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A Slice Of Meat Pie: Australia’s Own Western Genre

A Slice Of Meat Pie: Australia’s Own Western Genre

While watching some films on the Criterion Channel starring David Gulipuli, I started looking up these types of movies set in the Outback, aka “the bush.” It is Australia’s own piece of real estate, a land never tamed where its settlers have to learn to survive. The Outback is also a piece of beautiful naturalism where nothing has drastically changed since humans started moving in, but the human density residing here is still low. This massive plot of land has been put to good use in Australia’s cinema for over a century, establishing the “meat pie Western” in contrast to the American style of the genre.

The name is cited from the 1970s by film historian Eric Reade in his book History and Heartburn when describing the genre. This phrase was written similarly to the Spaghetti Western genre of films produced in Italy. When Australians, stemming from the time the British colonized the country, began moving in and exploring the Outback, they encountered the harsh terrain and an arid climate. Being isolated from the major cities, it became a feeding ground for new establishments and wandering criminals. It was also an open stage for storytellers in novels and on the screen.

So, it was no surprise that when it came to telling a story about the area, one of the most notorious was produced first. In 1906, The Story Of The Kelly Gang was released, featuring all the characteristics of any Western. It is good versus evil plus shootouts and horseback rides; then, there is the interesting shield the bandits had in real-life: metal armor. This had not been seen in any other Western. Plus, the film was the first narrative film to be released in the world with a length of sixty minutes. However, two-thirds of the film is lost, while the remaining third of the film has been restored, including the film’s climax.

Multiple remakes of Ned Kelly and his exploits have been remade multiple times (Mick Jagger, Heath Ledger, and George MacKay have played him), but others, including fictional tales, were also produced. When films about bushrangers like Kelly were banned temporarily, other areas of bush life were portrayed. In the 1920s, American husband and wife duo Wilfred Lucas and Bess Meredyth were hired to come to Australia and direct two films, The Man From Kangaroo and The Jackeroo Of Coolabong. Both films starred boxer Snowy Baker and depict life living in towns while fending off thieves and protecting a woman from trouble.

As sound films came into play, a diversifying genre of that same meat pie being portrayed started to get help from international studios. Columbia Pictures co-financed 1936’s Rangle River while Britain’s famed Ealing Studios helped finance The Overlanders (1946). The Sundowners (1960), another British-produced film in Australia, starred American actor Robert Mitchum, whose faux Aussie accent was mediocre. While the US had their Western TV show in Gunsmoke, the Aussies had theirs with Whiplash. When the ban on bushranger films was lifted, the growing Australian New Wave of the 1970s started to incorporate outside elements into their films of the Outback.

Inn Of The Damned from 1975 blended Western themes with horror. Mad Dog Morgan, an independent picture starring Dennis Hopper, told the true story of a bushranger with strong violence that could now be shown on screen. And while it may not look like a meat pie Western, George Miller’s Mad Max does incorporate certain themes, such as a Wild West-type setting with only one man trying to fight an entire gang of criminals. These films from the 1970s also fell into another category, the Ozploitation genre, all low-budget features that focused on horror, dystopia, sex, and other types of films that took advantage of a freer culture. 

The output of films in this genre dropped in the rest of the century, but by the turn, a new type of meat pie Western was being made. As the country was reexamining its past relationship with the Aboriginal community, these new films such as The Tracker (2002), The Proposition (2005), and Charlie’s Country (2013) all took into account the terrible history of the Stolen Generation. They are in different forms, whether it be noir or revisionist Western, set in the past during a distinctive time. Major directors who have explored this era include Rolf de Heer, Warwick Thornton, John Hillcoat, and David Michod.

Australia is another nation with a culture and style that differs very much from the American way. Watching another Outback-set drama such as Walkabout encompasses what it feels like to be there. It has allowed so many films to be set there touching on numerous themes and inventing its own Western. This is far from how we may think of Australia because it’s no Crocodile Dundee. Meat pie Westerns are not for someone like John Wayne playing cowboys and Indians. It’s harsher. 


Follow me on Twitter: @brian_cine (Cine-A-Man)

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