For most of its 100 year existence, the Australian movie industry has been a shambles punctuated by brief spurts of popularity. Ironically, while the movie industry has struggled as a whole, Australia has kept producing great writers, great actors, and great directors that have proved their talents abroad. They just haven't been able to work together in Australia to make movies that resonate with their compatriots.
Australia's first boom was at the beginning of the 20th century. In 1906, Australia produced The Story of the Kelly Gang, the world's first feature-length film. The film was extraordinary popular; running for five weeks to full houses. It only cost 1,000 pounds to make but returned 26,000 pounds. Over the next five years Australia produced more successful films such as the Eureka Stockade, The Assigned Servant, The Squatters Daughter, Attack on the Gold Escort, Sentenced for Life and The Mark of the Lash.
Despite being very popular, the bushranging movies subverted British-based patriotism. In addition, they subverted the psychological desire of many Australians to see authority as legitimate and criminals as illegitimate. Consequently, in 1912 the entire genre of bushranging films was banned in NSW.
With an Australian government saying the Australian story had no value and one of the most popular subjects being banned, the Australian industry was overrun by Hollywood. Rather than grow up watching bushrangers fight corrupt troopers, Australian kids grew up watching Hollywood movies of cowboys shooting Indians.
For the next five decades, very little emerged from Australia that gained any kind of popular following. A possible exception was the 1927 film, For the Term of his Natural Life, which was based on Marcus Clark’s novel of an English gentleman wrongly convicted of murder and sent to Tasmania. Clarke envisioned his story as an allegory of the production of diamonds in which the ugly blackness of coal precedes the beauty of the diamond’s crystallisation. In this way, he wanted to celebrate the survival of the human spirit in dire circumstances. Although it was a popular movie all over Australia, it was particularly influential in Tasmania, where it resulted in a movement to preserve the state's Convict heritage.
In the 1970s, the Australian industry had a renaissance on the back of film makers using the Australian environment, rather than Australian history, to find something that resonated with Australian audiences, yet would still be unique on the world stage. Although most of the movies weren’t international blockbusters, they were quality pieces of cinema.
One of the first of such movies was Nicolas Roeg’s Walkabout. In order to showcase the limits of modernity, Walkabout contrasted modern civilisation with the harsh Australian landscapes. A fourteen year old girl and her little brother were lost in Australia's outback after their father attempts to murder them before committing suicide. They were saved from certain death when they encountered a teenage Aboriginal boy on his walkabout. Slowly the girl and her brother acclimatised to a more innocent lifestyle, and the three developed a bond. Throughout the movie, related scenes in civilization and the outback were contrasted. Despite all three taking something from the experience, it was the young boy who learnt the most. He learnt to communicate with their saviour, while the older two never truly attempt to learn about each other and suffer as a consequence.
Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975) also used the environment as a setting to explore the gradual breakdown of polite norms. While partaking in luncheon on the mysterious and dangerous Hanging Rock, three of the girls defied orders to explore. They never returned. There were suggestions that they may have been murdered, kidnapped, molested, fallen down a ravine, or somehow swallowed by a kind of supernatural force but the answer was never resolved.
As far as movies go, Picnic at Hanging Rock was unique in the sense didn’t fit the traditional narrative model of tension rising towards a climax. Consequently, the audience was left confused about what had actually happened, and in this way, they shared the characters' frustration at the inability of anyone to produce definite answers.
In Mad Max (1979), George Miller used the outback to symbolise a wasteland that followed the breakdown of civilisation into a series of motorised hunter gatherer tribes. Max was a police officer trying to maintain some sense of law and order in outback Australia. A bikie gang came to town to rape, pillage and murder. Included in the victims were Max's best mate, his wife and his child. In revenge, Max picked off the gang one by one. Mad Max was totally independently financed and had a budget of $300,000 AUD. The film achieved incredible success, and went on to earn $100 million world wide. In Australia, it was more successful than Star Wars.
In 1981, Peter Weir’s Gallipoli combined the Australian environment with a historical myth to produce a movie that was not only hugely successful, but hugely influential. The movie was based around the mateship between two athletes that were drawn into World War 1 under different circumstances. The first third was set in the Western Australian outback, where the land’s harsh and punishing nature provided points of comparison with the second third of the movie, set in Egypt at the base of the pyramids and then the final third, set in Gallipoli itself. Like Picnic at Hanging Rock, it also broke from the traditional narrative structure because there was no climax where the good guys won or were saved just in the nick of time. Instead, the movie finished with a freeze frame of the one of the athletes being shot.
When Gallipoli was released, the Anzac myth seemed to be dying, but Gallipoli helped redirect it onto a path where it became arguably the most central myth to the Australian identity.
These strong foundations were further built upon with the release of Crocodile Dundee (1986). Like other Australian movies, Crocodile Dundee made heavy use of environmental symbolism, but rather than use it to symbolise something negative or harsh about Australians, it used the environment to symbolise something positive. Specifically, the environment was used to symbolise a kind of freedom from restriction and norms that was refreshing in the regimented world of the New York high life.
Crocodile Dundee became the most successful Australian movie in history. In addition, it helped create a positive image for Australians around the world. Wildlife documentary makers such as Steve Irwin subsequently traded on the crocodile image to push into the American market, and tourists from all over the world travelled to Australia to experience the friendly culture and beautiful environment. Qantas alone had to increase their number of San Francisco to Sydney flights from 25 per week to 40 per week.
Although the appeal of Hogan's character was widespread, it was not universal and some concerned citizens voiced their dissent. For Geoffrey Barker of the Melbourne Herald, Hogan's character reinforced international perceptions that "Australians are gauche, provincial and philistine". Veronica Brady, an academic from the University of Western Australia, said the film was about "colonial servility, violence and a profound confusion of values".
Paul Keating, then treasurer of the ruling Labor government, also seemed concerned. With Crocodile Dundee showing the social power of movies, Keating decided movies needed to come under greater government control. Consequently, in 1988 Keating scrapped the unbiased system of tax concessions that had proved successful and announced it would be replaced with funding for film distributors, sales agents, and broadcasters.
Keating's change hit independent film makers hard. Firstly, the loss of tax concessions made film making less profitable. Secondly, if film makers didn’t toe the government line, they would have to compete against moviemakers that would. Not only did this mean competing for audiences, it also meant competing for news coverage. Thirdly, and worst of all, the movies promoted by government were stinkers and damaged the image of the Australian industry. Throughout the 90s, Australian audiences just developed an expectation that if the movie was Australian, it was going to be crap and so they started avoiding them. Had it not been for government help, these movies would not have been made, let alone become so prominent in public attention.
Despite the difficulties with government interference, Australia still produced a few gems in the following years. In 1992, Banjo Patterson's Man from Snowy River was turned into a feature film. The poem was about an outsider whose ability to ride was questioned, but after a lone man showed faith because he knew his country, the man from Snowy River repaid that faith with interest. The movie version kept the underdog themes but added a love interest.
In 1999, Gregor Jordan’s Two Hands combined a traditional larrikin script with the landscape of Sydney. The movie was based in Sydney's Kings Cross and began with a deceased climbing from the depths of hell to save his little brother from following in his footsteps. He stoped to explain the principle of ying-yang: that inside every good person, there was a little bit of bad, and inside every bad person, there was a little bit of good; thus setting the tone for a movie in which there were no bad guys or good guys, rather there were only people whose little slip-ups had dire consequences.
The new millennium continued to be as barren as the outback in regards to quality Australian movies, but still showed that hope can spring in the desert. In 2012, this hope came in the form of a dog. Based on true events, Red Dog told the story of the Port Headland mining outpost being brought together by a canine. It combined the fantastic tales of the dog’s life, including the time he swam into the ocean with a steak to distract a shark on the verge of eating someone, with more plausible truths, such as being made a member of the union and being elevated as an icon of the community.
The absurdity of using fictional history to create derogatory caricatures of Australia to promote Australia.
Questions to think about
The Narrative in Australian Movies
A narrative typically has four elements; the orientation (who, when, where), the complication (event that causes something to change), the evaluation (reaction to the complication) and the resolution (in American movies, usually it is a climax such as a big bang.)
1) Orientation - Landscape
Look at how the relationship between the Australian landscapes and the themes of Picnic at Hanging Rock, Walkabout, Mad Max, Man from Snowy River, Gallipoli and Crocodile Dundee. For example, the scene from Gallipoli below uses the Australian outback as the setting to explore some of the absurdities of Australia’s involvement in the war. Watch and answer the questions:
Who comes across ignorant in the scene?
Who comes across as wise?
What role does the environment play?
Comment on the inclusion of an old camel driver as the questioner?
Look at the screen shot from Picnic at Hanging Rock. Comment on the juxtaposition of ladies in white with your impression of the Australian bush. How could such a scene allude to the distress people could suffer from an erosion of certainty and order?
1) Orientation - Characters
Characters in movies rely on stereotypes. When writers are choosing whether the character will be male, female, Australian, old, young, drug user etc, they are referencing the stereotypes associated with the characters.
Look at the two main characters, Mick Dundee and Sue Charleton, in Crocodile Dundee and explain what stereotypes they reference.
Look at the way that playing with stereotypes is the source of much of the movie’s humour. For example, Mick Dundee secretly uses a razor to shave, but when he hears the Sue Charlton coming, he pulls out
a huge knife and pretends to shave with it. Likewise, he looks at his mate's watch then
pretends he can tell the time by looking at the sky. One night, the two
are visited by one of Mick's Aboriginal mates, Neville Bell, on his way to a corroboree. Sue
tries to take the man's picture, but Neville says:
can't take my picture"
"You are afraid it will take away your
You got lens cap on."
Neville then wanders off into the bush. Sue asks Mick how his finds his way in the dark.
Mick says: "telepathy." Then there is the sound of the blackfella walking
into a tree, and an anguished cry:
"I hate the bush."
2 and 3 - Complication and evaluation
Some movies only have one complication. Two Hands is a movie that is a series of small complications strung together. Watch it and find as many complications as you can, and also explain how the various characters reacted to the complications.
Gallipoli is another movie full of little complications. Identify them and explain how they affected the characters.
4 - Resolution
Australian movies don't always have a resolution, (such as an exploding Death Star followed by an awards ceremony.) This can leave audiences feeling a bit unsatisfied, but needing to think about why they are unsatisfied.
Watch Gallipoli. How does the lack of a resolution somewhat mirror the history that it is based on?
Gallipoli begins with a Chinese quote about how the journey is more important than the destination. If there is no destination, how does this affect the audience's approach to the journey?
Watch Picnic at Hanging Rock. How does the lack of a resolution result in the audiences sharing the frustrations of the characters?
Watch Red Dog - The resolution is the dog being poisoned and dying; however, it is shown at the beginning. Why?
Watch Mad Max 3 - The hero
sacrifices himself so that others can escape. How does this help the movie finish with a theme of myth making?