‘Australia’: somewhere over the rainbow

It seemed fitting to see Baz Luhrmann’s movie Australia on the Australia Day long weekend. The opening credits tell us that it’s about the stolen generations, an aboriginal story set against a backdrop of cattle empires, love and war. It has been promoted as an old style blockbuster and its sheer length and star cast put it in that territory.

Australia – Official Movie Trailer

It is more adventure and romance than historical epic. A Western in northern Australia. The Man from Snowy River meets Wagon Train with a touch of Gone with the Wind and High Noon. Nicole Kidman (any relation to the real-life cattle baron?) as Lady Sarah Ashley has the icy, priggish edge of Grace Kelly. The bombing of Darwin owes a lot to the burning of Atlanta. Hugh Jackman as Drover combines Henry Fonda’s outsider with John Wayne’s brawler.

Perhaps it should have been a musical as it relies for much of its thematic development on The Wizard of Oz. Baz isn’t afraid of this pun or many others. We even have Somewhere Over The Rainbow evoking the rainbow serpent of the aboriginal dreaming. The tune is used more often than Waltzing Matilda during the story. Nullah (Brandon Walters) is the film’s own Dorothy. He follows his quest, firstly droving a stock route and finally embarking on a journey to his grandfather’s country for initiation ceremonies. He even watches Judy Garland at an outdoor cinema in Darwin.

If you’re looking for a geography lesson, forget it. The country is all over the place. ‘Far Away Downs’ isn’t ‘Victoria River Downs’. It is strangely located near the ‘Never Never’, an unlikely desert in Top End Oz. Nevertheless, the landscapes are extraordinary, featuring the best of the Kimberley and other northern locations. The spectacular views of ancient escarpments and national icons, such as the Mitchell falls and the Bungle Bungle, are themselves worth the ticket price.

If this is an historical romance, forget the history lesson. Darwin is a visual treat with all the splendour of Moulin Rouge. It displays Baz’s knack for bold, stylised, over-designed sets.

The bombing of Darwin in February 1942 has little to do with reality. The Hotel Darwin, which survived the bombing only to be demolished in 1999, is nowhere to be seen. There is no reference to the mass desertion by troops and little mention of looting. The Japanese troops on Mission Island are pure fiction.

The indigenous history is politically correct and has only a small number of annoying anomalies and inaccuracies. David Gulpilil as King George represents aboriginal culture before European occupation. He dominates the film as always, though the narration is left to young Brandon. Gulpilil’s witch doctor mirrors the Wizard of Oz. The young mixed-race boy Nullah foreshadows the future for many Arnhem Land people, living in two cultures, clinging to their dreaming and identity in a world dominated by white bosses.

Luhrmann or one of his writing team is obviously a fan of Xavier Herbert. Much of the plot and theme draws on his novels. Lady Sarah’s horse is Capricornia and the grog is Poor Fella Rum. Poor Fellow My Country is one of the longest novels in the English language so an analysis of similarities would be tiresome. Herbert has a credit.

The cast includes a Who’s-Who of Australian actors. Hugh Jackman is thoroughly PC, a 21st Century Gary Cooper, taking both an aborigine and a woman into the local hotel’s public bar. He breaks traditions that would last till the late 1960s in both cases. Hugh is no Clark Gable and his romance with Nicole lacks the fire or the depth of Rhett Butler and Scarlet O’Hara’s passionate clash.

Jack Thompson’s performance as a good-hearted drunk is mercifully short. David Wenham makes an excellent villain with all the requisite longstanding resentments. Bryan Brown is typecast as the tough, ruthless cattle king with a latent conscience.

Of the other indigenous actors, Ursula Yovich as Nullah’s mother Daisy and David Ngoombujarra as Magarri give the strongest performances. Their characters’ heroic self-sacrifices are high and low points of the storytelling.

Australia is a story about aboriginal dispossession and forced assimilation. However, this is not a political history. Its “truths” are simple and much disputed by commentators who attack the “black armband” view of history. Usually without any sense of irony!

We enjoyed the film for what it really offers: a sentimental journey. This is Jedda with a happy ending that is never in doubt.

three-and-a-half1

Kevin Rennie

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36 Responses

  1. Kevin, does it compare with Jedda?

  2. I hate it because Gruppenfuhrer Bolt said so & I’m gonna report this post to him as the crime against Australia that it is. [don’t know howto do the sarc emoticon or it’d be here]

    I’m not into Luhrmann’s previous bilge, I think Nicole smells & waving the flag is primarily against my nature so I’m unlikely to ever watch it. Also, hype (not to mention naming a movie after the country it is desperately trying to adulate) makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up in aprehension.
    Now that I’ve read your encompassing review I don’t need to watch it either, thanks Kevin.

    Fullmarks to Baz for pissing Bolt off…negative marks to Baz for being a pretentious tosser.

  3. “apprehension”…

  4. There are clear parallels between the 2 films: aboriginal identity, assimilation, clash of cultures, white aspirations for black children. The top end backdrop with the mixed-up locations are also a commonality. even the desire to go “walkabout”.

    Talking of Walkabout, the uncensored version of Gulpilil’s first film is well worth seeing.

  5. If we’re talking movies could someone…any-bloody-one give Heath Ledger a ph*king Oscar so that our ph*king media can move on. I don’t care if the Oscar is for Best Hairstyle or Best Smile just so long as it shuts the ph*king media up.

  6. “Nevertheless, the landscapes are extraordinary, featuring the best of the Kimberley and other northern locations”

    Yes they are.

    http://www.westernaustralia.com/kimberley/Australia_Movie/Movie_Locations.aspx

    But as Tom will tell you, there are dust and flies as well as unique views and experiences.

    http://www.westernaustralia.com/kimberley/Home/explore_kimberley/tabid/153/itemid/74/Default.aspx

  7. A tuly Majesic flm it is !

  8. Every country on earth, every one of them was founded on the backs of others. It is the history of man and one even the Aboriginals share as they too waged war and conquered fellow Aboriginals in disputes over hunting grounds etcetera. Why we must extend unending sympathies for minorities on the losing end of these struggles is nothing more than “white guilt”. Get over it! I simply don’t understand those that refuse to move on. It is a sickness that seems to inflict many in the film industry or perhaps the stereotypical melodramatic artists are just doing what comes natural to them. Their “artwork” unfortunately, feeds into a deeper pathology that has come to infect naive minds the world over in the past 20 years.

    Nobody is going to movies these days (like Australia) mainly for reasons like “cable TV” but given it use to be a family excursion it is no wonder many are disinterested in the same old underlying themes. Evil white guys or governments are to blame for the ills of the world didn’t you know; yes we got it Hollywood. Especially if you just graduated from college. We go to movies to escape the monotony of our lives and our failings yet we find we have to pay to see them now although they are pumped through are TV’s on the 24 hour news cycle for free. No thank you……..It is unfortunate Australia’s leaders have found no other way to grow their economies other than import people and this picture is just an extension of this policy. Oddly, by highlighting the plight of the Aboriginal? Talk about tortured minds……….

  9. Nobody is going to movies these days (like Australia) mainly for reasons like “cable TV” but given it use to be a family excursion it is no wonder many are disinterested in the same old underlying themes. Evil white guys or governments are to blame for the ills of the world didn’t you know;

    Yes they are, because they’ve priced entertainment out of the realm of the family budget. Nobody’s going to movies because

    – they can’t afford it, the cost of tickets, a choc-top and some jaffa’s are an exorbitant rip off.
    – the boring hollywood pap is the same thing over and over. The movie moguls are only interested in churning out safe, profit making re-makes, not too much innovation, experimentation or even originality. Most of the movies are only worthy of a DVD rental.
    -I wish we didn’t import people, the country would be better off, I’m thinking of imports like the three amigo’s who run telstra and other such ‘experts’.

  10. Sparta, your ignorance of Indigenous Australians is breathtaking. May I suggest that it is ground on which you no longer walk?

  11. At the end of 2008 “Australia’ was the 3rd highest grossing Australian film of all time. The rest have been woeful at the box office apparently. http://www.theaustralian.news.com.au/story/0,25197,24919004-15803,00.html

  12. Miglo,

    Wow one statement and you declare me ignorant on the subject……Please enlighten me then? I had no idea they didn’t engage in warfare between each other as I am assuming that is what you refer to? If not, what are you talking about then?

  13. Sparta. I think that the difference is that most indigenous people do not try to wipe each other from the face of the earth. Yes, conquer and gain land but seldom to the obliteration stage. Steal women and children yes, because this means a continuation of the people.

    The examples are: A number of American native peoples counted coup and it wasn’t until Europeans [Americans, Canadians, British] stepped in offering bounties and demanding scalps that mass killing became common.

    Likewise for the indigenous people of Australia. Standoffs were far more common.

  14. “The examples are: A number of American native peoples counted coup and it wasn’t until Europeans [Americans, Canadians, British] stepped in offering bounties and demanding scalps that mass killing became common.”

    Here we go again Min, you seem to think the indigenous people bare no responsibility for the killing of their own or very little? No wait, I am ignorant because they killed in smaller numbers? Maybe the weaponry played a role? Oh but wait, they are not responsible for pulling the trigger either?

    Seems if Miglo is going to try and play expert on the subject he/she needs to be able to articulate something to that effect instead of acting like an adolescent. This has nothing to do with ignorance just a different philosophy. You and Miglo seem to think the indigenous were and are children unable to discern the consequences of their own actions. Seems I touched a nerve with one of the inflicted………Do guns kill people or do people kill people? You seem to be of the opinion that it is the piece of metal? Interesting………..

  15. Will be a long time before I watch that flick. Do the Murdoch empire & its products need anymore free promotion? I think not.

    BTW, SKY News (UK) just gave the middle finger to the “Gaza Appeal” (“an umbrella group of thirteen British charities including Oxfam, Save the Children, Islamic Relief and the British Red Cross – Global Post)
    ..whilst yesterday Kevin Rudd gleefully handed out citizenship papers w/ one of the SKY Australia trolls… nice work Kevin.

    Black holes are still sucking…

    N’

  16. Wow Sparta, you sound angry. Is there something about being confronted by people (Min and I) with a greater knowledge in certain subjects than yourself that presses an angry button?

    If you had no idea that Indigenous Australians had a culture that you were not familiar with then perhaps it would have been best to conduct a little research first. I would actually be honoured if you would do so.

    And you will be best not to question my credentials on the subject. Believe me, they are far greater than yours.

  17. But Sparta why until the arrival of the white man did native Americans count coup rather than killing? Or aren’t you conversant with your own native people’s history?

    Hold 5 Sparta. You say ‘you [Min] seem to think’..well just ask me if you’re not sure.

    “No wait, I am ignorant..Oh but wait..” Nowhere at all did I suggest Sparta that you are ignorant in fact I made no personal reference to you whatsoever. My interest is as a family historian.

  18. Anyway..back onto Kevin Ren’s topic. I liked it (cringe) however I would have liked to have seen a newcomer in Kidman’s role.

  19. Sparta..I am back tracking. With apologies, I think that I made personal references. I re-read and thought hell’s bells, I did indeed make personal references. It’s just that it’s a topic that I love, family history and getting a wee bit carried away is my only excuse.

    It’s a very complex subject, however I would suggest asking questions is good versus making accusations..noo, not good.

    I refer to the most excellent Miss Klemm (high school english teacher) who said never start a sentence with the word You.

  20. ‘Every country on earth, every one of them was founded on the backs of others.’

    Where to start with such an absurd claim? I guess “what bullshit” is as good a way as any.

    Europeans invented an abstract construct called ‘a country’ and then proceeded to impose their ideology on the rest of the world. Billions of people continue to suffer because of the pig-headed insistence that they must consider themselves citizens of ‘a country’. It is blatant ideological imperialism but unfortunately its perpetrators (like Sparta) are so steeped in it that they no longer recognise how one-dimensional and normative their whole mental model of the world is.

    Now of course Sparta can use the fabricated logic of the sovereign nation to excuse and even celebrate colonialism, forcing the history of the rest of the world into a wholly artificial Euro narrative of nations involved in conflict with each other. In fact, nothing of the kind ever occurred and the notion of ‘a country’ was absolutely foreign to most of the world’s population (and remains so for a substantial proportion).

    The hegemony of European historicism is quickly fading away but many like Sparta will doubtless go to their graves incapable of grasping any perspective apart from their own narrow blinkered one.

  21. What nationalism breeds;

    In the Sydney suburb of Manly, hundreds of youths draped in “Aussie pride” livery wore slogans declaring “f–k off we’re full” as they smashed car windows and ran up the famous Corso targeting non-white shop keepers.

    A 18-year-old Asian female in one of the cars was showered with shattered glass, giving her numerous cuts to her arms. She was treated on the scene by ambulance officers.

    A taxi driven by a Sikh Indian was also targeted while an Asian shopkeeper was reportedly assaulted.

    Groups of men jumped up on cars chanting race hate to the terrified passengers within, and were heard singing “t*ts out for the boys” at passing girls and yelled “lets go f–k with these Lebs”.

    I was proud of the way Australians used to celebrate their pride in themselves, quietly and without any overt and brash patriotic fervour which is mandatory in the US.

    Now the US has imported their warped brand of pride in self to here and where you once saw an occasional Australian flag in the front of a Viet vet, they are boldly shoved in your nose everywhere daring anyone to challenge the owners Australianess under threat of violence like that in the quote above.

    Once in a pub in the US a bunch of us Australian sailors a little worse for wear were having a conversation about all and sundry (well sex and women actually) when it turned to the best girls in the world whith the Yanks loudly proclaiming US girls could not be beat. All harmless and a conversation we’ve all had many times before around the world. One Aussie sailor half cut more or less mumbled “Americans aren’t the best in the world at everything you know, and it’s not the best country in the world in all things”. He was severely bashed and required stitches to his eye socket and we were lucky to leave with just a few bruises when we helped him.

    Today I saw a white ute in the street where I work with a newly painted Aussie flag covering the entire bonnet, two large Aussie flags out each side window, four smaller ones at each corner of the car and a massive one draped over his roof to hang over his rear windscreen so he couldn’t see out the back. If I were to go to the pub where he and his mates drink and say, “You know Australia isn’t the bees knees in everything”, do you think I’d walk away intact.

    Then I heard the story a while ago of the Australian sailor charged for aggravated assault in the US for bashing an American over Aussie Rules being better than Gridiron. For stuff’s sake.

    But thanks to our American friends this sort of patriotism is now the norm, and you are worse than scum and un-Australian (hate you Kennett and hate you Howard for bringing that into common use) if you in anyway don’t show the mandatory nationalistic fervour to the right degree.

  22. Miglo,

    “And you will be best not to question my credentials on the subject. Believe me, they are far greater than yours.”

    Hilarious Miglo, really; you pick a fight and I ask you to put up or shut up and you keep picking. Miglo, I fear little so if you have something to say, bring it otherwise go away…………

    “Wow Sparta, you sound angry. Is there something about being confronted by people (Min and I) with a greater knowledge in certain subjects than yourself that presses an angry button?”

    Not angry in the least just a bit annoyed like when a fly keeps buzzing your food at the family picnic. While Min obviously has some background on this subject you have displayed nothing of the sort. Daring or calling me “ignorant” hardly makes you look like an expert of anything except “antagonism” perhaps.

    “If you had no idea that Indigenous Australians had a culture that you were not familiar with then perhaps it would have been best to conduct a little research first. I would actually be honoured if you would do so.”

    Your kidding me right? I am an American blogging on an Australian site. Perhaps that might be a clue that I have an interest in Australia there genius; past and present? Your country and mine have many parallels on the subject of our indigenous peoples say for the obvious fact that Native Americans have for the most part “moved on”. Sure, work to do still but hardly the issues the Aboriginals are currently dealing with. In the future think before you “post off” and consider the possibility that some simply don’t share your version of history. That is what is at the crux of the matter here I am afraid…………

  23. Ken_L,

    “Europeans invented an abstract construct called ‘a country’ and then proceeded to impose their ideology on the rest of the world. Billions of people continue to suffer because of the pig-headed insistence that they must consider themselves citizens of ‘a country’.

    Talk about tripe! You are full of it as usual you blow heart. Perhaps you can explain to the Aboriginals they really don’t have tribal lands or rights to them of any kind as it is an “Aboriginal” construct? Billions of people in turn tend to suffer in poverty, another “construct” used by Europeans that I am sure you have no problem pulling out of your hat when describing the developing world as well? Tortured logic as I said……

    “It is blatant ideological imperialism but unfortunately its perpetrators (like Sparta) are so steeped in it that they no longer recognise how one-dimensional and normative their whole mental model of the world is.”

    WTF? Geez… You are one of the inflicted indeed. I am hardly an imperialist or a fan of it dude. What I do recognize is that your “model of the world” which discounts the power of the individual and the reality that some cultures are still playing catch up with the West is doing nothing to advance their plight. You are the problem sir and many like you. We must look ahead not constantly wallow in the past……

    “Now of course Sparta can use the fabricated logic of the sovereign nation to excuse and even celebrate colonialism, forcing the history of the rest of the world into a wholly artificial Euro narrative of nations involved in conflict with each other. In fact, nothing of the kind ever occurred and the notion of ‘a country’ was absolutely foreign to most of the world’s population (and remains so for a substantial proportion).”

    Fabricated logic, amusing..I guess the “new history” you worship is the correct version then espoused by none other than Europeans? Yes the term “country” was foreign but not “hunting grounds” or “farming grounds” now were they sport? Of which many conflicts were fought amongst indigenous populations long before the European arrival.

    “The hegemony of European historicism is quickly fading away but many like Sparta will doubtless go to their graves incapable of grasping any perspective apart from their own narrow blinkered one.”

    Whatever helps you sleep at night old timer? I hardly consider your perspective “enlightening” as it lacks any grounding in reality I am afraid and all the old tired buzzwords of the inflicted (constructs, imperialism, and hegemony, blah, blah blah). Thankfully, we get to look forward to the passing of your generation whose enlightened perspective comes to us complements of LSD, bonfires and a self indulgence not before seen in the history of the world. You guys have done a bang up job, let me tell you. Now crawl back under the rock you rolled over, in a country whose founding you detest but whose present comforts you hypocritically indulge in you dote!

  24. Ok Sparta, here are my credentials:

    1. Bachelor of Arts (Aboriginal Affairs Administration).
    2. Bachelor of Arts (Honours) (Aboriginal Studies).
    3. Six years as a Government officer in Aboriginal affairs.
    4. Three years living with Aborigines.
    5. Speak Pitjantjatjara.

    Still want to take me on?

  25. Yep! Bring it…….

  26. Fire away.

  27. Miglo,

    You can start by commenting on this piece for me if you wouldn’t mind….

    http://138.25.65.50/au/other/IndigLRes/rciadic/national/vol2/48.html

  28. Sparta..you are breaking Miss Klemm’s rule: Never start a sentence with the word You.

    I will certainly defer to Miglo who clearly has far more knowledge than myself re our original inhabitants. However, Sparta you also have to consider ‘skins’ in Aboriginal culture. This compares with native Americans who were mostly tribal and territorial.

  29. Happy to respond, Sparta.

    It is a good summary, however it is easy to mis-interpret “fighting”. Some may see it as an act of war (as per your earlier post), which it clearly is not. It is a subject that has no end, partly because of the vast number of Aboriginal nations. Most of those that I am familiar with developed trade links rather than enter into dispute over what you called hunting grounds.

    I am honoured though that a non-Australian has taken such an interest in our Indigenous friends. I appreciate your efforts.

    BTW I’m not a big fan of Marcia Langton.

  30. And this……..

    The survival of any local group eventually depended on its solidarity and there was strong feeling against serious quarrels within it. Nevertheless personal conflicts were common. Where possible these were confined to the person immediately concerned, but it was one of the weaknesses of Aboriginal society that quarrels tended to spread widely because of kinship and marriage loyalties. there was no juridical machinery to prevent this from happening and the moral feeling against it was often ineffective. However, there was a deeply-ingrained principle of ‘equivalent injury’, and this helped to limit the passion for revenge. Antagonists often fought a duel with spears, clubs or stone knives, striking at each other, torn and torn about, until one submitted. Usually they took care not to disable each other permanently, as the loss of an able-bodied man to a small hunting community was a serious matter. Even in large-scale fights a sense of prudence and common interest made itself felt. On most occasions the fighting ceased when several men were badly hurt or killed. Grievances between local groups often led to massed duets of a format character conducted under strict convention. the most intractable offenders, especially against religious codes, were judged secretly by elders, and they were injured or killed by younger men acting under orders. Sometimes the retributive methods involved magical ritual. Pitched battles were common, but not warfare in the sense of protracted campaigns. There were no military or social organizations suited to warfare in that sense and, indeed, little to be gained by it. Material wealth, conquest and slavery were alien to the Aboriginal way of life. perhaps the nearest approach to warfare resulted when repeated murders, deaths attributed to sorcery, and thefts of women gave rise to an uncontrolled series of revenge killings. Most tribes had a favourite enemy of this kind.

    http://www.janesoceania.com/australian_aboriginal_anthropology/index1.htm

  31. Good article Sparta and one are can’t argue with. I always love and never tire reading about traditional Aboriginal society and cultures.

    BTW I am at work so shouldn’t be spending too much time on Blogocrats.

  32. Seems even here, Aboriginal warfare is cited as rare but not denied. Proceed to Chapter IX in this piece when you have the opportunity.

    http://www.archive.org/stream/tribeintertribal00wheeuoft/tribeintertribal00wheeuoft_djvu.txt

  33. Miglo,

    “BTW I am at work so shouldn’t be spending too much time on Blogocrats.”

    I understand all too well….If you should get the free time however, please don’t hesitate to break it down for me minus the “ignorant” comment please……

  34. Happy to do so Sparta, and I apologise if my comment offended you. I got a bit hot under the collar over what you had written and I respnded too hastily.

  35. Just a quick point Sparta while I have a few spare moments:

    Ethnographies, while I good read, are often written by white males with Eurocentric views. Thus some of the older writings, while describing observations, are tained once personal opinion is added.

    For example, inthe the 19th Century the observation of Tasmanian Aborigines eating raw fish drew the conclusion that they were cannabilistic. A bit over the top, I admit, but many of the older journals are.

  36. And of course the Mabo decision – the High Court ruling based upon the fact that white fellas could discern fishing rights as in something recognisable to white society..stone walls.

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