Category: Australian Cinema

The Drover’s Wife: The Legend of Molly Johnson (Australia 2021)

Leah Purcell as Molly Johnson (all images courtesy Modern Films)

Australian Cinema has had periods of both innovation and exploration, as well as periods of stagnation, since the first films were produced in the early 1900s. Currently there is a distinct development with the increase of films made by Indigenous filmmakers about the lives of Indigenous characters, both contemporary and historical. The Drover’s Wife by Leah Purcell is the latest example of an Indigenous film reflecting on colonial history in Australia. In doing so it takes us back to some of the earliest Australian films that have been compared to American ‘Westerns’. These were, in Australian terms, ‘bushranger films’ and the earliest of these was the Story of the Kelly Gang in 1906. Like the American West, Australia in the second half of the 19th century and on into 1920s was a difficult territory to police, even after the foundation of the Commonwealth of Australia in 1901.

Molly meets an Indigenous man who is ‘on the run’. This grab demonstrates the ‘Scope photography and the use of spectacular landscapes.

Bushrangers were ‘outlaws’ and Australia also experienced ‘gold rushes’, cattle drives and conflicts between settlers and Indigenous peoples. In Australian films up to at least the 1970s (and arguably much later), Indigenous characters were usually portrayed either as ‘exotic’ figures in the landscape, poor communities in shanty towns, children in mission schools or trackers working for the police – familiar ‘social types’ in both American and Australian ‘Westerns’. In the last few years more radical films have appeared with Indigenous characters central to the narrative and a serious intent to explore colonial issues of racism and exclusion. Warwick Thornton’s Sweet Country (Australia 2017) is set in the late 1920s while Jennifer Kent’s The Nightingale (Australia 2018) is set in the 1820s in Tasmania. Both films got a limited UK release and Sweet Country has been shown on UK TV. The contemporary TV crime series Mystery Road initiated by Ivan Sen has some links to the historical narratives and has also been seen on UK TV. David Gulpilil, who died in 2021, was perhaps the major Indigenous star actor and he appeared in several films which explored aspects of of Australian history featuring significant Indigenous characters. The one most relevant to the discussion here would be The Tracker (Australia 2002), set, like Sweet Country in the 1920s and featuring Gulpilil as a tracker working for the police searching for an Indigenous man accused of murdering a white woman.

Leah Purcell is a proud Goa-Gungarri-Wakka Wakka Murri woman from Queensland. She is an internationally acclaimed playwright, screenwriter, director, novelist and actor and a cultural icon and activist, whose work stands at the forefront of the Black and Indigenous cultural renaissance and protest movement sweeping Australia and the world. Australian Financial Review named Purcell as one of Australia’s Top 10 culturally influential people because ‘she allows white audiences to see from an Aboriginal perspective’.  (from  Press Pack for The Drover’s Wife)

The Drover’s Wife was initially a short story by Henry Lawson, first published in a magazine in 1892. Lawson is one of the best-known Australian poets and fiction writers, especially in relation to ‘bush stories’. The story has been re-worked many times since and in 1945 a painting by Russell Drysdale was given the same title and appears to present the woman of the story depicted against the wild country (although the artist denied this). The short story offers only the initial scene in the film in which the woman and her children are threatened by a wild animal (a snake in the original story). The woman’s struggle in the story and the painting were long seen as representing the white settler’s attempt to survive in the harsh conditions of the ‘bush’. Leah Purcell extended the story in her stage play and now in her film offers a rich and complex narrative about a woman and her historical role viewed through the lens of Indigenous story-telling. The film follows what happens over the next few months to Molly Johnson and her children.

Russell Drysdale’s 1945 painting

Malachi Dower-Roberts as Danny, Molly’s oldest child attempting to defend himself as he has been taught.

Purcell manages to include the racism and exclusion directed towards Indigenous people, the social class hierarchy of Victorian England, the nascent suffrage movement and the ‘stealing’ of Indigenous children. All of this is offered in the genre context of a Western with Mark Wareham’s photography of the Snowy Mountains and Salliana Seven Campbell’s very effective score. I think all the performances are good and especially Malachi Dower-Roberts as the young Danny Johnson.

The film’s narrative has a complex structure and also includes several ‘reveals’ that I don’t wish to spoil. It is necessary, however, to explain that Purcell uses devices such as flashbacks/flashforwards, ‘dream figures’ and occasions when edits seem to confuse the meaning of certain scenes. Her commitment to Indigenous storytelling may also create questions about the final sequence which acts as an epilogue. On a second viewing I noticed a number of metaphors including for instance the animal which threatens the family in the opening of the story. The snake has become a bullock, which for me symbolises the alien intrusion of a non-indigenous beast brought by settlers in order to fully exploit the land they have stolen.

Louisa (Jessica De Gouw) and the heavily pregnant Molly.

This film has been described as an ‘Indigenous feminist Western’ and Purcell has created a secondary but parallel narrative about the young wife of the district’s new police sergeant. Both the sergeant and Louisa, his wife, are newly arrived from England. Louisa is a proto-feminist character, concerned about the widespread domestic abuse handed out by male settlers towards their wives. She’s determined to publish a women’s newsletter and to build a campaign. I don’t know whether this is historically accurate for the 1890s but it enables Purcell to set up the question of white feminism and whether it is possible for Louisa to ‘give a voice’ to Indigenous women. Molly Johnson has her own ‘voice’ and she intends it to be heard. Just as important, the extended story that Purcell puts onscreen also includes the issue of ‘stolen children’, the attempt by the authorities to take the children of mixed race families and to select those with least ‘Indigenous blood’ to be brought up as white children in foster homes (while ‘darker’ children are trained as servants). This practice is the central focus of Rabbit-Proof Fence (Australia 2002), set in the 1930s but only properly being discussed some sixty years later in the 1990s. The Drover’s Wife is certainly a narrative rich in questions and challenges for audiences, not just in Australia but everywhere experiencing exclusion an inequalities, i.e. most definitely the UK and US. But it’s also an exciting and engaging popular narrative. Its use of familiar conventions from Hollywood Westerns is effective and helps audiences outside Australia to begin to explore the colonial legacy of British settler culture.

Sergeant Clintoff (Sam Reid) and his trooper with, in the background, the local clergyman representing the gentry in the town of Everton

The Drover’s Wife  is a début film. It’s asking a lot to script, direct and star in your first feature but I think that Leah Purcell pulls it off with real passion and commitment. Initially released by Modern Films on just 37 prints in May, the film has slowly moved around the UK and Ireland. It appears to have a traditional release pattern and will be available to stream in August in the UK. Modern Films are also committed to supporting local independent venues through ‘various events’ so it’s worth checking out their website. The Drover’s Wife is definitely worth looking out for but do try and catch it in a cinema on the big screen if you can. In the US, The Drover’s Wife will be released by Samuel Goldwyn Films in August 2022.

Robbery Under Arms (UK-Australia 1957)

In 1956 the film adaptation of Nevil Shute’s novel A Town Like Alice was a big commercial and critical success. It starred Virginia McKenna and Peter Finch with Joseph Janni as producer and Jack Lee as director. Finch was a bankable name in Australia and in the UK, partly because of his well publicised drinking and affairs with female celebrity figures. Because the film had an Australian dimension involving the capture of Australian troops as well as British settlers in Malaya at the time of the Japanese invasion in 1941, Janni and Lee were eager to to make another film with Finch in Australia. They eventually decided on a new version of an already four-times adapted novel set in the late nineteenth century. They used the same pair of writers, W.P. Lipscomb and Richard Mason plus an additional writer, Alexander Baron and two of the other cast members from the earlier film. The experienced Harry Waxman shot the new film mainly in the Flinders Ranges of South Australia as well as in the Pagewood Studios in Sydney and Pinewood in the UK. This adventurous production links the film to both the Australian genre of the ‘bushranger’ film and to the cycle of British-Australian films produced by Ealing Studios starting with The Overlanders (1946) and finishing with The Siege of Pinchgut (1959). Peter Finch was a supporting player in one of these, Eureka Stockade in 1949, and he starred in The Shiralee in 1957, immediately before working on Robbery Under Arms. Ealing had in fact tried to make their own adaptation of Robbery Under Arms at several points over the course of their Australian production period.

Peter Finch as Captain Starlight

Robbery Under Arms was written by the Australian author Thomas Alexander Browne using the pseudonym Rolf Boldrewood. It first appeared serialised in a Sydney magazine from 1882 and was then published in book form in 1888 and has remained in print ever since, becoming a classic of ‘Australian colonial fiction’. Originally used to refer to ‘transported’ men who escaped into the bush to evade the authorities, ‘bushranger’ became a descriptor for any criminals who carried out ‘robbery under arms’ as the official charge sheet put it. Film versions of the novel were among the first Australian films in the 1900s with further adaptations in 1911 and 1920 and a later TV movie in 1985 starring Sam Neill. The novel is long with several episodes. The 1957 version cuts several of these and presents a more linear narrative. It also sets the story slightly earlier in 1865. The most striking decision is the casting of Peter Finch as ‘Captain Starlight’, the rather glamorous and seemingly aristocratic leader of a bushranger outfit. Although Finch was appropriately cast as the character, Starlight isn’t the leading character in the narrative. Instead, the leads are two brothers Dick (Ronald Lewis) and Jim (David McCallum) Marston. Dick is the leader of the two and the narrative begins when, exhausted after a successful spell of sheep shearing, the pair decide to seek adventure. They find this when they discover that their ex-convict father is working with Starlight on a cattle drive of a thousand stolen head. It seems like exciting and lucrative work but they will find themselves always having to avoid the colonial police force as well as angry ranchers. Their involvement with a pair of sisters (Kate, played by Maureen Swanson and Jean, played by Jill Ireland) causes further complications. The main events in the narrative are familiar from Hollywood Westerns – a stage hold-up, saloon brawls etc.

A publicity still of Indigenous warriors (from the Network DVD gallery) The black & white publicity shots were standard at this time – although the film was in colour, most print publications were still monochrome in the UK

Indigenous Australians appear in the form of trackers, working with both Starlight’s gang and the colonial police, and warriors encountered in the bush. The resolution of the narrative is inevitable as a ‘posse’ of locals aids the colonial police to hunt down Starlight’s gang. He may be the ‘gentleman’ thief but some of his companions are more brutal. Mothers will lose young sons and settler culture in Australia does not come out well, apart from a local brother-sister combination who seem honourable. The Marstons might have followed their example but that would not fulfil the genre expectations.

This tableau composition of the Marston family is a publicity still presenting Marjorie Anderson as the mother with her sons Dick (back left), Jim and daughter Eileen (Dudy Nimmo)

As with other British productions in Commonwealth/Empire territories, the appeal of the film is found in the Eastmancolor images of the mountains and plains that present the action. One of the odd aspects of the production is the IMDb suggestion that the film was shot in ‘open matte’ Academy ratio (1.33:1) but intended to be projected with masking to create a widescreen (1.75:1) image. I watched the Network Region 2 DVD in Academy and that seems to be the format for other DVDs as well. I think the amount of cropping/masking for a widescreen image would destroy many compositions so that suggestion sounds unlikely to me. There is also a discrepancy in the running times listed for the UK, US and Australia. The Region 2 DVD runs 95 minutes which with PAL speed-up is closest to the UK cinema running time of 99 minutes. Australia seemingly got 5 minutes more but the US 16 mins less.

A major release by Rank

The film received a mixed response from critics but was certainly a box office hit in Australia and seems to have got a wide release in the UK. The two main criticisms seem to have been about the quality of the performances and the poor script. Personally, I found all the performances to be fine. There is some criticism of the mix of speech patterns by the British actors as leads and Australians as support but this probably matches some of the interchanges of the 1860s. For the critics in the 1950s the script was on the one hand filled with passages, especially in the opening scenes, when the pace was too slow but overall included two many ‘action scenes’ and didn’t develop the relationships between characters. I think it likely that the film was seen as both very similar to American Westerns but also vastly inferior. This seems to miss the film’s genuine interest in its Australian story and I’ve written about it here in preparation for work on other Australian Westerns. Australian film history begins with such films but production declined during the 1930s and didn’t fully revive until the ‘New Australian Cinema’ of the 1970s. The British productions in Australia between 1946 and 1959 at least helped to keep local production alive during the lean years.

David McCallum with Jill Ireland as Jean

Two repercussions for the actors involved in the Robbery Under Arms production were that David McCallum and Jill Ireland married during the production, having met on Hell Drivers which was released in the UK earlier in 1957. They later migrated to Hollywood where McCallum starred in the TV series The Man from U.N.C.L.E. Maureen Swanson, who shares second billing on the UK poster above with McCallum, was a rising star at this point and she had featured in A Town Like Alice and other Rank productions, including a second billing in a Norman Wisdom comedy, Up in the World (1956). As Ronald Bergan points out in her obituary (she died in 2011), Swanson didn’t fit into the group of ‘Charm School starlets’ as she had trained as a ballet dancer but she was also not one of the young ‘sex bomb’ types such as Diana Dors or Joan Collins. Yet after Robbery Under Arms, in which the Monthly Film Bulletin reviewer says she gives a “Rhonda Fleming-like performance”, she moves into UK TV and then retires in 1961 after marrying into the aristocracy. Her performance as Kate reveals an actor with passion and Rank lost a potential major star.

A publicity shot of Maureen Swanson as Kate in Robbery Under Arms

Robbery Under Arms is a film with flaws certainly but I don’t think it deserved the critical reaction it received. I enjoyed the film and particularly the cinematography and the performances by Maureen Swanson and David McCallum (both initially from Glasgow). This is an interesting introduction to Australian stories on screen before the emergence of the 1970s New Cinema. As well as on the Network DVD, the film has also appeared on Talking Pictures TV in the UK.

The Shiralee (UK-Australia 1957)

Macauley and Buster

The Shiralee is the fourth of Ealing Studios’ Australian films and I think it is an impressive melodrama, revisiting a familiar Ealing genre from the late 1949s and early 1950s. By this point in 1957 Ealing had sold its studio facilities to the BBC and left the uncertain embrace of the Rank Organisation to take up residence at MGM-British in Borehamwood. This did at least have the promise of better international distribution even if the Ealing team did feel that something had been lost in the move.

Two of Paul Beeson’s framings of Macauley’s and Buster’s journey

A ‘shiralee’ is a slang term borrowed from indigenous Australian languages which means a burden of some kind. It was often used to refer to the ‘swag’, the few possessions that an itinerant worker carried with him from one small town or farm to another. Ealing was fortunate to be able to cast Peter Finch, who was born in the UK, grew up in Australia and then became an actor back in the UK, as the swagman. It’s hard to imagine any other actor quite so qualified to play the role. Finch had appeared in a small part in Ealing’s 1949 Australian film Eureka Stockade and had gradually moved into lead roles in British cinema. He had a terrible reputation (gleefully celebrated by the press) as a boozing womaniser. He was also a bloody good actor. The story was adapted from a first novel by D’Arcy Niland. The script was by the director Leslie Norman and Neil Paterson. Norman had been on Harry Watt’s productions for The Overlanders and his other films in East Africa and Australia and by this time had become a director after many years as an editor and associate producer.

Macauley meets up again with Linda Parker (Rosemary Harris)

A brief outline of the plot reveals Peter Finch as ‘Macauley’ the swagman who returns to his Sydney flat after weeks (months?) away to discover his wife and her lover. Incensed, he grabs his young daughter ‘Buster’ (Dana Mason) and heads out back on the road. In the adventures that follow in road movie fashion he moves from one small job to another as Buster becomes more attached to her father despite the hardships. They travel by means of walking and hitching rides. Macauley makes both friends and enemies wherever he goes and his past catches up with in the form of a woman he once knew well, Linda Parker (Rosemary Harris). His friends prove his saviour with boarding-house keepers played by Sid James and Tessie O’Shea. The narrative begins with the possibility of a social drama structured as a road movie but gradually changes and moves towards melodrama. Macauley is constrained by the need to look after his daughter (she appears to be around seven) even though she is a trouper and quite self reliant. He is used to his freedom and some employers are reluctant to hire him with the girl. We are also not surprised to discover that his wife Marge (Elizabeth Sellars) still has an interest in Buster. The last section of the narrative moves rapidly in melodrama mode. The ending may be considered to be a familiar Ealing restoration of a form of order, although what’s gone before suggests that life for Macauley and for Buster won’t be all quiet domesticity.

Elizabeth Sellars as Macauley’s wife and Buster’s mother

The end section of the narrative does seem a little rushed (though the film is 99 minutes) but the ‘darkness’ of the melodrama has been hinted at in some of Paul Beeson’s camerawork. Beeson had begun his career as a focus-puller at Ealing in 1939 and had 18 Ealing productions under his belt before he stepped up to shoot West of Zanzibar for Harry Watt in 1954. The Shiralee was his 4th DoP credit. On the shoot in Australia and back at MGM-British he had around him many of the longstanding Ealing creatives including Jim Morahan as art director, Stephen Dalby as sound designer (though not called that in 1957) and Gordon Stone as editor. His photography captures the landscape which several critics refer to as ‘barren’ or similar but to me looks like open pasture for sheep. It’s also referred to by some as the ‘outback’. I’m not sure how that term works for Australians? Perhaps it is metaphorical for anything outside the cities? I would link it to the idea of the ‘bush’, i.e. land that has not been farmed or ‘fenced’ – though the latter has other meanings in Australia?

Sid James and Tessie O’Shea, more than ‘comic relief’

The other criticisms of the film include the insertion of Sid James and Tessie O’Shea as a ‘comedy relief’ couple. It’s true that Ealing was fond of inserting characters who might provide comic relief and I have previously worried about Tommy Trinder in various Ealing films (e.g. The Foreman Went to France, 1942) and he did appear in another Ealing Australian film Bitter Springs (1950). But Trinder was a recognised comedian. Sid James had been appearing as a character actor in British films since 1947. True, he had gained fame on radio and then on TV in Hancock’s Half Hour since 1954 and this was perhaps why the charge was made. Tessie O’Shea fulfilled the ‘larger than life’ character type and the jokes appear in The Shiralee, especially in the ‘banter’ when she visits a butcher’s shop.  But again, she could play character parts and I think that both James and O’Shea work well in the film. One of the issues here is that British film criticism in the 1950s was still mired in the dispute between realism (good) and any form of expressionism (bad). Social comedy has always been a problem for middle-class critics I think. It’s interesting that Ealing’s late 1940s comedies were praised but in the 1950s, apart from The Ladykillers in 1955, it was the comedies or films with comedic elements that were often seen as failures. One other addition to this film was the attempt to connect to the new pop music of 1957 with a Tommy Steele song. This is sung over a blank screen before the opening credits like the ‘overture’ of a 1950s musical. Unfortunately this title song is poorly recorded and uses an oversweet girl group chorus. It is followed by John Addison’s orchestral score under the credits with hints of an American Western before an Australian voiceover narrates an introduction to the ‘swagman’. Steele has a second unmemorable song written by Lionel Bart later in the film. He had become the UK’s first modern pop star in 1956 as a skiffle performer moving into early rock ‘n roll and his banjo playing might have worked well in a more ‘raw’ version of the title song. It seems Ealing wasn’t quite ready yet for new ‘youth music’.

How long can Macauley and Buster put up with domesticated Aussie life in the 1950s?

In his Zoom lecture on Ealing in Australia last week, Stephen Morgan referred to the last two Ealing films in Australia as ‘moving away from the community ideas of the 1940s’. I think he sees this as Australian film beginning to define itself in opposition to the British and American films made in Australia – or possibly it just marks the general (and regressive) move away from collectivism to American-style individualism? But is this what really happens? In The Shiralee,  I think that Macauley is in one sense a loner who antagonises some folk but who also makes firm friendships. The film does restore ‘order’ in the community but it’s one mainly on his terms. Having said that, I’m not sure how long the new ‘equilibrium’ will survive. Unfortunately Ealing itself couldn’t last long after 1957. This is, I think, one of the more satisfactory late Ealing films. Ealing itself had lost much of its earlier community feel during the 1950s. I will try at some point to cover the other two Australian Ealing productions and then think about the whole ‘overseas Ealing’ project.

I watched The Shiralee on Network’s ‘Ealing Rareties’ Vol. 5 DVD. It has also been shown on Talking Pictures TV as in the trailer below:

The Siege of Pinchgut (UK-Australia 1959)

The Siege of Pinchgut is remembered as the fifth film made by Ealing Studios in Australia and also the last film made by Ealing as the entity headed by Michael Balcon. By 1958 Ealing had negotiated a deal to make films at ABPC’s studios at Elstree and release them in the UK through Associated British Pathé (although Rank still distributed The Siege of Pinchgut in various European territories). This last film was made mainly on location in Sydney with some scenes shot back at Elstree. The cast is mainly Australians in the smaller parts but with leading players from the UK and Hollywood star Aldo Ray in the lead role. I’ve known about the title for a long time but delayed watching it until now – in preparation for a Zoom event led by Dr Stephen Morgan, the Australian film scholar based in London. I’m not sure what I expected but ‘Pinchgut’ turns out to be a local name for a 19th century fort built on a rocky outcrop located in the wide entrance to Sydney Harbour. Its official title is Fort Dennison and it was used as part of the penal colony’s operations in the 19th century and as a defensive feature for the harbour in the 20th.

Luke (Carlo Giustini) and Aldo Ray as Matt Kirk. Neatly reflected in the mirror are Heather Sears and Barbara Mullen

The plot of the film is straightforward. An ingenious prison break sees Matt Kirk (Aldo Ray) evading recapture and seemingly set for an escape from Sydney with his brother Johnny (the Canadian actor Neil McCallum who was based in the UK). British character actor Victor Maddern plays Burt and Italian actor Carlo Giustini plays Luke, the other two members of the gang who spring Matt. But the boat taking them out Sydney harbour breaks down and drifts towards Pinchgut and its three inhabitants, the Fulton family. Matt Kirk believes he was wrongly imprisoned for a crime he didn’t commit (but he does have a criminal background). His aim is to persuade the Attorney-General of New South Wales to grant him a re-trial. But now he can’t escape the city and negotiate a re-trial from a safe place. I don’t want to spoil the plot of a suspense thriller but the authorities become aware of the four men on the island and that the Fultons, father, mother and daughter (Heather Sears as second lead in the film in the same year that she appeared in Room at the Top), are hostages. At this point the narrative becomes a tense siege drama because of the presence of an ammunition ship in the harbour. Kirk threatens to use the naval gun on the island to fire at the ammunition ship and its cargo of gelignite. Such a move could kill thousands as had been seen in various wartime explosions such as that in Bombay in 1944 (which one of the gang had observed as a naval rating). On the other hand, the island is within range of sharpshooters stationed on the Harbour Bridge.

The sharpshooters on the bridge

The police are heavily armed when they aprroach the island

The film is in my view a well-made and engaging genre film. It was submitted to the Berlin Film Festival in 1959 at a time when commercial British films were often accepted at festivals and it was shown in competition for the Golden Bear. However, it wasn’t particularly successful at the UK box office and it received a thumbs down from some UK-based critics. The Kine Weekly described it on release in October 1959 as a “hearty action melodrama” and a “very good British booking”. The Monthly Film Bulletin Review by ‘JG’ (possibly John Gillet?) suggests that the central issue of Kirk’s ‘innocence’ is not properly established but equally the some of the dubious decisions of the politicians and the police authorities aren’t satisfactorily worked out. In the end the film strives for its ‘entertainment’ impact with Aldo Ray’s presence appealing to the US market. Charles Barr in his Ealing Studios book takes a similar line but expresses it slightly differently, accusing the film of a confused stance over the violence in the film – as much the violence of the authorities as of the gang. The film gives a kind of moral endorsement to the authorities that they have not earned. Barr suggests that this confusion is “typical of the weakness of ‘fifties Ealing”. I can see that these analyses have some force but it’s a pity that Barr has such a clear agenda in his overall study of Ealing that he doesn’t spend time on any of the plus points about the film.

One of several ‘noir’ images with expressionist lighting in the fort

The Siege of Pinchgut was directed by Harry Watt, the former documentary director from the 1930s who moved into fiction features with Ealing during the war and who made five features as part of Ealing’s attempt to create a ‘Commonwealth’ presence for the company. He made two films in East Africa and three in Australia, beginning with The Overlanders in 1946. Ealing attempted to build up Australian filmmaking facilities by investing in the National Studios in the Sydney suburb of Pagewood but a combination of financial constraints on Ealing initiated by Rank’s John Davis and a lack of support by public funding in Australia stymied future development. The Siege of Pinchgut which used only location shooting in Sidney with interiors back in the UK, proved to be the last attempt by a UK studio to establish itself in Australia. Watt’s documentary background is featured in several aspects of the film including the evacuation of dockside Sydney and the attempts to remove the explosives from the ship. These ‘procedural’ scenes are matched by the excellent cinematography of Ealing regular Gordon Dines. I was reminded of his great work on Pool of London (1951) for the exteriors but also impressed by the studio work inside the fortifications of Pinchgut. I was struck also by the evacuation itself and the sense of an Australian city preparing for a major disaster. I was reminded of the other major disaster scenario of the period, the adaptation of Nevil Shute’s novel about nuclear war, On the Beach (1959), shot presumably around the same time but in Melbourne. I think it is also worth mentioning that by making the fourth gang member an Italian, hoping to get back to Italy and buy his own fishing boat, this film, like Michael Powell’s They’re a Weird Mob (1966), points to some of the problems being experienced by Australia’s new migrants.

As in most sieges the telephone (and the TV) are important. This shot with the Fulton family (Gerry Duggan as the father) is one of several with great depth of field

Overall, I don’t think this film represents the kind of ‘sad’ ending implied by Charles Barr. I note that during the film’s Elstree shoot, Aldo Ray contributed to a fair amount of promotion for the film. I don’t know why the proposed production slate with ABPC didn’t take off – it may have been that the company became too interested in building up its TV interests. I certainly think this film is worth a watch. I recorded it from Talking Pictures TV which broadcast it in the correct 1.66:1 ratio. There is also now a new Network Blu-ray (Region B). Network discs are very good in my experience.

The Australian Dream (Australia 2019)

Released online during June 2020 in the UK and Australia (where it was in cinemas in 2019), The Australian Dream was broadcast by the BBC and is now available on iPlayer for “11 months”. I recommend this documentary for any audience but especially for any sports fans during this period of ‘Black Lives Matter’. Having said that, I recognise that there are aspects of what the BBC blurb describes as an “inspirational story” that might not be understood in some cultures. I’ve read at least one prestigious reviewer in the US who didn’t ‘get’ aspects of the film.

Adam Goodes is an Indigenous Australian who became not only a major star in his sport, but also the holder of the ‘Australian of the Year’ Award in 2014. However, the casual racism that continues to plague Australian social and public life and Goodes’ own discovery about his family background and the history of his indigenous community eventually meant that he retired as a football player at least a couple of years earlier than he might have expected. His story is indeed inspirational, not only in how he became a great player but also in how he responded to both the praise and the racial abuse of football fans and social commentators.

Australia is a passionate sports nation, arguably one of the most passionate in the world. Australians are generally good at sports and they support local and national teams in large numbers both in the stadiums and on TV and on social media. There are four types of ‘football’ played professionally. The most watched and the wealthiest is what is colloquially known as ‘Aussie rules’ or ‘footy’ with a major competition, the AFL (Australian Football league), a competition of 18 teams attracting some of the world’s biggest crowds to the Melbourne Cricket Ground (the MCG) for league championship finals. ‘Aussie Rules’ has some similarities with Gaelic Football in Ireland but indigenous Australians have also claimed that a similar kind of game was played before the Europeans arrived. Australia also has Rugby League, Rugby Union and Association Football – ‘soccer’ in the US – but none of these has the playing and spectatorship base of the AFL.

This documentary is one of two competing titles, both released in 2019. I haven’t seen The Final Quarter but it is available online in the UK via iTunes. The Final Quarter uses only archive material to tell its story and it provides educational support materials (but only in Australia – see the official website). The Australian Dream does feature Adam Goodes himself and he is, in every way, the ‘star’ of the documentary. The film is written by the Indigenous Australian journalist Stan Grant, a distinguished figure as journalist and news anchor in Australia. He appears at various points in the film. The director is Daniel Gordon, the British documentarist who specialises in sports stories who I remember as the director of The Game of Their Lives (2002) about the North Korean national football team who competed in the World Cup Finals in England and gained many fans.

Adam Goodes (right) and his cousin Michael O’Loughlin, also an AFL player. They are wearing t-shirts showing the official flag of Indigenous Australia

The Australian Dream is a highly narrativised documentary, starting and ending with celebrations for ‘Australia Day’, an emotional moment for many indigenous Australians for whom the celebrations are painful reminders of ‘Invasion Day’ when Europeans first arrived in Australia. Adam Goodes is the hero of this story and there are recognisable ‘helpers’, ‘blockers’ and ‘villains’ in terms of a Proppian analysis of the narrative. But this isn’t necessarily a conventional narrative in which the hero attains his goal and rescues the princess in the tower. The real achievement for Adam Goodes is that he discovers himself and recognises his identity and that being able to do this helps him get through the racist abuse and resume his life as he wants to live it. He receives a great deal of support from friends, family and footy fans and also the administrators of the football game itself. The tragedy is that despite this, the words and actions associated with casual racism in Australian society generally can do so much damage.

I can’t comment directly on Australian racism. I can only respond to the representations offered by Australian film, TV, literature and broadcast media – and it looks pretty bad from that perspective. But I can recognise so much in Adam Goodes’ story from studying the attempts to stamp out racist behaviour in UK sport and especially in British football (e.g. what is now the English Premier League, the highest profile sport in the UK). In the last few years we have seen players like Raheem Sterling picked out for criticism in the tabloid press and on social media and the England team in Bulgaria in 2019 almost moved to leaving the pitch after a barrage of racist chants. They stayed and won 6-0, which is a good response but they shouldn’t have to face this abuse. The incident that sparked much of the controversy in The Australian Dream concerned a 13 year-old spectator at a major game, a girl at the front of the stand, close to the pitch, who called Goodes an ‘Ape’ when he came towards the fence. Stunned, Goodes asked for her to be removed and the stewards obliged. After the game Goodes accepted a telephone call from the girl, who apologised. He had the grace to accept the apology and to assure her that she was not the problem. She had heard this kind of language somewhere – it’s endemic in the society. But Adam Goodes can’t erase the incident and soon it was picked up by racists on social media and by Andrew Bolt, a TV pundit who accused Goodes of an over-reaction and of ruining the girl’s life. In this kind of repeated claim, the victim of racist abuse becomes responsible himself for the further abuse heaped upon him. Some of the critics of the film suggest it gave too much space to Bolt. I hadn’t come across Bolt before but he is familiar in that British TV and journalism features many similar characters. The only difference is that he appears calmer and ‘colder’ but his clear intentions are just as objectionable. Some critics have also suggested that there is too much use of Stan Grant in the film and I can see that, while Grant’s support for Goodes needs to be aired, the footballer is his own best advocate.

Adam Goodes in a promotional shot in 2013, celebrating a famous photo 20 years earlier in which an another Indigenous Australian pointed to his own skin colour

What is ‘casual racism’? I guess that the distinction is between ‘casual’ and ‘institutional racism’. For many years the spotlight was on attempts to fight institutional racism- the ways in which institutional structures had developed to exclude and marginalise people outside the mainstream (or in some cases the élite) in major institutions. That fight is not won yet but things have begun to improve. Ironically, the incident that sparked the racist backlash against Adam Goodes occurred in a footy game that was part of the ‘Indigenous Round’, a round of matches each season in which the contribution of Indigenous players to the League’s success is celebrated. The AFL itself has been supportive but has been undermined by some of the major figures in the game, whose racist comments have created the openings for the real fascists in the society to exploit. ‘Casual racism’ is not ‘casual’ for those who are most affected by it. Within football in particular, such comments have often been ‘excused’ or ‘de-fanged’ by renaming them ‘banter’, a concept referring to the way professional sports people play jokes on each other, insult each other etc. in the name of friendship. Banter is fine if everyone who plays the game accepts the rules. But banter can easily become deeply offensive and racial difference is very dangerous territory for ‘jokes’. In recent years, casual racism has also become part of the so-called ‘culture wars’ which have become a central poisonous discourse across social media and something exploited by the new right to devastating effect.

Adam Goodes is a remarkable man and I think many people will be moved by not only his dignified response to the attacks upon him but also by his emotional relationship with his mother, who he later discovers was part of the ‘Stolen Generation’ of Indigenous Australian children. Everyone should see films like this and ask themselves serious questions about how they behave on social media and in the decisions they make in their social lives. ‘The Australian Dream’ is an ironic and suggestive title that certainly demands investigation and reflection.

Mabo (Australia 2012)

Deborah Mailman and Jimi Bani as Bonita and Koiki Mabo

‘We Are One: A Global Film Festival’ last week offered a wide range of films ‘donated’ by various well-known international festivals, but they were only available for a few days. I headed straight for Mabo as a film which, although I knew nothing about it, seemed like a ‘must watch’. I have recently been introduced to various Australian films by the BBC4 screening of David Stratton’s 3-part series on Australian cinema. The series is on iPlayer for the next 11 months. I discovered major directors who were new to me and films that have had very little exposure in the UK. Perhaps the most important gap in my knowledge concerns Rachel Perkins and her production company Blackfella Films. Perkins founded Blackfella Films in 1992 and has since been joined by other filmmakers in making a range of feature films and documentaries for both cinema and TV.

Blackfella Films has been responsible for bringing Indigenous Australian stories to a wider audience both in Australia and internationally. I’m not sure how I missed the importance of this company. I realise now that at least one of Blackfella’s TV series, Deep Water (Australia 2016) has been on BBC4 in the UK. More surprising perhaps is that Perkins’ own films haven’t had a higher profile in the UK. Indigenous stories have mostly arrived in the UK via film festivals and occasional arthouse releases. Mabo is described as a ‘television movie’, aimed at a mass audience in Australia and telling the story of Koiki Eddie Mabo (played by Jimi Bani) as the Torres Strait Islander who became the central figure in a court case which overturned the legal precedent of terra nullius – ‘nobody’s land’. The Torres Strait Islands had been claimed by European ‘explorers’ in the late 18th century and subsumed into the British colonial territory of Australia since they were not constituted as a national state. This meant that Indigenous people who may have occupied their lands for hundreds of years before white settlement could not obtain rights for their own land under Anglo-Australian law. Similar issues arise in other countries that have been colonised and ‘settled’.

Koiki working on the railroad

Mabo is a film that has an engaging narrative and two great central performances and it tells a story that everyone should know. It isn’t without its flaws but I think these are mainly concerned with the problem of juggling three central narrative strands with different generic elements. First, this is a form of biopic of Koiki Eddie Mabo, following his development as a young man forced by circumstance to leave Mer/Murray Island in the 1950s and look for work in Queensland. He works on trochus boats (molluscs harvested for ‘mother of pearl’), track-laying on the railway and eventually as a gardener at a library. Here he begins investigating the history of the islands and meets two white characters who become interested in his story and together the trio formulate a local campaign which will eventually lead to a final legal victory 25 years later. As a young man Koiki meets Bonita, who he marries. Together they have children and Bonita works to support the campaign, but the marriage has many strains and pressures. Deborah Mailman who plays Bonita is one of the best known Indigenous performers in Australia on stage and in film and television. I remember her role in The Sapphires (Australia 2012). The struggles in the marriage form a second strand which perhaps should have developed into a family melodrama if there had been more time to focus on the children (the couple had ten in all). The third strand is the campaign itself and this did cause me some problems. I think legal dramas focusing on the courtroom are difficult to condense into easily accessed narratives. I lost my way in some of the debates about the traditions concerning family life and land rights in the islands, which were complicated by Koiki’s adoption at an early age by a different family member.

The campaign begins

The legal case required hearings in both the Queensland courts and the High Court in Canberra. For an outsider, the process appears to follow generic lines in that a ‘good result’ is more likely to be achieved at national/federal level rather than locally. Koiki had several problems as a young man in Queensland, including paternalistic but highly exploitative relationships with white employers, direct racism in the form of a colour bar (operating much as it did in the UK in the 1950s and in many British colonial territories) and further isolation as a Torres Strait Islander because he didn’t share language, culture or history with the indigenous peoples of Northern Queensland. Bonita Mabo was herself from a bi-racial background with ancestors who were coerced in a form of indentured labour from the Vanuatu group of islands to work in the Queensland sugar cane fields.

Getting to court

Because this film was a ‘telemovie’ it hasn’t been reviewed in the same way as international cinema features. IMDb carries only a World Socialist Website piece which has some good points to make but is very negative about the political importance of the film. Scanning reviews available from Australian media sites, it is apparent that the film was a political football at the time. The Australian, a Murdoch News Corp right-wing paper, claimed the broadcast was a ratings flop. It hides behind pay-walls like Murdoch’s UK broadsheet so I don’t know what this claim means. Other reports are more welcoming and more appreciative. Viewing the film and its context from a UK perspective is difficult because of lack of sufficient knowledge of Australian politics. I do remember the reputation of Queensland politics and racism back in the 1980s but I don’t know enough to follow all the arguments. Mabo is a ‘well-made’ mainstream TV movie. The script by Sue Smith, direction by Rachel Perkins and outstanding central performances by the two leads create a very watchable film that tells an important story. I haven’t mentioned the relatively starry cast of white actors who portray the lawyers and some of the employers and political figures but they also contribute to the quality of the storytelling. On the weekend when #BlackLivesMatter activists in the UK dumped a statue of a notorious British slave trader into the Bristol dock it was sobering to learn more about the history of racist exploitation in Australia.

A great victory image with Bonita and her eldest son

I can’t find Mabo on any UK streaming sites but Amazon UK are selling a Region 4 Australian DVD. There is also a film called Mabo – Life of an Island Man which I haven’t seen, but this is unavailable on Amazon. The Blackfella Films website lists other film titles made by Rachel Perkins’ company.