The Tracker (Australia 2002)

David Gulpilil as ‘the Tracker’ walking in front of the Fanatic’s horse.

The Tracker is an important film and represents a popular culture contribution to telling the early history of the ‘Commonwealth of Australia’. It was released just a few months after Rabbit-Proof Fence. David Gulpilil plays a tracker in both films and, like the earlier film, The Tracker offers a shocking glimpse into the attitudes of some ‘European Australians’ towards Australia’s Indigenous peoples in 1922.

The setting is not specified but writer-director Rolf de Heer chose the ‘wilderness area’ of Arkaroola in the mountains of South Australia for locations. The lack of specific location is mirrored in the names given to the five main characters, each of whom is simply listed in the credits according to their role or personal characteristic. At the beginning of the film the four ‘hunters’ are introduced by onscreen captions. A police officer (not in uniform), the ‘Fanatic, is in charge of a manhunt for an Indigenous man, the Fugitive, who has allegedly killed a white woman. A uniformed younger man, a ‘greenhorn’, the Follower, and an older ‘auxiliary’ man, the Veteran, make up the ‘posse’ (the film is very close to a Hollywood Western in several ways). The trio on horseback lead a separate packhorse. The tracker is on foot – an Indigenous man who is not ‘native’ to these parts.

One of Peter Coad’s paintings which depict the violent scenes.

Two other artistic devices (i.e. in addition to the lack of names) are the use of songs and paintings. There are ten songs all sung by Archie Roach, a well-known and popular Indigenous country singer. The songs, mainly in English, act as a kind of commentary on the progress of the narrative, performed in a range of styles including some Ry Cooder-like slide guitar. The paintings by the South Australian artist Peter Coad are used in the film to illustrate the violent scenes in the narrative, which are often ‘off-screen’. I should note here that in order to acquire a DVD to watch, I had to import one from Italy and, although the quality was fine, I discovered that the song lyrics and the opening titles introducing the characters were subtitled in Italian (in a very large typeface) and these were ‘burned in’ – unlike the dialogue subtitles which I could turn off. This was annoying, although I probably learned some Italian and it increased the ‘distancing effect’ of the other three artistic devices.

The landscapes of the mountains of South Australia provide a great location. (All three images taken from DVDBeaver.com)

The film looks terrific and the choice of landscapes is inspired. There is little dialogue and relatively little ‘action’ as such – but when it comes it is worth the wait. The story is told through the performances and the camerawork. Gulpilil is excellent as usual with his jokey, happy-go-lucky demeanour masking the intelligence behind his eyes and his silent battle with Gary Sweet as the Fanatic is compelling. I haven’t seen an Australian Western that so clearly refers to Hollywood Westerns. As the quartet move through scrubland and over mountain passes I was constantly reminded of those Westerns in which a US cavalry unit with a ‘native tracker’ is looking for ‘renegade Apache’ – Ulzana’s Raid would be the classic example. The hunt in The Tracker takes the quartet through the lands of a different Indigenous community and just like the Apache these people will lose some members to the Fanatic’s rifle, but will also ultimately outwit him. The Tracker also reminds me of those classic Budd Boetticher Westerns from the 1950s with small casts and groups of characters with different moral positions and ways of dealing with adversity.

The Fanatic is an accomplished hunter who understands the terrain, but he’s also a confirmed racist who treats Indigenous people with contempt. He’s the kind of man who finds himself respecting the Tracker’s skill and cunning, but who probably puts this down to the Tracker being ‘half-civilised’. In a different way, the position of the Veteran is also disturbing because he says nothing and does nothing to stop the Fanatic’s verbal and physical attacks. The Follower is the morally upright young man whose own attitudes are more conflicted – he will follow orders and is determined to do his job, but not at all costs. He is the product of a racist colonial society but has the possibility of changing. The script is on the side of righteousness and you can probably work out what will happen, but not how it will happen. I found it very satisfying. I particularly liked the presentation of different groups of Indigenous people rather than the undifferentiated ‘other’ of mainstream cinema.

The Tracker is the first of three films made by the partnership of Rolf de Heer and David Gulpilil. Ten Canoes followed in 2006 and Charlie’s Country in 2013. The trilogy offers a powerful presentation of Australian history from the perspective of Indigenous peoples personalised around David Gulpilil (and in Ten Canoes, his son). I’ll post on Charlie’s Country soon. Here’s a clip from an early part of the film featuring an Archie Roach song about each of the five characters in turn – ‘All Men Choose the Path They Walk’.

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