Inside Story

Luhrmann, us, and them

Two films made sixty years apart are a reminder of how hard it is to tell the story of Australia, writes Dean Ashenden

Dean Ashenden 18 December 2008 2765 words

Clyde Combo (left) plays Jacky, the Aboriginal guide, to Chips Rafferty and John Heyward in a scene from The Overlanders. Hulton Archive/Getty Images

BAZ LUHRMANN and I learned at about the same time, in our separate ways, that Australia’s biggest story is not easy to get right. Luhrmann’s efforts to understand it began, he says, four or five years ago when he and his wife and their two children were living in Paris and “[I] wondered where their home was and what its stories were.” Mine began when I decided to return after an absence of fifty years to the remote mining town of Tennant Creek, where I’d spent three boyhood years, to find out how the apartheid system I lived in there had come into being and what had become of it.

In Tennant Creek and then in libraries and archives I was increasingly confused by a Babel of accounts of relations between “us” and the Aborigines, most half-right, and therefore wrong: it was an invasion and a conquest in which we were the doers (and bad), they the done-to (and innocent); it was first and foremost a story of discovery, settlement and development; it was all simply a tragic encounter that no one wanted or intended, with very sad but inevitable and unforeseeable consequences; the big nasty was the stealing of children – or frontier violence or dispossession or the grog or some other single element of a complicated compound; it wasn’t nearly as bad or as big a deal as self-aggrandising left-wing historians make out; yes, bad things happened, but it is all behind us now. And so on, and on.

Several of these half-right stories get a run in Luhrmann’s Australia, but nevertheless, in the present circumstances, I admire what he tried to do and, in a much more qualified way, what he has done. The circumstances to which I refer are the trouble we have run into in our efforts to tell and absorb the story of us and them.

IN 1968 THE great anthropologist W. E. H. Stanner famously called for an end to the “great Australian silence” and for the telling of the story “of the unacknowledged relations between two racial groups within a single field of life.” It soon became apparent that a massive labour of story recovery and telling had already commenced. The work of historians, anthropologists, archaeologists and other scholars as well as the land claim process and the legal system supported and was supported by an unprecedented mobilisation of the Aboriginal people, a combination that saw the great Australian silence transformed into the great Australian din. Sensational developments including Mabo (1992), Keating’s Redfern speech (1992) and the “stolen generations” report (1997) were grounded in the newly recovered story. These were accompanied by novels and films, Bridge Walks and Sorry books, re-written school syllabuses and media coverage and controversy. Historical wealth newly won from the past trickled its way down from the academy and the courts into popular consciousness and culture, including, eventually, Luhrmann’s saga, Australia.

As it happens, Australia measures our story-telling progress because it can be benchmarked against a film made sixty years ago. The Overlanders was one of Luhrmann’s inspirations, so much so that the two films might almost have been designed as a Before and After advertisement. Both are set in the remote north, among the cattle, at the moment of apparently imminent Japanese invasion. They have similar story lines (a romance, and a cattle drive). Both celebrate a remote, mythic landscape. The Overlanders was by far the biggest Australian film of its day, perhaps ever, and Luhrmann seems to have had a similar ambition for Australia. Both films are preoccupied with Australianness which, given the setting, crucially includes us-and-the-Aborigines.

The Overlanders is the work of British director Harry Watt. He was sent to Australia early in 1944 by Ealing Studios at the request of the Australian government to make a film that would lift hearts in a country at war and show its allies a gallant little battler on the other side of the world. Watt was soon smitten by the piercing light and other-worldly splendour of the north. When he heard that early in the war thousands of cattle had been droved across the continent to keep them out of Japanese hands he had his time, place, and story, exotic yet emblematic of the kind of Australia and Australians he’d been hired to portray.

Except for one small blemish: the Aborigines. They could hardly be left out of such a film, but how to put them in without subverting the message? The problem was particularly acute for Watt. He saw with the eyes of an outsider, a lefty, and a man who made his name in social realist documentaries.

Watt’s solution to the problem comes in several parts: a smidgin of realism (a couple of glimpses of fringe-dwellers); a dash of saccharine (amiable myalls return the drovers’ wave); two Aboriginal stockmen who are as deferential to Dan as he is respectful toward them; and, most striking, an expression of empathy, and regret.

During a romantic moonlit moment the heroine, Mary Parsons, and her swain Sinbad hear in the distance one of the Aboriginal stockmen, chanting.

“What’s he singing about?,” Sinbad asks.

“About the time these people owned the land probably,” Mary replies. “When they were happy.”

That, in the depths of “the great Australian silence” of the 1940s and 1950s, was the best that Watt could manage.

That Luhrmann had available to him a far greater cultural space is obvious from the very first moment of his film, when a screen text instructs the audience in the matter of the Stolen Generations. What follows includes the tragic death of an Aboriginal mother in her frantic efforts to hide her “half-caste” son from the cops; a hero who was married to a now-deceased Aboriginal woman, who speaks an Aboriginal language and who stands in angry opposition to racist attitudes, behaviour and policies; a violently racist baddie who denies paternity of the half-caste child; and sharp conflict among the whites over the policy of taking children and missionising them. At a crucial point the (white) hero is put right in respect of his duty and his heart by his (Aboriginal) brother-in-law. One of Australia’s three leads is Aboriginal, and so are three of the second-string players. The film is peppered with snippets of insight into Aboriginal culture in both its pre- and post-European forms. In short, the distance between Australia and The Overlanders shows that we’ve come a long way. But Australia also suggests, I think, that we’ve got about as far as we’re going to get, for the foreseeable future at least.

MY FAITH IN the trickle-down theory of historical wealth was lost on road to Tennant Creek. By lunchtime on the first day of my trip back to Tennant Creek I was struck by the sheer volume of History lining the highway. There were museums, plaques, memorials, photographic displays in service stations, “historic” towns and ruins, and dozens upon dozens of nicely desk-topped information boards. What was this all about? Puzzlement turned to hyperventilation as I got the hang of what all this History didn’t and didn’t record. It might as well have taken its lead from Basil Fawlty: just don’t mention the War. It’s not that it had much less to say about the Aborigines (mostly explanations of traditional life or the significance of particular sites and places) than about the new arrivals (particularly the intrepid explorers, redoubtable pioneers, and valiant defenders), but that it had so little to say about the relationship between the two. In the real world the highway from Adelaide to Darwin is dense with the history of our relations with the Aborigines, but most highway history ignores it, or merely alludes to it in a sidelong, euphemistic way. Some of this mis-telling, particularly by the monuments, dates back to the great Australian silence (which, as The Overlanders illustrates, was actually the great Australian sotto voce) but most was devised well after the historians set to work in the 1960s. So far as highway history is concerned, they might as well have saved their ink.

At first I was inclined to write this off as outback redneckery, but a good proportion of it was commissioned or sponsored by the federal and South Australian governments and, what’s more, it seems to have been accepted or at least tolerated by its audience of southern and eastern-state tourists. Of the many hundreds of bits of story-telling along the 3000 kilometres from Adelaide to Darwin only one had been molested, and then at one remove. On the back of the toilet door at Attack Creek, just north of Tennant Creek, was some neatly written graffiti posing an apposite question in respect of the two monuments there: well, why did the Aborigines attack?

Highway history suggests that the trickling down of the story of them and us stopped well before it reached the sub-soil. To switch metaphors: the great Australian din has given way to a mix of muttering, avoidance of touchy topics, and sporadic outbursts of the kind found in families that aren’t quite dysfunctional but certainly aren’t happy either. Passionate scholarship has turned into academic industry. Some of us (particularly when at writer’s festivals) want to make a meal of the story while others want to shout it down. Some, like the schoolboy who recently told a researcher that yeh, we killed like, I dunno, a billion Aborigines, are resentful. Most are good-willed but reckon they know the story now, more or less, well enough, and there’s no point going over and over it, is there? Outside Aboriginal communities, the national mood in respect of the story of “relations between two racial groups within a single field of life” is centred somewhere between reluctant acknowledgement and truculence.

LUHRMANN MUST HAVE been aware of this mood, but he nonetheless went ahead and decided to do a movie for a mass audience that would put the story of them-and-us in the middle of Australia’s story. It would be interesting to know why. Perhaps, like me as I discovered what I mistakenly thought I already knew, and like many others who have been drawn into the story by some happenstance of life, he was galvanized by the shock of the known? Anyway, for whatever reason, Luhrmann decided to have a go.

Exactly what he got right and wrong is difficult to pin down. Construing the spare, quasi-documentary storyline of The Overlanders is straightforward. Working out what to make of Luhrman’s florid, stylised and over-cooked movie is not. Most of his Aborigines are cartoon-like characters (David Gulpillil, camping it up as King George, just about winks at the audience), but then so are most of his whitefellas. Often there is so much going on – plot and sub-plot, references to classic movies, historical argument and comment – that it is hard to tell what is going on.

Luhrmann does avoid, I think, the worst excesses of the we-did-it-they-were-done-to perspective, particularly in his account of sexual relations between Aboriginal women and white men. He is right to insist that frontier whitefellas had very different ways of being with Aboriginal people, not all of them deplorable. And he is right also to mark it down as an achievement that racism is no longer a national doctrine. But there are plenty of clangers too. In suggesting that the Missus is the only person available to take in the “half-caste” boy Nullah after his mother dies is misleading as to the conduct of both white and black. More consequentially, Australia more or less conflates the Stolen Generations episode with the Aboriginal experience of us. In fact it wasn’t even the worst of our impact on the relationship between Aboriginal generations. Australia is a cowboy-and-indian movie more than usually sympathetic to the indians, but still mainly concerned with the cowboys. The film could be taken to imply that what we feared at the hands of the Japanese is a bigger deal than what the Aborigines actually experienced at our hands, because it shows us the former but not the latter. Relationships in northern Australia in the 1940s are a given; we do not see their grim genesis or their dismaying evolution over the sixty years since the events depicted in the film.

And that is where things go most seriously wrong, in the happy ending – two of them in fact. The denoument comes with a swirl of action in and immediately after the first Japanese raid on Darwin. The baddie dies at the hands of King George, the child-stealing copper and the racist barman both reveal hearts of gold, while the hero, the heroine and the almost unbearably cute Nullah are miraculously reunited, all set now to get on with happy ever-aftering back on Faraway Downs. There follows a moment of sweet sadness as the missus realises that Nullah must live out his destiny with His Own People, and then we get the second happy ending. A screen text tells us that in 1973 the Australian government abandoned the policy of assimilation, and that in 2008 the prime minister said Sorry to the Stolen Generations.

We wish!

No doubt some of our difficulties with the story stem from the fact that it just doesn’t square with our sense of ourselves as goodies, as a rare Kodak moment in history. And, as both Luhrmann and I found, in our separate endeavours, it is a very difficult story to understand and even more difficult to tell. It is complex and elusive in the form and in the morality of relationships between white and black, blotchy in its pattern, lurching and erratic in its trajectory. Its truth lies in some amalgamation of those half-right accounts that I found so confusing when I first tried to understand Tennant Creek’s story. It is so hard to know what to think and feel about it all that the temptation is to just put it in the too-hard basket.

But the big turn-off is its endlessness. The story of them and us doesn’t have any ending, let alone a happy one. It is ugly, humiliating, and interminable. Here we are, 220 years later, and still it goes on. No matter how hard we try, no matter how great our goodwill, we just can’t get it right, bring it to any conclusion that works. Over and again we dare to hope that we’re getting there and we cheer and get a lump in the throat or a tear in the eye, in 1967 when 90 per cent voted to end racism, in 1992 when the High Court declared that Aboriginal people did indeed have a claim on the land and when the prime minister of the day said yes, we are the ones who brought the disasters, in 2000 when Cathy won her race, in 2008 when another prime minister said: Sorry. Then next day, it’s still there. Our newest way of getting the story half-right is to shrug and say, well, dwelling on it won’t do them any good, will it? Some even argue that going on about the story is damaging, that it encourages us to stew in a juice of guilt, them to brood on their victimhood. Either way, who wants to hear a story of endlessly dashed hopes and interminable failure? About themselves? Not many. “I could have made a small film about this issue,” Luhrmann is reported as saying, “and it would have been seen by people who were already aware of it. But instead I have put a contentious historic issue at the heart of this big entertainment because I wanted to get to as many people as possible.” His film recalls important truths at a time when many would rather not be reminded, but at the price of allowing us to think that it is all safely over now, that we won out in the end. Just as Harry Watt’s solution to his “Aboriginal problem” in The Overlanders was the best that could be done in his day, Australia is probably the best that can be done in ours. •