transparent top of Agutter’s school uniform, and confirmed by the bizarre weather balloon scene in which a small group of randy men, eyes hidden behind dark glasses, try to sneak peaks at a woman scientist’s hidden bits. Agutter had signed on when she was 14. But two years of delays meant, apparently, that the film could now explore her character’s developing sexuality: the early 1970s allowed both more honesty and more exploitation. Roeg was enthusiastic about this, filming her in bra and knickers, topless and in a five-minute nude swimming scene that I think is supposed to represent her character’s final shedding of the cladding of Western modernity, or something.

The men who made Journey Among Women six years later – Tom Cowan, John Weiley and John Scott, albeit with Dorothy Hewett’s input on the script – made similar claims. Cowan later said he’d been trying to comment on the inherent beauty of the wild Australian bush and radical feminism, and to contrast both with the ugliness of the convict system. What he ended up with – apparently despite the heated objections of his cast – was an exploitative romp through Berowra involving a group of attractive and very naked actresses, complete with gratuitous lesbian sex scenes. For some reason Journey Among Women was particularly popular among straight men at the box office.

Naked actresses (filmed mainly by male directors and cinematographers) were to become an important ingredient in the government-sponsored New Wave, which was to generate much better films than Walkabout and Wake in Fright. But, for better or worse, these two films are the transition. They’re at once the harbingers of a new national cinema and the last examples of the period before the Australian Film Development Corporation, when overseas studios and directors would occasionally show up to make commercial movies with their own actors. They launched the film careers of Jack Thompson and David Gulpilil, who continued to be plucked from Arnhem Land to make extraordinary movies until lung cancer forced his retirement in 2019; the unnecessarily remade Storm Boy provided his last role. Even as they reflected visitors’ impressions, they established a de-mythologising trend that ran parallel with the new nationalism. So we got Sunday Too Far Away, Gallipoli and The Man From Snowy River, but also The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, Backroads and (eventually) Rabbit-Proof Fence. Eventually the latter trend flourished as First Nations filmmakers – Ivan Sen, Rachel Perkins, Warwick Thornton, Wayne Blair – took control of script and camera and told the stories that had been edited out of settler histories.

Despite the popularity of the New Wave and some notable successes since, Australian cinema has never enjoyed the status of local literature, music or television, which is where Australia’s stars are born. Perhaps more than ever, Australian films now feel like show reels for local actors and crews to demonstrate their skills to Hollywood: Antaine Furlong’s Ascendant (2021), a remarkable sci-fi/fantasy thriller set largely in a Shanghai elevator, even has its Australian cast sport American accents.

Commemorative screenings of both Walkabout and Wake in Fright are planned around the country; I saw the former last weekend at Darwin’s Deckchair Cinema paired with Josh Lawson’s fun new rom-com, Long Story Short, and the night before Stephen Maxwell Johnson’s exceptional High Ground. Both films demonstrate just how good Australians are at making movies, half a century after we started again. For the first time this year, four of the top five movies at the Australian box office were made here (the other two are The Dry and Penguin Bloom). That’s a COVID-related quirk, but it’s also a fitting celebration for modern Australian cinema’s golden jubilee.

Russell Marks

Russell Marks is a lawyer and an honorary research associate at La Trobe University. He is the author of Crime and Punishment: Offenders and Victims in a Broken Justice System (Black Inc., 2015). 

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