I did see this film in Glasgow, but as it was released officially in the UK on March 9th, I decided to wait to see what kind of reception it got on its opening weekend. That has proved to be an interesting experience. Sweet Country was screened at Cineworld on Renfrew Street on a large screen which benefited this magnificent film – if you get the opportunity, see it on the largest screen you can. Unfortunately, you will struggle to find a local multiplex showing the film over the next few weeks. Despite the good job Thunderbird Releasing has done in promoting the film it is mainly showing at arthouse cinemas in major cities (and we don’t have screenings in Bradford – just two shows in Leeds). Check for your nearest screening here: http://showtimes.sweetcountryfilm.co.uk
Sweet Country is that rare but increasingly important beast – an Indigenous film from Australia. It is presented in a form that is instantly accessible to audiences outside Australia as a ‘Western’ set in the Northern Territory during the late 1920s. The narrative is based on a true story and it explores the racism of Australia’s colonial past (and as such comments on the racial tensions of the present and possible future of Australia). Writer-director-cinematographer Warwick Thornton came to prominence on the international stage with short films and then with Samson and Delilah (Australia 2009) which won the Camera d’Or at Cannes. I was knocked sideways when I saw that film on DVD a few years later. Samson and Delilah uses local non-professional actors for its teenage lead characters and was shot on location in the Alice Springs area. Before I saw that film I had come across Warwick Thornton’s camerawork in a more mainstream Indigenous film The Sapphires (Australia 2012) by Thornton’s mate Wayne Blair. This hugely enjoyable (and moving) film about an Aboriginal girl group performing for US Armed Forces in Vietnam in the 1960s deserved a much bigger audience than it found in the UK.
The narrative of Sweet Country is in one sense quite simple, but Warwick Thornton’s treatment, in terms of sound and image and narrative structure, turns into a rich and complex film that will repay many re-viewings. (The film eschews non-diegetic music and relies on the natural sounds of the environment.) The basic premise is that the establishment of cattle stations in the Alice Springs area has produced an unbalanced and dangerous local community with white men outnumbering white women and the local Indigenous people forced to work almost as indentured labour on their own land. In 1929 an embittered war veteran Harry March takes over a ranch and seeks to ‘borrow’ some Indigenous workers for a couple of days. Fred Smith (Sam Neill), a local rancher who sees himself as a religious man reluctantly agrees to ask his worker Sam to go to the March place along with his wife and niece for a few days. Sam is wary of March and when the drunken white man comes after the Indigenous family with a gun, Sam kills him in self-defence. Having killed a white man, Sam and Lizzie must go on the run in the bush. A posse led by Sergeant Fletcher (Bryan Brown) sets out to track them. The outcome of the search and its aftermath is shocking. I’ve purposefully left out a lot of detail and not allowed any real spoilers but these are the main sections of the narrative. Thornton uses both flashbacks and flashforwards in presenting his narrative.
Helped by his local knowledge, Thornton’s presentation of landscapes including rocky outcrops, ravines, scrub and desert is stunning. The brief outline above refers to familiar elements from American Westerns. Australian development in the Northern territory was slower and only the presence of a travelling film show featuring The Ned Kelly Story (1906) signifies the twentieth century. The Western comparison is, I feel, a two-edged sword for Warwick Thornton who has promoted his film using the ‘Western’ tag. It makes the story more familiar and more accessible to audiences outside Australia (and perhaps to contemporary Australian audiences), but it also risks critics and reviewers treating the film as simply an ‘exotic’ form of a familiar genre rather than a historical Indigenous film exploring the racism and oppression of colonial exploitation. I fear that this has happened to a certain extent in some of the UK critical writing on the film. Some of the better coverage of the film comes in Sight and Sound, April 2018 with ‘Red Earth’, an essay by Trevor Johnston plus a review by Jason Anderson. Also in the same issue is a Tony Rayns DVD Review of the film Goldstone by Ivan Sen. As Rayns notes: ” . . . it’s blackfella directors like Ivan Sen and Warwick Thornton who are making the running in current Oz cinema”. I would endorse that view. Ivan Sen’s new film is another ‘frontier Western’ (in Queensland) following on from his previous film Mystery Road (2013) featuring an Indigenous police officer Jay Swan (Aaron Pedersen). None of the reviewers I read this weekend mentioned The Tracker (Australia 2002), the film made by the partnership of director Rolf de Heer and veteran Indigenous actor David Gulpilil. The pair made two more films, Ten Canoes (2006) and Charlie’s Country (2013) about Indigenous characters across history. The films by Thornton, Sen and those in which Gulpilil had considerable creative input sit alongside films like Rabbit-Proof Fence (2002) – which though directed by a white Australian has Indigenous children at its centre and a memoir by an Indigenous woman as its source material (and is therefore another historical film based on a true story). Together these films present a significant Indigenous Australian cinema. (I should also note that Little White Lies is a UK publication that has a committed review of the film and references ‘10 essential Indigenous Australian films‘.)
Although Sweet Country and The Tracker are not the same narrative they do share several significant features. Both are set in the 1920s and both involve a posse attempting to apprehend an Indigenous man accused of murder of a white person. In both cases the posse includes a white man who is fanatical and openly racist, another who is experienced but not so ‘hot-blooded’ and a younger police officer who is more constrained by rules and ethics. Equally both groups of Europeans are outwitted by the Indigenous fugitive who knows how to live off the land and navigate the terrain. Important too is the fact that the chase moves across land occupied by other Indigenous groups – Aboriginal Australians are not one amorphous mass simply recognisable as ‘Other’ by white society. Instead they are different groups of people with different languages and different cultures. The significant difference in The Tracker is that an Indigenous man is ’employed’ as a tracker to lead the posse to the fugitive with all the moral dilemmas that entails (and he’s played by the film’s lead actor David Gulpilil). In Sweet Country there is also an Indigenous tracker, Archie, another stockman. But Archie is a relatively minor character in the narrative. Another minor character is a mixed race boy Philomac whose status is not clearly defined. However, Philomac is involved in the major incident at the beginning of the film and his ‘in between’ position carries meaning. The whole final section of Sweet Country is loaded with meanings. It poses a number of questions including whether the establishment of a church or the intervention of the justice system will have an impact on the racism expressed in the white community. British audiences should feel implicated in these questions because although Australia became an independent nation in 1901, the influence of British colonialism was still being felt in the 1920s. Researching this post I discovered that between 1927 and 1931, when the events in the narrative were meant to take place, the Northern Territory was in a kind of limbo while new arrangements for its governance were being discussed. I’m not sure if this is significant. Wayne Thornton expresses some of these concerns in the Press Notes.
Sweet Country is a western. A period western set in Central Australia. It has all the elements of the genre – the frontier, confiscation of land, subordination and conquest of a people and epic sweeping landscapes.
The world of Sweet Country has been newly established by the British Crown through the forceful taking of Indigenous lands. Yet these are lands which had and still possess a deep and complex web of ancient Indigenous laws, customs and life.
Sweet Country is set on a frontier outpost in 1929, where different cultural worlds collide, in an epic and beautiful desert landscape. It is a place where Indigenous, and non-Indigenous people push against each other like tectonic plates. It is a clash of cultures, ideologies and spirits that still continues today from when the colonisers first arrived in Australia.
My aim has been to use the accessibility of the western genre for audiences to enter the story and be drawn into this world and so experience the issues faced by an occupied people. (Warwick Thornton)
I think that reference to ‘an occupied people’ is very telling. Sweet Country should make non-Indigenous audiences think differently about how they have previously viewed Australian films.
I’m looking forward to seeing the film again at some point and I’m sure I’ll see things I missed the first time round. I’m encouraged by the Australian box office which after seven weeks has held up very well taking nearly US$1.4 million so far. The UK first weekend (plus previews) is £29,000 from 26 sites (the equivalent of US$40,200). The film opens in the US on Friday 16 March. Part of its box office appeal lies in the presence of Sam Neill and Bryan Brown, two audience favourites in Australia. The Indigenous characters Sam and Lizzie are played by Hamilton Morris and Natassia Gorey-Furber. Morris has one previous credit but Gorey-Furber was making a first appearance. The film was written by Steven McGregor and David Trainter. McGregor is an experienced hand having written and/or directed several TV dramas and films. David Trainter is an Indigenous sound recordist who worked on Samson and Delilah. It was from his grandfather’s knowledge of the historical incidents that the story was developed.
The Australian trailer: (WARNING it shows more of the story than set out above):
It was a rainy Saturday night with nothing on TV so we rented Words and Pictures. I selected this on the basis that it was a Fred Schepisi film starring Juliette Binoche and Clive Owen and it was described on iTunes as a comedy. This film wasn’t, as far as I’m aware, released in UK cinemas. That says more about assumptions about UK cinema audiences than the quality of the film. And I think that older audiences might enjoy the film. Yes, it’s highly conventional and predictable but Binoche grappling with Clive Owen is always going to be watchable.
The setting is Vancouver standing in for somewhere in New England where Jack Marcus (Clive Owen) is an English honours teacher in a prep school, having once been a promising writer. Things are not going well for Jack. His students are not engaged and his son barely speaks to him (I don’t remember any references to the young man’s mother). As a result, Jack is hitting the vodka and his tenure at the school is starting to look precarious. The ‘inciting incident’ for the narrative is the arrival of a new ‘fine art honours’ teacher Dina Delsanto (Juliette Binoche). She’s beautiful, intelligent, and talented – and she has rheumatoid arthritis which is developing quickly. Jack is woken from his slumber by her arrival and he playfully challenges her with word games. He’s surprised when she promotes her art work over his literature with the students she shares with him. He retaliates with a challenge to show that the old saying that a picture is worth a thousand words is true. (He also recognises that the challenge may produce student work to fill his ailing school magazine – that the principal intends to close down.)
The setting and plot do perhaps suggest Schepisi’s fellow Australian Peter Weir’s Dead Poet’s Society and in a different way, The Mona Lisa Smile with Julia Roberts. But those films combined the question of what happens to ‘maverick’ teachers with the story of the impact of their teachings on their students’ lives. Words and Pictures is really only interested in the students as devices to develop the storyline about the potential romance between Owen and Binoche. I don’t think that it is a conventional romcom, however. It is certainly witty and there are moments when it seems about to get serious about the afflictions suffered by the two teachers, both of whom struggle to get back to their best artistic endeavours. But in the end, Jack’s alcoholism seems rather too easy to overcome and Dina’s arthritis is similarly suddenly controllable by medication. A conventional ending beckons and this is indeed mainstream entertainment. The pleasure is in the central pairing. I think Clive Owen is a very under-rated actor and here he is presented as dishevelled, bleary-eyed and far from a romantic lead, but he makes the character work. Juliette Binoche produced her own artworks for the film and the scenes of her composing her large paintings despite her disability are very well done. The two leads work well together.
The film seems to have suffered from an unusual limited distribution pattern over the whole summer of 2014 in North America, but only in a maximum of 216 cinemas for a few weeks and the rest of the time much smaller numbers – I’m assuming that for several weeks it only screened in Canada. It doesn’t seem to have been released in the UK or France. I hope it has found its audience on DVD and download – this is the kind of small film that has been most squeezed in the market over the last few years and it’s the kind of film we miss.
Don’s Party is another example of the 1970s ‘New Australian Cinema’ or an ‘AFC’ film as Australian film studies now terms such films, referring to public funding via the Australian Film Commission and similar state funding schemes. The film is an adaptation of David Williamson’s 1971 stage play by the writer himself and it is directed by Bruce Beresford. It’s one of Williamson’s early plays. He went on to write many more and to complete several film scripts for major Australian films. Beresford began in the 1960s making short films in Australia and in the UK before directing two comedies starring Barry Humphries as Dame Edna. After Don’s Party his films became more likely to appeal to specialised audiences and eventually his critical reputation helped him move to the US where Robert Duvall won an Oscar for his performance in Beresford’s Tender Mercies in 1983.
The party, given by Don Henderson (John Hargreaves) and his wife Kath (Jeanie Drynan) in their home in the North Sydney suburbs is meant to celebrate the victory of the Labour Party in the October 1969 General Election. Labour is ahead in some of the polls and Don hopes to see the end of the Liberal (i.e. ‘Conservative’ in UK terms) government of John Gorton that in coalition with the Country Party has held power since 1949. (Ironically in the five years between the stage play and the film, Labour did get in, but then the Liberals got back in.) In 1969 Labour actually polled the most votes but the Liberals got the most seats. During the 1970s the parties were neck and neck. I think this is important as context and might explain the overall sense of frustration. This is also the period of Australian involvement in Vietnam. Two of the cast of Don’s Party are also in The Odd Angry Shot, the Vietnam film set just a few years earlier.
Although the film begins with Don and Kath voting and TV footage covering the results service, it soon becomes apparent that the election is important context but not directly part of the narrative. Much more important is the set of relationships between the guests at the party and in particular the four male friends at its centre. It is a skilfully written play/film reminiscent in some way of the plays on UK TV in the same period and I thought of Mike Leigh and Alan Ayckbourn in terms of the embarrassment factor inherent in much of the behaviour. The film didn’t get a UK release until 1979 and I didn’t find Monthly Film Bulletin‘s review very helpful. I suspect that audience interest now is likely to be directed at the depiction of ‘useless’ Australian males. The women in the film are represented as much more sensible/serious than the men, though their behaviour is sometimes equally ‘bad’. Is this a satire on Australian masculinity? Williamson and Beresford seem most interested in the men and it is the male actors who, I think, are generally better known. Ray Barrett had a long career in the UK, mainly on TV from the 1950s, before returning to Australia in the mid 1970s. He was the older ‘mentor’ figure for Don at university, but both have ‘failed’ to live up to their dreams. Don is a teacher and an unpublished novelist. John Hargreaves is one of the two actors who later appeared in The Odd Angry Shot and the other is Graham Kennedy who plays Mack, the single man at the party having split up with his wife. Kennedy’s performance poses a problem for non-Australian viewers since although largely unknown he was a well-known ‘personality presenter’ on Australian TV from 1959 until 1991 and sometimes called the ‘King of Australian TV’. He made two films based on David Williamson scripts – the second was The Club in 1980. In a Senses of Cinema essay, Susan Bye argues that Kennedy was such a strong TV presence that his films set up a debate about the authenticity of the characters he played. She quotes him as refuting the suggestion that he was ‘really’ the the personality he appeared to be on TV. Instead, he argued that he always played a part. That part was seemingly informed by the typed figure of the ‘larrikin’, that peculiarly Australian character of the working-class rebel. In Don’s Party, the type is doubly presented by Kennedy’s character and by the character played by Harold Hopkins, Cooley, the fourth of the central male quartet. Cooley is a womaniser and sexual athlete, a smooth lawyer who at one point refers to his Irish Catholic background. The larrikin moment for Mack is caught in his comic story (with actions) about a duck hunt. He carries his pewter beer tankard on a chain around his neck.
The other two men are a repressed dentist and an accountant (the only man who admits to voting for the Liberals). These two men both leave the party – and leave their wives to be propositioned by Mack and Cooley. It’s not clear to me what Williamson wanted to say about the women. Ironically, the most sympathetic character in the whole narrative is Jody, the accountant’s wife played by the British-born actor Veronica Lang. She happily admits to being a Liberal, but also turns out to be the most sociable and a ‘good sport’. If there is a satire about the sexual mores of the partygoers, it’s mainly expressed through male bravado – countered by the women who meet the challenges (which are often then withdrawn). There is a fair degree of nudity, both male and female and I would argue that the film is quite confused about how it represents gender and sexual mores. What in turn this means for the representation of political ideas and social class is equally unclear. The thumbnail review in Sight and Sound (Summer 1979) suggests that it shows the ‘failure of socialism’. This seems a silly statement since there hasn’t been a socialist party in power. The characters are certainly aware of social class and political issues. Perhaps the saddest symbol of Don’s frustration is that at the end of the film he finds the sapling that he had planted in his garden the night before has been trampled down during the drunken rousing of the night before.
Overall I enjoyed watching Don’s Party. Despite the conventional nature of the drunken squabbles, much of it rings true. It carried me along and I didn’t worry too much about its stage origins.
The title Berlin Syndrome is very suggestive in this feature about a young female tourist who finds herself trapped after a casual sexual encounter in Berlin. How will the reference to the ‘Stockholm syndrome’, that idea that a captive becomes literally captivated by their gaoler, become manifest in the narrative? Not perhaps as you might expect. This is a film adapted from a critically-praised novel by Melanie Joosten and directed by Cate Shortland, who made the wonderful Lore in 2012, a film about a not totally dissimilar young woman in Germany in 1945. I was a little surprised that the script was by a man – Shaun Grant. This does feel like a female-centred narrative and Ms Shortland has several female collaborators on her team. In his dismissal of the film, our old enemy Peter Bradshaw suggests that this is a ‘lite’ version of Room (2015) or the Austrian film Michael (2011) (which I haven’t seen). These are not really sensible comparisons since both of these films feature children as prisoners and even though Room does feature a woman prisoner as well, it isn’t a film about the relationship between a gaoler and his captive(s) since we learn little about him.
Clare (Teresa Palmer) is a young woman from Brisbane who has come to Berlin on a whim to photograph the architecture of the GDR and hoping for a life-changing experience – but not the kind of experience she walks into. Soon after she arrives she meets Andi (Max Riemelt) an English teacher in a local Gymnasium. They spend a day together and she decides not to go on to Dresden but to spend the night in his apartment. Bad move. The sex is good but when Andi goes to work, she finds that she can’t leave his apartment in an old abandoned apartment block. At first she wasn’t worried to be in this old building, but now she realises that there is no one else about. Even when Andi returns she still thinks it might be a mistake, surely he didn’t mean to lock her in?
Peter Bradshaw’s other condemnation is that this is just a familiar genre narrative with nothing new to say and that Clare is obviously the ‘final girl’ in the horror film right from the beginning of the narrative. It’s true that it does increasingly become a ‘psycho-sexual thriller’, especially in its resolution but also at various moments along the way. The idea of a man holding a woman captive is by no means unfamiliar and as other reviewers have pointed out there are some parallels here with William Wyler’s film of the John Fowles book The Collector (1969). However, the important difference here is Clare’s sexual desire and her vulnerability as a tourist in a strange city. I think it’s quite legitimate to read the film in terms of Clare’s self-discovery – of her resourcefulness and strength as well as her sexuality. It’s also interesting that on the two occasions when she sees a glimmer of hope for an escape, it’s when another woman appears – but I won’t spoil the narrative. Andi is the other central character and we get to see him at school, in his classroom and in the staffroom. We also see him in the company of his father. There is just enough of a hint about his extreme obsession with control peeping out from behind his ‘normality’ as a schoolteacher.
I was impressed by both lead actors. I didn’t think I’d seen them before but researching the film later I discovered that both are very experienced and Teresa Palmer has a mainstream Hollywood career that I’ve missed entirely, though I did see The Grudge 2 (2006), where she played alongside Sarah Michelle Gellar. She looks and acts younger than her age in Berlin Syndrome and I did think about how she reminded me of Kristen Stewart (again, something I later discovered is a common reaction). Max Riemelt was in The Wave (Germany 2008), a film I’ve watched several times and I’m surprised that I didn’t recognise him. I’m not sure I ‘enjoyed’ this film and I found Clare’s predicament distressing. I was surprised to find myself thinking about it so much afterwards. The script is carefully written and there are some nice touches that again I didn’t really think about until afterwards – such as Clare’s interest in a book of Klimmt reproductions that makes a re-appearance and Andi’s choice of James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room as a text for his English class. I also hadn’t thought too much about Clare’s journey from Brisbane to Berlin – an example of that ‘cultural cringe’ that seems still to be relevant in Australian narratives about travelling to Europe to gain experiences beyond Australian suburbia. The thoughts of the women working on the film about travelling alone in Europe are worth reading in the Production Notes. The interesting aspect of the production itself is that it was shot on location in Berlin and then Andi’s apartment was recreated on a soundstage in Melbourne. It’s a seamless fit and this is an impressive production. The film has not been that well reviewed in the UK. I think in some cases it has been dismissed without due attention and I’m glad I saw it. I’ll keep looking for Cate Shortland’s films. If you missed this in cinemas in the UK it’s on Curzon online.
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.
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 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’.
Serendipity is a wonderful thing. I’d been researching Australian Cinema and, zapping through the channels on TV, I stumbled across this key film on Sony’s ‘Movies 4 Men’ channel about to start. I’ve always known there was a Vietnam War film from Australia and I thought I’d seen it back in the 1970s, but couldn’t remember anything about it. The Odd Angry Shot was made in 1979 and was based on a novel by William L. Nagle who served in Vietnam as a cook in the later 1960s. The film was written and directed by Tom Jeffrey. Australia became involved in the Vietnam War under the Liberal (i.e. ‘Conservative’) government of Robert Menzies, whereas the UK Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson refused to bow to American pressure. Vietnam became a signifier of the shift of Australia into the American sphere of influence and away from the UK. The war would eventually become the focus for protest movements in Australia, especially after conscripted men started to be sent to Vietnam after 1966.
The Odd Angry Shot belongs to what seems now to be known as the ‘AFC period’ of production in the 1970s. The Australian Film Commission and the funding agencies of the individual states provided a big boost for Australian production in the second half of the 1970s and it was these films that became known in the UK as the ‘New Australian Cinema’ or ‘Australian New Wave’. Several got mainstream theatrical distribution in the UK and others appeared on UK TV. The Odd Angry Shot didn’t make it to the UK until a 1988 video, but it did get a simultaneous Australian and US cinema release in 1979, presumably because of the subject matter.
The film begins with a combined 21st Birthday/’Going Away’ party for Bill (John Jarratt) who soon finds himself on a chartered Quantas flight to Vietnam. He’s the rookie in an SAS Unit led by Harry, an experienced corporal played by Graham Kennedy. Bryan Brown (‘Rogers’) and John Hargreaves (‘Bung’) make up the quartet who we follow throughout the film. In one sense, The Odd Angry Shot is an unusual ‘war combat’ picture. We don’t get any of the training period for young conscripts – I don’t think we know how Bill gets there. Is he a recruit or a conscript? Does he already know the ropes? Soon we are on patrol and the narrative switches between brief snatches of action – when the ‘odd angry shot’ is fired (and the odd squaddie is killed or badly injured) – and longer periods back in the makeshift tented base camp. This latter is familiar from M.A.S.H (1970) and the TV series that followed. There is a brief R&R visit to Saigon, but mostly the film is about that Australian sense of ‘mateship’. The four central characters are also ‘larrikins’ – that uniquely Australian term for the unruly, whose disdain for authority and search for fun is received with affection by many. There are only a few scenes in which officers appear and they are depicted as quite sensible, the big confrontation comes when the four mates meet a Sgt-Major who tries to be officious and Harry gives him a mouthful. Harry has clearly seen it all before and an officer arrives and backs him up.
The Odd Angry Shot found generally very appreciative audience in cinemas. Reading through the IMDb comments it’s clear that the Australian and US Vietnam vets recognise the accuracy of the film in terms of the preparation for patrols, the quiet and methodical way of advancing on suspected Viet Cong positions and the boredom and attempts to relieve it in the camp. Because of the tiny budget (it was shot in Northern Australia, utilising a military training area in Queensland, for around A$600k) there are no doubt mistakes in the right kinds of helicopters and weapons, but that doesn’t really matter. As several commentators note, it gives a much more realistic depiction of fighting in Vietnam than most of the Hollywood films of the period (the film followed Apocalypse Now and Coming Home but preceded Platoon and Full Metal Jacket. The importance of the film, however, is best articulated in its closing section when Harry and Bill return to Sydney at the end of their tour. There is no triumphant or heroic ending – nothing ‘gung-ho’. They go to a bar (in dress uniform) and answer “No” when the barman asks if they have just come back from Vietnam. They take their beers and sit back with a view across the bay. Earlier, in one of the few ‘speeches’ in the film Harry expresses his world-weary view about being in a dangerous place in Vietnam. ‘We all have to be somewhere, and we’re here.” In this useful review of the DVD, there are quotes from the DVD commentary suggesting that some critics thought the film wasn’t sufficiently ‘anti-war’, but I think that misses the point. The film never attempts to ‘explain the war’, only to present the soldiers’ experiences.
Here’s the trailer for the 2016 restoration of the film by the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia. The entry on the NFSA website is also useful.
The Overlanders is a highly significant film, an Australian classic helping to re-establish filmmaking in Australia after 1945. The Australian government approached the British Ministry of Information in 1943 in the hope of producing a film celebrating the Australian war effort. The MoI passed the request to Michael Balcon at Ealing Studios and Harry Watt was eventually despatched to Australia. Production began in 1945 at the time the war was coming to an end in Europe. It was released in September 1946 when the war had been over for a year (though ‘policing’ duties carried on in the Dutch East Indies during the Indonesian War of Independence). The film was extremely successful in Australia and sold well around the world. (See this Australian Screen website for more background information.)
Harry Watt was one of the most distinguished filmmakers of the British documentary movement of the 1930s, probably best known for Night Mail in 1936, co-directed with Basil Wright. After directing the documentary Target For Tonight in 1941, Watt moved from the Crown Film Unit to Ealing and in 1943 directed Nine Men, a fictional war combat film set in the North African desert in which a small British squad hold off an Italian attack. In 1945 he was not yet 40 and quite prepared for a gruelling shoot in Australia. He took some Ealing personnel with him but recruited local Australian talent as well.
The story, written by Watt, was based on real events suggested by the Australian authorities. The film opens in 1942 in Wyndham, the centre for meat-packing in the Kimberley region of Western Australia (but in effect on the North coast of Australia). Bill McAlpine (Chips Rafferty) a cattle ‘drover’ has just delivered 1,000 local cattle for slaughter and processing, but the perceived threat of Japanese invasion following the bombing of Darwin in February 1942 sees McAlpine ordered to shoot and burn the cattle as part of a ‘scorched earth policy’. The whole area is being evacuated. McAlpine refuses to abandon the cattle and declares that he will drive them over 2,000 kms to the outskirts of Brisbane. It’s the worst time of year to cross a huge expanse of brush and mountains and rivers and McAlpine struggles to put together a motley crew that includes a sailor (‘sick of the sea’), a gambler, two Aborigine stockmen, two horse traders (facing the same problem) and a local family fleeing south. The family includes an experienced man and wife and their two daughters, one a 20 year-old rider. What follows is a form of ‘Australian Western’ that actually predates the classic Hollywood ‘trail Western’ Red River (dir. Howard Hawks, 1948) with John Wayne.
Chips Rafferty, destined to become one of Australian cinemas first international stars, is an interesting actor – physically tall but here proving a strong leader because of his calm demeanour, knowledge of cattle and terrain and decisiveness rather than his physical presence. Wikipedia quotes a line from what I assume was an obituary notice in 1971, he was: “the living symbol of the typical Australian”. Watt manages to make the drive interesting by carefully structuring the narrative to include potential hazards and set-backs ranging from ‘poison grass’, river crossings with crocodiles in attendance, bogs, drought and dangerous mountain crossings. He also brings aircraft into play, including the Flying Doctor service. Watt’s documentary background enabled him to make good use of these scenes – I especially liked the farmer who pedalled a generator to contact the Flying Doctor by radio.
The presence of an attractive young woman in the shape of Daphne Campbell would have certainly pushed a similar Hollywood narrative in particular directions, but here she is celebrated mainly for her horse-riding skills, even if a brief romantic interlude does lead to a lack of attention to the cattle. (See the poster which certainly ‘oversells’ the romance.)
There are two aspects of the film that seem important in the context of its production. At one point the cattle are taken through a gorge and watching them from the top of the cliffs is a group of Aboriginal men – dressed for hunting as they would have been for thousands of years. The scene is familiar from John Ford Westerns but instead of some kind of stand-off, McAlpine and his drovers simply acknowledge the men on the cliffs who return the recognition. Throughout the film the ‘otherness’ of the Aboriginal characters is not emphasised as such. Given the exposure of institutionalised racism in Australian society in the 1930s in more recent films such as Rabbit-Proof Fence (2002) it’s tempting to see the attitudes in The Overlanders as representing a British left/liberal position as set out by Watt. The script still registers ‘difference’ – as when the drive comes across a small town with “The first white man we’d seen” – and the two Aboriginal drovers are not promoted to major speaking roles. But at least they are part of the group. This links to the second key scene picked out by Charles Barr in his book on Ealing Studios.
In several of the British films made during the latter part of the war, especially those from Labour-supporting writers and directors, there is often a short speech about how future plans should work out and what kind of world might be built when peace arrives. In The Overlanders, that speech goes to McAlpine when he discovers that Corky the gambler wants to ‘exploit’ the Northern Territories by forming a private consortium. “No”, he says – “the development has to be national and to involve all Australians”. This is, indeed, the logic of the film’s narrative with the group of drovers representing Australia (including the Aboriginal groups).
Ealing went on to set up a production base of sorts in Australia and produced four more films over the next ten years –but generally declining in quality according to Barr. Two of those four were directed by Harry Watt (Eureka Stockade (1949) and the last official Ealing film, The Seige of Pinchgut (1959)). In the intervening period, Watt found himself in East Africa where he made two features. The first, in Kenya, was the early ‘eco-thriller’ about the struggle to establish game parks in the face of poaching – Where No Vultures Fly (1951). Charles Barr dubs this film an ‘African Overlanders‘ and like the Australian film, it attracted appreciative audiences in the UK and abroad. The two films suggested that there might be an international market for British films (as distinct from ‘Hollywood-British’) with ‘adventure narratives’ and spectacular scenes made overseas, but for a variety of reasons this didn’t really develop in the early 1950s. However, The Overlanders did give confidence to an Australian film industry struggling to recover after the war.
The best-known Indigenous Australian film actor (and film personality) David Gulpilil is the eponymous hero of Charlie’s Country, the third film he has made with director Rolf de Heer. The Tracker appeared in 2002 as de Heer’s version of an early 20th century Australian story and Ten Canoes followed in 2006 as Gulpilil’s attempt to create a story about the history of his own community going back to before the occupation of Australia by Europeans. This third film is resolutely up-to-date. Once again it is written by Gulpilil and de Heer and co-produced by Peter Djigirr who had been the third partner on Ten Canoes. I’ve seen Ten Canoes but not The Tracker. I thought Ten Canoes was a fascinating film. However, the whole point of it was to visit the history of the Yolngu people before the arrival of White Australians, even though the film was inspired by an ethnographic photo archive from the 1930s. The history is a kind of riposte to colonial histories of Indigenous peoples. Charlie’s Country on the other hand is an indictment of a society which requires a great deal of Indigenous Australians today and seemingly offers little in return.
Charlie is a man in his 60s who has had to move out of his house because it has been more or less taken over by his family – “too many people”, he says. He is living in a home-made shelter on the edge of his community in the Northern Territory and he seeks to fend for himself by going back to hunting. This is the basis of his first encounter with the police as he and his friend don’t have hunting licences and the gun they use is confiscated. He makes a spear but this too is confiscated. Everything he wants to do turns out to be illegal or regulated and eventually he decides to return to the bush but he catches pneumonia and ends up in hospital. The narrative is essentially Charlie’s decline in which all his cultural ties are stripped away. (The biggest tie is to the land, which he claims, quite reasonably, is his land.) Charlie will reach rock bottom and then he might just be dragged back from the precipice but what will the future hold? Is there a way for an Indigenous man to survive with dignity and self-control in White Australia? I found the film extremely distressing and I could barely watch at times. I have to concur with reviewers who have said that the face of David Gulpilil – full of character and at times wary and resolute, at others quizzical and sometimes stoical or blank, but always powerfully commanding the screen – is the abiding image of the film.
Perhaps even more distressing than the film is the revelation discussed in several reports that David Gulpilil himself fell into a depression after falling out with other members of his community around the time of the Ten Canoes shoot and that his drinking meant he ended up in prison in Darwin. He was in effect ‘rescued’ by de Heer in 2012 who agreed to make a film with him again. So, although Charlie’s Country is largely fictitious and features events that didn’t happen to Gulpilil, other aspects of the plot did and the central message that Indigenous Australians have been damaged by alcohol, sugar and tobacco (and other drugs) is something that Gulpilil was keen to get across.
The context of the film’s narrative is the ‘Northern Territory Intervention’ instituted by the Federal Government in 2007 and carried on with amendments by succeeding governments. Ostensibly a scheme enabling the federal government to protect children in Indigenous communities from abuse, this controversial measure saw soldiers move into communities and prohibitions set up concerning alcohol and access to pornography. As a federal scheme this went above the heads of local leaders in Northern Territory and at one point overrode Racial Discrimination legislation. The intervention is signalled in the opening shot of the film with a notice referring to restriction orders on buying alcohol. The film assumes understanding of the legislation and without local knowledge international audiences might find many of the actions of the police as particularly aggressive. I’m not sure what to make of them. Charlie seems to know his local police officer quite well – they shout to each other “White Bastard”, “Black Bastard” seemingly in a ‘bantering’ way at the start of the film, but the same policeman doesn’t cut Charlie any slack later on.
According to reviews the film has done well, winning prizes both in Australia and internationally at Cannes and other festivals and later getting a release in 2015 in the US. However, in the UK it got only a marginal cinema release. Shot in CinemaScope ratio, the film has two seemingly distinct modes. In one the camera barely moves and offers us static or slow-moving shots of Charlie in his environment but in the other there is a use of almost montage-like sequences detailing some of the processes Charlie must go through to get welfare payments (pension?) and to buy food and supplies and then the actions that lead to his downfall. De Heer is quite prepared to fix the camera on Charlie’s face for several minutes as we consider what to make of Charlie’s latest predicament. I’m fine with this but I did get irritated by the plaintive piano music which certainly didn’t match my mood. Silence or something angrier might have been more appropriate. I have to point out though that the film has plenty of humour and that’s where its humanity comes through. It has humour and the landscapes are sometimes very beautiful – it is a film to be enjoyed as much as it is a film to move audiences emotionally.
But overall it made me angry and also left me with the feeling that there was something more to say. It’s David Gulpilil’s story and it’s an important story (as I write, I can hear his narration at the opening of Ten Canoes). Charlie’s Country isn’t a straightforward polemic with a clear political message, but it did make me want to ask questions, especially about the rights of people to hunt as they want. Australia is a huge country with plenty of open spaces. It seems perfectly reasonable for Indigenous Australians to hunt in a traditional manner. If regulating firearms is necessary, surely it can be done more sensitively and at lower cost? Is carving a throwing spear really more dangerous than buying a cook’s knife? OK, I haven’t been to Australia and there are many things I don’t know, but I’m sure other viewers outside Australia must have asked similar questions. As it is, some of the high praise for the film does edge towards a kind of ‘noble savage’ response. Yes, David Gulpilil gives an outstanding performance and de Heer allows the story to unfold, enabling questions and discussions. I’m not sure about the ending though. Uncomfortable though it was first time round, I think I’m going to have to watch this one again.
This trailer illustrates most of the points I’ve discussed (awful subtitles though – why so small, eOne?):
There are various interviews with Rolf de Heer about the film. Here’s one of them: