Western


Readings

Additional resources

Screenings


For a film to be called a western it needs a sufficient number of characteristics such as these.
Period. Set around the 1870s.

Place. Set on the frontier, an area into which settlers are moving and where they have to deal with both invaded people and harsh environment.

Mise-en-scene. The characters are dressed appropriately for this time and place and their costume combines elements of civilization but adapted for the different circumstances. Towns have one street and houses are made roughly of local materials.

Scenery. Westerns often show romantic wild nature, such as Monument Valley on the Arizona-Utah border, or the Flinders Ranges in SA or the area around Broken Hill in NSW. One film uses Uluru/Ayers Rock before such use was banned for "spriritual" reasons.

Iconography. Horses, guns, hats, spurs, lace, corsets, beer and whisky in shot glasses ...

Themes. Conflict between civilization and wilderness. (See Kitses.)

Morality. Black and white clash of good and evil. The strong individual man of character typically wins the fight and perhaps the woman also - as in High Noon (Fred Zinnemann, 1952) - although not in Shane (George Stevens, 1953).

My chapter on the western is rather idiosyncratic in that I barely mention the existence of actual westerns made in Australia, preferring instead to take the opportunity to write about one of my favourite topics: David Gulpilil. There have, however, been a few conventional westerns made in this country, and you'll find them in the inclusive list in my page for the western.

There may be as few as two made since the war (1945) - and only one since the renaissance (from 1970) - which have all the iconography of the American western: The Kangaroo Kid (Lesley Selander, 1950), which I haven't been able to see, and Quigley (Simon Wincer, 1991), which I have seen - unfortunately. (Read my note!)

Pike & Cooper describe the plot of The Kangaroo Kid (Lesley Selander, 1950) in these terms.

It was a B-western, well-populated with stock characters and stock situations. Tex Kinnane is an American cowboy-detective sent to Australia to find a man responsible for a series of gold robberies in the USA. Tex traces him to the town of Gold Star, where several Americans have settled, any one of whom could be the culprit. Eventually, with the aid of a comic Australian 'cobber', Baldy Muldoon, Tex manages to unmask the villain and round up his gang. (1998: 211)
If you search for "western" in Pike & Cooper, the indispensable reference work for Australian films up to 1977 you'll find a great many references, including a large number to 1911, which holds the record for most Australian films produced in one year. A number of Australians, like John Gavin, went to Hollywood, worked in American westerns, and brought the idea back, and made action films involving horses and daring stunts.

The majority of such films featured bushrangers (and for a discussion of bushranger films 1904-1914, see Bill Routt's paper), as they were the available form taken by gunslinging outlaws in Australia. They also also showed the interaction and sometimes interdependence between indigenous and non-indigenous characters, where typically the black character saves the white one.

This trope continues into more recent times, most notably in the 1976 Philippe Mora movie, Mad Dog Morgan, some of which I'll show shortly. That's set in colonial times; but you might also note Phillip Noyce's first feature film Backroads (Phillip Noyce, 1977), which is set in the present (of 1977) and shows the nature of the companionship between Bill Hunter's white character and the almost documentary character played by Gary Foley, who significantly uses his own name and who insisted on the film's dark ending, in which Gary is shot dead by police.

In my chapter on the subject, my hypothesis is that Australian westerns have more of a sense of community than the American variety. In Ned Kelly, the companions are relatives and friends, but a more interesting relationship is that between Indigenous people and Europeans.

In the rest of this presentation I'll look at representations of non/Indigenous companionship, exemplified by some moments from the career of David Gulpilil.

David Gulpilil filmography

Walkabout (1971) (as David Gumpilil) [Black Boy]
Mad Dog Morgan (1976) [Billy] (aka Mad Dog)
Storm Boy (1977) (as Gulpilil) [Fingerbone Bill]
The Last Wave (1977) (as Gulpilil) [Chris Lee]
"The Timeless Land" (1980) (mini-series) [Benelong]
The Right Stuff (1983) [Aborigine]
Crocodile Dundee (1986) [Neville Bell]
Dark Age (1987) [Adjaral]
Until the End of the World (1991) [David]
Dead Heart (1996) [2nd Man (Tjulpu, Tjangala man)]
Serenades (2001) [Rainman]
Rabbit-Proof Fence (2002) [Moodoo]
The Tracker (2002) [The Tracker]
Gulpilil: One Red Blood (documentary, Darlene Johnson, 2002)
Ten Canoes (Rolf de Heer, 2006)
A hypothesis I propose in looking at these films is the decreasing distance in sympathy in films 1971-2002 between the audience and the Indigenous character.
Walkabout (Nicolas Roeg, 1971) (as David Gumpilil) [Black Boy]

In 1971, in Walkabout, David Gulpilil's (nameless) character is alien to the English schoolchildren in the film directed by expatriate Nicolas Roeg.

The clip shows when they meet him for the first time, he gives them water, and they follow him.

I can't understand any of the boy's unsubtitled speech - except for the word "ngape" which I hear in what he says to the children, and which he later repeats when they ask for "water" - from which I conclude that he is telling them from the outset where the water is and how to get food. They can't understand him, although he makes it quite clear (like the girl, moments later, makes her needs clear); and the film shows restraint in not spelling this out by subtitling the boy's dialogue.

(In Darlene Johnson and David Gulpilil's documentary, Gulpilil: One Red Blood, David Gulpilil says that he doesn't know why the boy dies. He says he was expecting his spirit to come back, to continue his walkabout.)


Mad Dog Morgan (Philippe Mora, 1976) [Billy] (aka Mad Dog [USA])

In 1976, in Mad Dog Morgan, Billy (David Gulpilil) is initially alien to the Irish-born bushranger in the film directed by Philippe Mora (who himself was born to immigrant artistic parents, George Mora, art dealer, and Mirka Mora, artist) - but Morgan soon gets accustomed to Billy, and indeed tells him he loves him.

The clip from Chapter 5 when Billy appears to save Morgan (played by none other than Dennis Hopper) from death by snakebite, and then runs through a whole routine of Indigenous skills.

In the clip, Billy: kills a snake by breaking its back; puts a traditional dressing on Morgan's wound; makes fire by twisting a stick; cooks the snake (and Gulpilil also provides the background music on didgeridu and singing). He then has a shower in a waterfall before serenading Morgan on didgeridu and clicks. All this in four minutes.

Mad Dog Morgan was screened at Cannes in May 1976, winning an award as the best Western! So there you go!

On a technical note, the DVD slick states that the film was "digitally remastered from the original negative" - but if that's true, the negative must have been in a poor state. It's the second-worst transfer I've ever seen (the worst being that of Sunday Too Far Away (Ken Hannam, 1975).


In 1977, in The Last Wave, he is the link to the Dreamtime for white lawyer Richard Chamberlain. (I don't have a copy of the film - yet.)
Storm Boy (Henri Safran, 1977) (as Gulpilil - "David Gulpil" on the 2001! DVD slick!) [Fingerbone Bill]

In 1977, in Storm Boy, he is alien to loser loner Hideaway Tom (Peter Cummins), but quickly become a friend when he helps his son Mick, aka Storm Boy (Greg Rowe).

In the clip from Ch 3 Fingerbone Bill is going to see the results of the shooters' work. He knows where the boy is and leads him on. Later, he tells a dreamtime story, sings and dances. Four clips (from Chapter 3).

1. Fingerbone Bill walks past Mick. Altho he looks threatening at first, he knows the boy is there.

2. Fingerbone Bill beckons Mick on. He gives "Storm Boy" his name, and introduces himself.

3. Fingerbone Bill shows Mick the chicks and dead parent penguin. He tells him that killing a penguin will cause a storm - making a convenient connexion between the main character's obsession (penguins) and the name of the film.

4. Bonus extra clip: Fingerbone Bill dances story of creation of Konai people. (David Gulpilil explains in Gulpilil: One Red Blood that Fingerbone Bill is inviting Mick into the blackfella's world.) The director seems to feel that he has to pay his dues to the SA Film Corporation by showing some spectacular South Australian scenery (from elsewhere in the state, nowhere near the Coorong) for no motivated reason.


Crocodile Dundee (Peter Faiman, 1986) [Neville Bell]

By the time of Crocodile Dundee (1986), and after a couple of appearances on TV, he is such a recognisable figure that Hoges is able to reverse the norm and make David Gulpilil's character the urban dweller to Mick Dundee's bushman, for the sake of the joke.

One of the ways comedy works is to invert the normal hierarchy (of which you have to be aware - or to come to understand and allow for, as you watch), and the gags here reverse the trope of the Indigenous companion. Neville Bell is the urban dweller to Mick's bushman. Points to note:

1. Mick sneaks up on Neville, rather than Neville tracking Mick.

2. Nev says, "You frightened shit out of me". His idiom is urban, not bush.

3. The lens cap joke. He's not "primitive".

4. Nev is only going to the corroboree out of personal obligation to his father ("is bloody drag") - not because of obligations to tribal spiritual life.

5. Nev falls over in the dark, says, "I hate the bush". This is so NOT Gulpilil!

6. Mick is one of the men accepted into the "secret men's business" meeting.

7. Mick appears to have ESP to see Sue in the dark (tho it turns out it's only "commonsense").

Many of these jokes work on the basis of the familiarity of David Gulpilil as the tracker or Aboriginal companion.

In Gulpilil: One Red Blood, David Gulpilil says that Crocodile Dundee is "bullshit".

For some unimaginable reason, the most profitable Australian film ever made has never been released on DVD. Maybe Paul Hogan is saving it up for his superannuation, or to pay for his daughter's wedding. If I show you anything from Crocodile Dundee, it's going to have to be on ancient videotape.


Dead Heart (Nick Parsons, 1996) [2nd Man (Tjulpu, Tjangala man)]

Another advance in Dead Heart (1996): it's now possible for an (Australian) audience to identify as much with the bush-skilled David Gulpilil character as with our familiar (and Western Australian!) Ernie Dingo. Ernie looks like a klutz next to Gulpilil's sophisticated bushman.

Here Gulpilil returns to his more traditional role. The irony here is that he is the Indigenous companion of another blackfella! And not just any blackfella: it's TV star blackfella Ernie Dingo, still currently the best-known Indigenous performer in Oz. The screenplay itself plays on this, with Ray (Bryan Brown) demanding to know, of David (Ernie Dingo) whether he is a whitefella or a blackfella. Ernie says he's "just a fella".

Again, this film is not available (yet) on disk, so if I show it, it will have to be on videotape.


Rabbit-Proof Fence (Phil Noyce, 2001) [Moodoo]

In Rabbit-Proof Fence (2002), we leap back into the past, but find a tracker poised between the two worlds: he works for the white but sympathises with the black.

These are the only words that David Gulpilil's character, Moodoo, says: "Pretty clever that girl. She wants to go home."

Also in this film are Indigenous actors David Ngoombujarra as a kangaroo hunter, and Heath Bergersen (both West Australians, by the way) as the "Wiluna liar" (it's open to interpretation whether he is lying or not, even tho the credits say he is).

The three clips I've chosen to show you represent a range of positions taken by indigenous men who are in a position to assist the main characters. The first clip (@ 37.18) begins the scene in which the David Ngoombujarra as the kangaroo hunter gives them matches and a kangaroo tail. He looks a bit scary at first, but he's a sympathetic character who helps the girls with fire and food.

The second (@ 57.26, beginning of Ch 12) is where the girls disguise their tracks with socks and rocks, with Moodoo tracking. Watch his face very carefully, and you will detect the slightest of signs which indicates that he can see how the girls have attempted to cover their tracks. Altho he could still track them, he pretends that he cannot, in acknowledgment of their cleverness and determination to continue. I'm not inventing this myself - altho I did notice it: it's confirmed by Phil Noyce in the special features on the second DVD. Gulpilil did not like being seen to fail - as there is very little separation between actor and character - and he had to persuaded by the director.

The third clip (@ 60.09) begins with the scene in which David Gulpilil says his one line -indicating his sympathy for Molly and her companions - and continues on into an antithetical moment in which Heath Bergersen's character tells Gracie her mother is in Wiluna. I don't think we know for sure whether he believes this is not true or not, but either way it will lead Gracie into a trap.


The Tracker (Rolf de Heer, 2002) [The Tracker]

Finally, in The Tracker (2002), David Gulpilil is the star and eponymous central character. Even a white audience identifies with David Gulpilil's character ("The Tracker") to the detriment of Gary Sweet's ("The Fanatic") (GS has played very recognisable and popular characters such as the principal hero in TV show Police Rescue5).

The worm turns: the companion takes control. I'll show the scene near the end in which (@ 75.26) The Tracker passes sentence on The Fanatic, saying in Latin as he strings him up, "sic transit gloria mundi"; The Fanatic translates, "so passes the glorious world". Then follows the Latin absolution "ego te absolvo..." (I absolve you of your sins).

Finally, I'll show the ending of the film (@ 98.13), including David Gulpilil's final statment: "My land is far away, boss, but always I can find it."


Documentary about the actor:

Gulpilil: One Red Blood (documentary, Darlene Johnson, 2002)


New: 10 March 2004 | Now: 19 December, 2010