Featured: Riding The Wave In The Outback – Australia’s Cinematic Resurrection
Until the 1970s, the film industry in Australia was virtually nil. Everything was imported from Britain or America and Australian actor went to either place to make their name known. Then, the government stepped in to invest in bringing up a culture of art, investing in multiple film boards that pushed the wave for 20 years and beyond. The Australian Film, Television and Radio School followed the model of the American film school that birthed out gifted storytellers and promoted unflinching tales of violence and subtle sensuality, a push for a more socially progressive Australia. The results were many great films and notable actors and directors that would make their mark internationally in future works. Here are some of those masterpieces.
Nicholas Roeg is British but came to Australia to film Walkabout, the story of two white children who are stranded in the Outback after their father kills himself. In the scorching heat, they encounter an Aborigine boy on his ritual walkabout where he has to survive on his own for six months on his ability to hunt and find water in such a place. Despite not sharing a language, the boy helps the two children in making it through alive. Roeg, who served as his own cinematographer, captures the beauty yet dryness of the desert and the how the environment can alter anybody’s view of life, especially when coming from the cities. It also was a watershed moment for the portrayal of Aborigines; the Australian government had just ended their policy of forced removal of children from the land, the “Stolen Generations.”
Wake In Fright (1971)
That same year, another Outback adventure tale came out, but in a more shocking fashion. A schoolteacher is stuck in a town and slowly begins to lose his grip on reality with drinking binges, kangaroo shootings (this was not fake) and random sexual encounters, creating the unsettling realism that some were not too thrilled when released. Many thought the original negative was lost, put pieces of it were found and reconstructed for a special Cannes Film Festival showing in 2009. The director, Ted Kotcheff, would go on to the States to make First Blood, bringing the character John Rambo to life in its bloody original form, a lot like Wake In Fright.
Picnic At Hanging Rock (1975)
Amazon has just released a mini-series based on Joan Lindsay’s novel, but it was Peter Weir who would get to direct the formal adaptation for the screen in its dreamy yet unsettling state. The story about a group of girls who go missing in the 1900s was quite provocative and that noted ending still left many wondering. And yet, within its mystery, Weir showcases the taboo of sexual ideas amongst girls who are all virgins and then the spookiness of leaving without a trace and without any resolution to the missing girls. It becomes less about what happened to three girls and their teacher and more about how the rock is somewhat of a magical setting where daydreams go to be fulfilled – or be killed.
Mad Max (1979)
George Miller lit up the screen and gave us Mel Gibson in the first of his four installments regarding the collapse of society and a thirst for revenge from Max Rockatansky, a highway patrol officer. The apocalyptic setting, the strong violence, the basic themes of war for water and oil start from here. Miller made it all on a low budget and did some guerrilla filmmaking by shooting some scenes with a permit, as well as hire actual bikers as extras. But they were still able to modify vehicles to their radical look that evolved over time with each film. This rugged movie led to its two sequels in the 80s and then the acclaimed Fury Road in 2015.
Breaker Morant (1980)
Bruce Beresford struck it hard with the true story of a controversial court-marshall and execution of three soldiers who have entered folklore as scapegoats to cover the war crimes of the Boer War in 1901 South Africa. It is their ultimate courtroom drama, where we intercut between the passionate scenes of defense to save the men from the firing squad, raising the moral question of capital punishment, and the tragic events that unfolded before. These are men who were doing their job in fighting the enemy and told to do so with extreme prejudice and then given a blindfold, a rope, and a chair as their “reward.” It is A Few Good Men but tried and true with pride and guilt in the name of the Empire.
Staying with Mel Gibson, he and Peter Weir worked on telling a story within the confines of the Australian’s army trial by fire: the ill-fated Gallipoli campaign during World War I. Two men, both runners, start a friendship that takes them across to Egypt and then Turkey into the horrors of war. The result is a spirited scene of life for a new country (Australia was given self-government in 1901), the enthusiasm they had to join the war and prove themselves, and the brutal truth of war when they arrive on the peninsula, which was run by Winston Churchill 25 years before the events of Darkest Hour took place. It should be noted that Weir got rejected for public funding and it came via a new production company co-founded by Rupert Murdoch.
The most notable figure of this is Peter Weir, who went on to Hollywood to make Witness, Dead Poets Society, and The Truman Show. Beresford directed Robert Duvall’s Oscar-winning performance in Tender Mercies 3 years after Morant, followed by his Best Picture-winning Driving Miss Daisy. We know about Gibson; other actors that came about in this period included Sam Neill (Jurassic Park), Jackie Weaver (Silver Linings Playbook), and Paul Hogan (Crocodile Dundee). It also produced two Oscar-winning cinematographers in John Seale (The English Patient) and Russell Boyd (Master and Commander, also a Peter Weir-directed picture). A post-Wave group of works then came in the 90s, solidifying Australia’s reputation as a center of dynamic filmmaking that could transcend its boundaries.
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