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At Nature's Mercy: THE CONTEMPORARY AUSTRALIAN WESTERN.

A genre mostly associated with quintessentially American landscapes and cultural tropes, the western has developed its own fascinating tradition in Australia - most notably, since the turn of the twentyfirst century. BRIAN MCFARLANE surveys a range of films from the last two decades, dealing with subjects such as bushrangers, abuse and colonial dispossession, and finds both echoes of US antecedents and new visions that blaze their own distinctive trails.

When I mentioned this project to a friend in England, he wrote: 'I never knew Australian westerns existed!' This led me to ponder what I understood by the term 'western'. Certainly, the term has most commonly been associated with American films that dramatise the idea of moving westwards, a notion that is irrelevant in Australia - here, the descriptor 'outback-bound' would be more accurate, since Australian narratives set in similarly sparse landscapes need only to have moved inland from any direction. However, geographical direction is less germane to this study than another use of the term 'western': that is, the concept of Western civilisation imposing itself on a largely empty land, with little regard for the original inhabitants and their existing culture.

The American notion of 'cowboys and Indians', once a familiar way of referring to westerns, finds its Australian parallel in the low regard in which white European culture has historically held the age-old ways of living practised by our Indigenous population. While more recent Australian westerns have confronted this situation rather more critically than their forebears either here or in the United States have, this basic conflict accounts for the recurrence of certain narrative trends in American westerns, even in masterworks such as John Ford's The Searchers (1956).

Westerns from both nations share an iconography dominated by vast, empty landscapes, which can be threatening or awe inspiringly beautiful - or, simply, indifferent to the possibility of human habitation. This last aspect most often makes white men's attempts to deal with the physical world look fragile and exposed, stressing the sheer difficulty, whether practical or psychological, of setting up isolated homesteads or rough-hewn communities as bulwarks against the encompassing physical world. This world often looks stunning, but doesn't offer much protection from the dangers of loneliness or predation. The Australian outback is particularly well suited as a location for such narratives: what more could the genre ask for than what poet Dorothea Mackellar described as 'a land of sweeping plains' and 'ragged mountain ranges'? (1) The films' soundtracks, too, tend to be more similar than different: Australia may have fewer resonant songs than US westerns have at their disposal, but gunfire and galloping hooves know no national boundaries. Australia's twenty-first-century westerns have certain distinctive qualities - for instance, there is little of the celebration of human spirit that one finds in some US counterparts - but their heritage is still clearly apparent.

When one considers that, at one time, 'the longest narrative film [...] quite possibly in the world' (2) was the Australian western The Story of the Kelly Gang (Charles Tait, 1906), it is clear that Australia has some serious history in the genre; as I write, Kelly is due to ride again in Justin Kurzel's True History of the Kelly Gang (2019) - an adaptation of a Peter Carey novel - which recently premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival.

Outlaw heroes

Australia's archetypal outlaw-hero, Kelly has been the subject of many books and films that have sought to disentangle his role as a marauding villain from that of an Irish son of immigrants at odds with oppressive authority. If there is perhaps no film that can yet be said to have the status of, say, Carey's award-winning 2000 novel True History of the Kelly Gang, (3) Gregor Jordan's international co-production Ned Kelly (2003) offers a sympathetic account that looks for sources of Kelly's outlawry. In narrative terms, the film (which is derived from Robert Drewe's 1991 novel Our Sunshine*) seems less concerned with the kinds of action one might expect from a western than with trying to understand the circumstances that accounted for its central figure's journey into becoming both a murderous outlaw and, later, a national hero, famously shrouded in metal armour made from ploughshares.

Jordan's film establishes Ned (Heath Ledger) as a victim of his background before his rise to notoriety, creating an ongoing sense of the awfulness of life in a hard country and culminating in his being hanged, despite petitions for clemency. When, at the Glenrowan Inn, he introduces his gang as 'all Irish boys', he is harking back to the conditions that have made him what he is: his background of Irish Catholic semi-poverty, in contrast to English Protestant affluence. This seems an unusual basis for conflict in an Australian western, and it's hard to think of a comparable cultural dichotomy in American counterparts.

Ned's mother, Ellen (Kris McQuade), tries to establish a civilised aura with the saying of grace at mealtimes, but hers is a difficult life with few comforts, and her situation is contrasted with the substantial home of Ned's lover, Julia Cook (Naomi Watts), whose English family is depicted as representative of the colony's ruling class. Ned and Julia are mutually attracted, but she claims she would be 'disgraced' if she were to support his alibi of having been with her (that is, making love) when an altercation with police at the Kelly home occurred, leading to his mother being sentenced to three years' hard labour. The film doesn't sentimentalise Ned - indeed, it suggests that he was prone to glorying in his gang's legendary status when he is shown boasting at Glenrowan, 'The reward on our heads is the biggest one ever offered in the world' - but there is also a strong sense of his having become, to some extent, a 'justified rebel'.

Though offering a somewhat more complex depiction of Kelly than usual, Jordan's film also creates in its cinematography and production design a pervasive 'look' of the kind associated with the western. From the outset, as the camera pans over a hilly, wooded landscape before tracking Ned as he rides off to the outback town where he will be arrested, we are observing a mise en scene that signals the genre. The town is presented with a muted authenticity, consisting of unmade, muddy streets and rough-hewn shops and houses; and, when Ned is released and rides home, we see a characteristic image of an isolated shack. This shot recalls comparable images in US westerns, in which human habitations are made to look solitary and fragile within their daunting physical environment.

Ned Kelly's landscape is not merely daunting, though; nature may be dangerous, but it can also yield a beauty that contrasts momentarily with the potential ugliness of human life's inroads upon it. Recalling Mackellar's 'stark white ring-barked forest / all tragic to the moon', (5) there are shots of haunting grace depicting dead trees against the night sky, and men silhouetted on mountain ridges. The film introduces generic traits that would feature in subsequent new-century Australian westerns: a preoccupation with crime; aspects of cultural conflict, be it around race, class or gender; and iconography that implies so much about the hazards of the 'wide brown land' (6) and the little townships beginning to assume a presence in that landscape.

Another notorious outlaw is the titular protagonist of The Legend of Ben Hall (Matthew Holmes, 2017). (7) In that film, references to Ben's (Jack Martin) broken family imply a protagonist who has emerged as not just a ruthless criminal but a man seriously at odds with himself and society - an echo, perhaps, of Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) in The Searchers. As to the 'society' in which he cannot find a place, the settlements where the gang fetches up are created so as to make them appear vulnerable, not just to outlaws but also to the often harsh and unyielding countryside. As depicted in its westerns, Australia never looks an easy place to live in.

Murderers at large in the outback

Two films involving a search for murderers at large in the rugged Australian outback - The Tracker (Rolf de Heer, 2002) and The Proposition (John Hillcoat, 2005) - offer interesting dealings with the genre. Though in most ways tonally distinct, both films use the search not merely as a narrative instigator - a motif common to the genre - but also as a basis for exploring the conflict among the searchers.

Those familiar with de Heer's other work across a range of genres will not be expecting a conventional approach to the western in The Tracker. He is undoubtedly one of Australia's most original filmmakers, whether telling a story about a northern Australia of a thousand years ago in Yolngu Matha languages in Ten Canoes (co-directed with Peter Djigirr, 2006) or making a silent black-and-white comedy in a model redolent of early cinema in Dr Plonk (2007).

In some ways, The Tracker seems almost archetypal, as if de Heer has worked to highlight the western's basic characteristics of narrative, iconography and ideology in order for us to rethink them. Take the title: the film's protagonist (David Gulpilil) is never referred to by name, but only by his function, and this is true of the rest of the film's small cast. Gulpilil is simply 'The Tracker'; Gary Sweet is 'The Fanatic', in charge of the search; Grant Page is 'The Veteran', the oldest member of the party; and Damon Gameau is 'The Follower', the young man finding his moral feet on the search. The object of the pursuit, played by Noel Wilton, is listed merely as 'The Fugitive'. De Heer focuses our attention on the occupation and status of each character, while exploring the relations woven among these archetypes as the hunt proceeds and the genre's traits go to work on them.

Many westerns are at least partly impelled by the search motif, even if the motives behind it vary considerably; accordingly, what drives these men is as potent as the quest itself. The Tracker opens on a barren, hilly landscape, on which a party of three men on horseback emerge with The Tracker, who is walking, and a spare horse, which he presumably gets to ride from time to time - but not often. From the outset, the black man is clearly distinguished from the three whites.

Titles introduce the characters. The Tracker is 'native to other parts'; The Fanatic 'has been drafted into this expedition'; The Veteran is a 'man who does not dwell on statistics'; The Follower 'is new to the frontier'; and The Fugitive is 'accused of murdering a white woman'. In this way, de Heer lays his cards on the table as far as the players in his drama are concerned. Changes will occur as reactions to the stages of the search, and we measure these against what we were told initially about their places in the party.

The him, like most Australian westerns, depicts an unyielding landscape on which humankind makes little impact, but de Heer never succumbs to mere pictorialism; the terrain is there as impediment, even threat, to the human venture being enacted on it. There are moments of violence, but the most powerfully visceral are depicted in paintings on rocky surfaces, causing the viewer not just to squirm but to ponder the effect of such brutality. This also suggests a kind of mythologising, infusing the film with a more complex tone than mere realism might have achieved.

Ideologically, the film is essentially concerned with racial conflict. The Fanatic spells out the purpose of the search for The Fugitive by contrasting the latter's Aboriginal identity with the whiteness of the woman he has been accused of murdering. The Tracker, meanwhile, embodies the way in which his race has been victimised by white oppression. 'You have to be firm with these natives', The Fanatic says, confident in the Tightness of his views, whereas the much younger Follower becomes critical of him; and when, in a plot turn, The Follower takes charge, the film's questioning of the kind of authority The Fanatic stands for is made plain. Through the image of the shackle, first placed around The Tracker's neck and later around The Fanatic's as he is hanged, the film announces that white authority has taken a tumble. But it's not that clear-cut; when The Follower takes over, The Tracker now calls him 'boss'. In these ways, The Tracker is a complex, intelligent, visually striking representation of matters crucial to Australian life and history, reworking the genre not just to entertain but also to provoke serious thought. It looks and sounds like a western, but offers different rewards from those most often associated with the genre.

Like The Legend of Ben Hall, The Proposition is introduced by historical photographs evoking the early days of white settlement. When colour enters the frame, it reveals a woman being attacked, wild gunfire and domestic life being threatened; like virtually all the westerns considered in this piece, the film offers vast, empty vistas; silhouettes against the night sky; and sunset shots. It also presents images of an emergent community - including a jail and general store - from which the searchers depart.

The film's title derives from the proposition made by police captain Stanley (Ray Winstone) to Charlie Burns (Guy Pearce), who - along with much younger brother Mike (Richard Wilson) - is in the local lock-up. These two, with a third brother, Arthur (Danny Huston), have been held responsible for the rape of a Mrs Hopkins and the murder of her family. If Charlie can locate Arthur and kill him, Stanley says he will pardon Mike, who is due to be hanged.

Though this premise sets the film's narrative in motion, there is more to it than the search. Stanley has a broader aim: 'Make no mistake - I will civilise this place.' By 'civilise', he means to impose the standards of the England that he has left behind, and which his genteel wife, Martha (Emily Watson), seeks to preserve in their home. There is a critique of this ideal present in the depiction of the snootily mannered Eden Fletcher (David Wenham), a local upper-class English landowner who sees himself as superior to everyone else in the district, of whatever race or occupation, and exercises such authority as he can. Late in the film, some drunken cops noisily sing 'Rule, Britannia!', a juxtaposition that stresses the song's sheer irrelevance to the outpost. Although white civilisation is not sentimentalised, there is some respect for the sense of a nation in the making - an uncommon tendency in Australian westerns.

As in The Tracker, an accused murderer is at large in the characteristically formidable landscape. The search is made more complex by the relations between the brothers, Charlie's surface impassivity offset by the wilder exuberance of the hunted Arthur - and by his concern for fourteen-year-old Mike. When Charlie catches up with Arthur, there is a moment when Arthur sits with his arm around his brother, insisting on 'family connections' as they look at the sunset.

There is a deal more one might say about The Proposition, one of the most sophisticated Australian westerns. Eminent British critic Philip French ended his laudatory review by remarking that 'you can certainly speak of this film in the same breath as such recent American westerns as Unforgiven [Clint Eastwood, 1992], Dances with Wolves [Kevin Costner, 1990] and Open Range [Costner, 2003]'. (8)

An Australian western auteur

It may be passe to refer to Gamilaroi filmmaker Ivan Sen as an 'auteur', but, on the strength of his Mystery Road (2013) and Goldstone (2016), it is tempting to do so. Both are modern westerns, both involve outrages against young girls, both recall The Searchers (not only in their initial narrative impetus, but also in their powerful visual evocation of place), both are concerned with racial issues and, in both cases, Sen is credited for direction, screenplay, cinematography, editing and music.

In Mystery Road, Indigenous detective Jay Swan (Aaron Pedersen) is called in to investigate the death of an Aboriginal girl whose body has been found in a culvert under a road near Massacre Creek. He recognises her as a local, and his task of tracking down her killer brings him into a network of relationships: with his own estranged family, with other members of the police force, and with both black and white inhabitants of this small town (often seen in aerial shots) in 'the middle of nowhere'.

What makes Mystery Road a 'western'? First, there is the remoteness of its settings from the urban comforts of modern life, along with its beautiful vistas - especially those seen in early night-time - and the sense of how little this beauty impinges on the quotidian realities of those who live there. But the film also reminds us that westerns need not be limited to a given time period or continent to wear their generic character with conviction, with the investigation drawing on modern devices such as mobile phones and the use of DNA tests.

Goldstone, too, deals in western tropes. Following a series of eloquent sepia photos of outback life, the film cuts to a vast outback expanse, in which a car is pursued by a police van and made to pull over, setting the key relationship of the film in place. Young white policeman Josh (Alex Russell) orders the black drunken driver out, pushes him around, handcuffs him, drives him to a remote police station and locks him in, before going back out to intervene in a brawl between some Indigenous people. What are we to make of Josh? Is he just a young, racist cop? When the overly smiling mayor of Goldstone, Maureen (Jacki Weaver), brings him an apple pie, it's easy to imagine he may be. She also delivers news of an Aboriginal detective who's come to the town. He is, of course, Jay Swan.

Goldstone is an outback area that sleazy developer Johnny (Wenham) tells Josh is due for 'major league' expansion: that is, white exploitation of what was properly Aboriginal land. Exploitation of the local Indigenous community is further conveyed in images of Aboriginal people sitting around drinking. Central to this motif is the film's use of iconic black actor Gulpilil as Jimmy, who refuses to be mollified by Johnny's address to the community about jobs and cliches regarding 'a new pathway to the future'. The image of Gulpilil will haunt the rest of the film.

The best Australian western yet?

Kaytej director Warwick Thornton's Sweet Country (2017) has won critical acclaim here and abroad, enjoying wide exposure in festivals and its commercial release. Described in Variety as a 'graceful, soulful, quietly incendiary Outback western', (9) Thornton's film begins with images of a boiling pot, the sound of swearing and blows, and a shot of an Aboriginal man with a chain around his neck. These images foretell violence involving racial conflict. Following the new century's trend towards more serious acknowledgement of that topic, Sweet Country powerfully incarnates the issue of white men's incursion into land belonging to another culture. Again, the film's physical setting evokes vast, dry landscapes and the exposedness of solitary houses. These residences often sport a verandah - that intervening space between the domestic and the wilderness beyond - and one house is shown with an outdoor lavatory, an unusual detail that helps anchor the film in a cultural reality.

The plot gets underway when Aboriginal man Sam Kelly (brilliantly played by Hamilton Morris) shoots white man Harry March (Ewen Leslie) in self-defence - and he knows that this is no defence when a 'native' kills a white man. Sergeant Fletcher (Bryan Brown) organises a posse, and the narrative thereafter shifts between hunters and hunted, with brief flashbacks illuminating aspects of both. There are moments of intense violence, while a showing of The Story of the Kelly Gang on a sheet in the town's main street works as a reminder not to romanticise violence, even in relation to an iconic figure. There is also a powerful sense of the sheer arduousness of life, whether it be that of the hunter or hunted in the expansive, unyielding landscape, or even of those dwelling in isolated cabins or the scruffy town.

The racist Fletcher may well talk of 'sweet country', but that phrase - like the title it echoes - is clearly employed ironically. As Johnny Cash's 'Peace in the Valley' plays at the end, Thornton achieves a final ironic jab at the conventions of westerns. In a new century in which Australian westerns have achieved an unprecedented maturity, Sweet Country is the culmination of the country's contributions to the fabled genre.

Brian McFarlane is an adjunct professor at Swinburne University of Technology. His most recent book is The Never-ending Brief Encounter (Manchester University Press, 2019).

Endnotes

(1) Dorothea Mackellar, 'My Country', 1908, available at <https://www.dorotheamackellar.com.au/archive/mycountry.htm>, accessed 27 September 2019.

(2) Andrew Pike & Ross Cooper, Australian Film 1900-1977, rev. edn, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1998 [1980], p. 5.

(3) Peter Carey, True History of the Kelly Gang, University of Queensland Press, St Lucia, 2000.

(4) Robert Drewe, Our Sunshine, Pan Macmillan, Sydney, 1991.

(5) Mackellar, op. cit.

(6) ibid.

(7) For more on this film, see Brian McFarlane, 'Down Under Desperado: The Legend of Ben Hall and the Bushranger Film', Metro, no. 193, 2017, pp. 28-31.

(8) Philip French, 'The Proposition', The Observer, 12 March 2006, <https://www.theguardian.com/f1lm/2006/mar/12/review.features>, accessed 27 September 2019, emphasis added.

(9) Guy Lodge, 'Film Review: Sweet Country', Variety, 6 September 2017, <https://variety.com/2017/f1lm/reviews/sweet-country-review-1202548977/>, accessed 28 September 2019.
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Author:McFarlane, Brian
Publication:Screen Education
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Dec 1, 2019
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