Where Dead Men Lie

Where Dead Men Lie (Keith Gow, 1971) from a 'scenario' by Henry Lawson, prod. Gil Brealey, dp John Rhodes, Dean Semler, ed. Rod Adamson; Howie Debney, Anne Haddy, Jerome 'Jock' Levy, Sneider Brown, David Webb, Steven Millikan, Max Cullen (voice), Jack Thompson (voice)

Australian poet Henry Lawson wrote hundreds of poems and stories. In 1896, only one year after the world's first public film screening, Lawson wrote a fictional film story which he called 'The Australian Cinematograph'. This film, based on that story, was made to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of Lawson's death. Title card at the beginning of the film on the DVD compilation Outback.

An interesting aspect of the film is that although written in 1896, Lawson had anticipated development of cinema and had written his story as though he was directing a camera. The film was shot using the directions written by Lawson in the days when cinema was no more than a curiosity. National Film and Video Lending Service of Australia catalog entry.

I was very lucky to be asked to shoot Where Dead Men Lie ... this to me was like shooting Lawrence of Arabia [1962]. To be able to go out into the Australian desert and shoot 35mm for the first time in the classic Australian outback. This was heaven to me, it was just heaven. I was so excited I was like a kid in a lolly shop. Dean Semler, on the DVD compilation Outback.

Here is the Lawson story, from The Sydney Stock and Station Journal Tuesday 20 December 1898 page 3ff.

THE AUSTRALIAN CINEMATOGRAPH.

By HENRY LAWSON.

Out on the wastes of the Never Never —
That's where the dead men lie!
There where the heat waves dance for over —
That's where the dead men lie!

THAT song haunts me even here, and now, as I sit, with my pipe in my mouth, on the school-house verandah in this softly beautiful green and gold September afternoon. Before me, and to the right, the level flats of fern and flax, bordered by clumps and fringes of manuka; the scarped and terraced heights running up to the rounded foot-hills — brown and bald or densely wooded; below, the steep sidings of the snow - capped Kaikouras, called, in some maps, the 'Looker-out Mountains.' To the left the treacherous little Hapuka River, rushing, because of the warm winds that have melted the snow, in three or four yellow torrents down its wide boulder bed, cutting a single channel through a barrier of black sand, thrown up last night by the sea, and discolouring the blue of it.

And behind me the sea, rippling and flashing and fading — playing on the long boulder beach — calm and peaceful and innocent-looking after last night's gale. So peaceful, calm, and innocent-seeming that a poetical cynic might, expect to find, on the black sand at the foot of the boulder margin, a drowned sailor. A twenty or thirty mile sweep or curve of boulder and black sand beach, a bluff with black reefs flung seaward forming the northern horn of the crescent, and ten miles to the south the peninsula of Kaikoura, sheltering the whaling station from the north-east and the rockbound wharf from southeast gales.

Out where the grinning skulls bleach whitely,
Under the salt bush sparkling brightly —
Out where the wild dogs chorus nightly,
That's where the dead men lie!

It must be the haunting music of the song; or because we are exiled and lonely here; or because I know the land that gave it birth (and killed the poet).

Out on the wastes of the Never Never

The sunset colours fade from along the snowy peaks of the Kaikouras; the scene blurs and darkens — all save the gleaming white peaks. ... They seem to sink, slowly at first, then with increasing movement, down to the tops of the rounded foot-hills and with them to the terraces. Then the scene seems to sink bodily, below the level of the flax and fern flats, and below the level of

— Strong swelling music somewhere, with words of the song haunting it:

Out on — the wastes of — the Never Never
That's where —

A great plain covered with greyish dust, and devoid of verdure save for any that might be in a coarse, brownish desert shrub or turf or coarser grass here and there; the surface so flat and bare that a shrub stands out from it like a miniature tree; a solitary tree in the distance — seeming close at hand but miles away, a boulder that looks like a rock, a bush like a tree, for all things are magnified on these great, hot, dreadful plains; and away on the edge of the horizon, a misty line of 'timber' to which the dead level plain seems to be rising — in an almost imperceptible slope — but always rising as you advance; and, looking back, under some conditions, you will find the same phenomenon- — you will seem to have been coming down-hill from the misty fringe of timber on the opposite point of the horizon. It would seem as though the space within this circle were a concave disc, with you in the centre. A blind sun blazing in a brassy sky, and the heat visibly rushing across every object in dancing, dazzling waves.

Where brown summer and death have mated —
That's where the dead men lie!
Loving with fiery lust unsated —
That's where the dead men lie!

In the foreground a dry 'tank,' or clay-pan, from which the last pint of water has evaporated but an hour or so, for the clay-bed is still 'smoking'; but the clay has already begun to crack across, and transversely, and to curl upwards at the edges. The semi-circular mound or tank-heap behind with a ridge of gleaming gravel and a base like ashes. And all round the skeletons — bleached bones and blackened hides and scraps of hide — of stock that perished in the tank in previous droughts and were dragged above high-water mark:

Out where the grinning skulls bleach whitely,
Under the salt bush sparkling brightly;
Out where the wild dogs chorus nightly,
That's where the dead men lie!

But it's doubtful if dingo would venture a third of the distance in the blaze of this awful drought.

And, away to the right of the clay-heap, between it and the dazzling horizon, three black figures — three horses and two riders, on the glowing plain, and seeming but a few hundred yards away. Let the minutes lengthen into hours — the hot, blinding suffocating hours that they must toil through. They reach the tank at last — a drover and a black boy; two horses 'knocked up,' and a pack horse, dragging wearily behind, dead lame. The riders dismount under three ragged mulga saplings at the rear of the tank-heap. Two cattle dogs drop into the clay pan and stretch themselves there helplessly panting; death-doomed and conscious of it, perhaps, by instinct, but their wide open mouths and lolling tongues give them the appearance of grinning sardonically. The drover clambers up the tank-heap, from behind, an empty water bag and a pot in his hand, and stands, statue-still, on the top, looking down.

An overland driver; a tall man thin and wiry, with limbs, carriage, and gait fashioned and influenced by long riding, and settled to it; gaunt, bronzed, hollow-cheeked, and with eyes that seem to have shrunken to pierce to the awful land lines of the Never Never, through the haze of the drought, through the heat waves that dance on the sand, through the fierce sirocco that rushes across the Never Never, from the great nameless deserts beyond and to the north-west, driving the coarse heated sand in blinding sheets and whirling columns across the blazing land, and coating travellers, cattle, horses, coaches, and teams, on the long cleared roads to the south, in thick layers of red dust.

We know this drover, and the class he belongs to. Born in the selection districts, or amongst the ' cockatoos'; broke in horses (and got his head broken several times) as a boy; and as a boy, 'went to Queensland,' and crossed the Never Never with his father or an uncle. He knows the Dry Country — every mile of it almost; and it is he who retreats across it, or along its borders, from parched and drought-stricken pastures, with mobs of twenty or thirty thousand cattle, and thirst, starvation and death for ever hanging on the flanks and rears of the mob. Bronzed and bearded and gaunt; good-natured and easy-going at home — quiet-voiced, but hard-knuckled, on the route.

He has been on the long trip. His eyes have been spoilt by the 'sandy blight,' his chapped and reddened hands show traces of the Barcoo rot; his hair is long and faded at the ends, where it is not sheltered by his cabbage-tree hat, which is almost black now through long exposure to sun, rain, and night dews; his clothes are bleached and threadbare, and the lining of his coat shows out in rags, his leggings have shrivelled and cracked on him.

He has 'chanced it' this time, no doubt — as bushmen will 'chance it' ever — and once too often, with that simple faith or courage which might be deemed heroic, and in full knowledge of the death to which the spirit of the Never Never dooms him who is out perhaps a mile, or an hour in his bush craft. On the home track, after taking a mob north, he has struck across a long 'dry stretch' depending on this tank, and the last few gallons of water, which would have carried him and his horses through the last bad stage, have gone but yesterday. And he knows that he is doomed.

No gesture of despair save a quick straightening of his right arm by his side, but the free hand closes and tightens for a moment. Then, half turning his face, and with a jerk of his head and hand, he brings the black boy to his side. The native glances quickly at the tank, and the sky, and then at his master, turning his head and eyes with quick monkey-like movements. The drover says something to him, and the boy's black lips, parting in quick reply, and letting out a flash of gleaming white teeth, gave the appearance of a short ghastly grin. He goes back to the horses, and presently returns with a quart pot and a tomahawk in his hands, and drops down in the bed of the tank.

The drover lifts his hands, and, shading his eyes, looks out over the plain — over our heads as it were — but he sees nothing, save perhaps a sand hill or drift, that we do not see in the opposite direction. In the distance the mirage — ever ahead and in the distance — that 'smokes' away with a snaky motion as the traveller advances. No hope in the sky, which has not, for months, darkened for rain — for anything save the low, heavy, lurid dust cloud lifted and driven by the 'scorching gale' or the smoke of distant bush fires. No hope to the North for the last watercourse, soak and tank from that direction were drying rapidly as he left them. No hopes to the South where Dead Men's Tracks run for hundreds of miles, inside the 'Never,' and through No Man's Land. No hope to the East, for the disc within the glowing horizon circles back, with a blaze on it like that on the face of the sun, for a hundred miles or more, to the first chance of water that lies on the westernmost fringe of the great North-western runs. To the West, beyond the furthest point where hope perished, the dreadful deserts of Central Australia; but there is a chance in that direction, for the lightning played fitfully on the low horizon last night, and there is a chance in the track of a passing thunderstorm, if more than a few great drops of rain went with it, and provided he can reach it in time. He will try for it, sending the boy East perhaps, to meet again at the tank and take the chance of a possible rescue; for telegraph lines crossed his route from the north, and, if they on the nearest runs know that he has taken this route, and know — as they will — the condition of the tanks, they will pack water and fight out through it again and again till they reach him — or rescue or bury their dead — or know that their desperate endeavours are utterly hopeless.

The black boy kneels on the clay, sets the quart pot down by his side, and raises the tomahawk. The pot, unevenly balanced on a curl of clay cake, falls in his way; he puts it aside with the quick monkeyish movement peculiar to lower races, lifts the tomahawk again and strikes deep. And the scene goes black out— a blackness as on a cinematograph screen when the focus is shut off — a blackness like that which comes momentarily to eyes, blinded by perspiration, in a heat wave in the drought.

 

In the drought-gloom a sound like the long low moan of a big mob perishing out on these roofs of hell — and the music, and, through it all, the words of Bancroft Boak's song, now wailing, now fiercely triumphant:

East and backward pale faces turning —
That's how the dead men lie!
Gaunt arms stretched with voiceless yearning —
That's how the dead men lie!

 

Rocky rises and pine-topped peaks in sunset colours dark green 'spurs' and grassy 'sidings,' a clear water creek with she-oaks; away down to the right a line of willows where the river runs. Just back from the steep grassy bank of the creek, amongst great gums and box trees, in an angle formed by the steep sides of the ridges, a cottage built of sawn timber and roofed with shingles; stockyard behind the house and cows and calves; a neat dairy built of nearly new stringy bark and with a double roof, for the sake of coolness; haystack, and the corner of a paddock of ripening wheat. On the end of the raised floor of the verandah sits a thin, angular, faded woman of between thirty-five and forty. On the boards on one side of her, on the top of a folded suit of clothes, lies an open letter; on the other, on a pile of bed clothes, lies and kicks a baby of about six months. A dirty-legged happy-faced youngster of two or three summers — or rather droughts — playing and climbing about the verandah. There is a suggestion of elder children about the cowyard, and one bare-legged boy sits astride a top-rail and watches the track to the river. The mother takes up the letter, glances at it, lays it down again gently, and goes on with her work. She is patching and mending a man's shirt, and, as she runs her fingers along the seams, or smooths a portion of her work on her knee, her lips move as if humming a song. And her face seems to brighten with a girlish light, as she works:

Hush-a-bye baby on the tree top,
When the wind blows, the cradle shall rock.

The drover's wife lays down her work and leans over the crowing baby, whose father has not seen it yet, and kisses it and plays with it.

Baby clap hands till daddy comes home.

The boy on the rail climbs and stands upright on the top of the tall round corner-post, and traces the track to the river through the gathering dusk. The scene fades, leaving the boy against the sky to the last, watching for father.

 

Soft skies and sunshine, an opening plain of waving grass waist high and stretching as far as the eye can reach. In the fore-ground a pool of grey clay-cold water rippling against the damp base of the clay-heap at the back, rippling in the rank grass round the margin — brimming over and rippling round bleached bones and blackened hides; flowing and ebbing in tiny waves through the mouth of a rusting billy that lies on its side in the grass, by the brink, to the left — soaking round a black something that projects from the long lush grass and takes the form of a man's boot.

Jingle of hobble-chains and camp-ware on pack saddles, and the sound of a man's voice singing:

And the bush has friends to meet him, and their kindly voices greet him,
in the murmur of the breezes and the river on its bars,
And he sees the vision splendid of the sunlit plains extend —

Three drovers ride on to the scene from the right and dismount by the mulga.

And at night he sees the glory of the everlasting stars.

One runs lightly up the tank-heap, and looks at the water. He is stout, and has a careless, jolly red face, but still his eyes and features have an undefined yet unmistakable brother-likeness to those of the man who stood there last. As though drawn unconsciously he looks in the grass to the left; then, with a startled gesture, and all the boyishness gone from his face he turns hurriedly towards the others. The three go round to the left and disappear. A moment later one returns, half leading, half supporting the first, makes him sit down by the horses, stands a moment bending over him, with a hand on his shoulder, then takes a flask from a saddle-bag and makes him drink. The third man comes, takes a blanket from one of the packs, and, with the second man returns to where the body is. They pick up the billy, wash it, and examine the sides and bottom. They lift rotting rags, saddles, pack-saddles, and saddle-bags, out of the grass and lay them on the tank-heap, and presently they come to a quart-pot, the inverted pint-pot lid of which they prize open and find that which they were looking for and expect to find.

They turn the leaves of the soiled and worn pocket-book, and read the story of the tragedy written there in short and simple words. The message — the last message to 'my poor wife' — rough notes concerning his forthcoming cheque and financial condition, and an exhortation to a mate or brother to see after poor Mary and the children, and to see that they get the money all right. And, ending in words scratched on the sides of the pint-pot at intervals, the grim diary, written and dated to the hour of madness, or of death: 'God help me,' 'God bless her,' 'God help her and the children;' — for always, while reason remains, it is the wife — Mary, and the children.

They read it and know it all; they see the end as it was; their faces pale under the bronze and their haggard eyes soften and fill; and they lay the articles carefully and reverently on a clear space on the mound. The brother stands by his horse's shoulder, with an arm thrown across the neck; and, burying his face in the mane, is motionless save for a sob that shakes his shoulders now and again. From time to time the horse turns his head towards him, with an expression of almost human weariness and sympathy. The mate comes and stands by his side; his left hand gropes helplessly over the saddle till it rests on the pommel, which he grasps and holds on to steady himself. Suddenly he throws his right arm across the shoulders of the other, and drops his head on the saddle.

The scene fades rapidly — the third drover walking swiftly and restlessly to and fro — to and fro — now with arms folded, now in his pockets — and with an expression as of one suffering physical pain.

Strangled by thirst and fierce privation —
That's how the dead men die!
Out beyond Moneygrub's furthest station —
That's how the dead men die!

The selection again; but 'all is dry and all is hot.' The granite peak glows like a molten mass, the grey-blue bush is ragged and dusty looking, the creek banks bare and dry, for the ridge country is drought-stricken now; and the old grey horse and the few hollow-sided, dusty cows, hang about dejectedly under the trees all the forenoon, not having the hearts to climb the ridges, and forage amongst the coarse grass, after having been driven as fast they could drag their legs for two miles, through private property, for their morning drink at the river. The 'riders' have worked loose on the roof of the dairy, and the place has generally a neglected appearance; the eldest boy, with the aid of an all-destroying axe, is manfully trying to mend a broken panel in the nondescript fence round the sadly diminished haystack, which precious fodder is needed for the cows that are still 'milking,' for the weary wife needs all the butter she can make to placate the storekeeper, and keep the tea and sugar and flour bill within reasonable limits until 'she gets word from Joe' (her husband), who has, perhaps, had to go out with another mob of cattle without getting a chance to come home, after all.

She lifts a heavy oil-drum full of skimmed milk, destined to keep alive several wronged and wretched-looking poddy calves in the pen (orphaned in sight of their mothers) out of the dairy. She is a haggard bush-woman now, for she looks ten years older in her soiled and draggled-tailed skirt, man's felt hat, and burst elastic-side boots. The door is off the hinges; she lifts and closes it and props it up with a heavy split-rail which she painfully raises into position. She lifts the bucket with both hands and swings it, with short runs towards the pen. The boy, chancing to glance down the road to the river, which even he has given up as a hopeless track to watch sees a dust cloud, and calls to his mother. With a startled look in that direction, she drops the bucket and runs into the house, from which she emerges with the baby in her arms.

With her 'the baby' is the first confidant — in joy— if she ever knows it, the first thought in danger, the last resource in trouble. 'A snake!' and she runs and catches up the baby, no matter who has it and where it might be; but with reason. 'A wild bullock!' and she darts into the house for the baby, with less show of reason. In the height of a bitter quarrel, whether with husband, relative, old friend, or utter stranger, she will leave off suddenly to pet and play with the baby, and with no show of reason at all (unless it be done instinctively, to exasperate the other party). In trouble, sickness, and death, she hugs the baby to her worn bosom and comforts and kisses it, whether it need it or not — and, God grant! she draws some comfort from it for her own worn heart.

And trouble is coming now, she knows, for a woman on a week day, is a presage of ill in that lonely home. She only looks for one on a Sunday afternoon, and on Sunday afternoons far apart.

A spring-cart, containing a man and a woman, draws up in front of the house. The man is the second drover, the brother's mate, of the last tank scene. The drover's wife stands with a scared look in her eyes, staring fixedly in the face of the other woman. The man jumps down and helps her down with extraordinary care and gentleness, as though she were his blushing bride; instead of being a stout, elderly common-looking mother, with a face that would be hard at the best of times. But the corners of her mouth twitch spasmodically now, and she seems incapable of speech. There is no need for words, for the drover's wife reads the truth in the other woman's eyes, ere she can utter a word, and, with the first try, the first gesture of the widowed, she sinks on her knees in the dust, and, with her free arm, draws the younger children close to her. 'Oh my baby! Oh my poor children! Your father — your father is dead!'

The bushman turns his back to the group; his hands fumble nervously along the shaft till they reach the breeching strap, which he seizes as a drowning man clutches at a straw, unbuckles and draws tighter. The rest of the harness offering no chance, he hurriedly takes a small paper parcel from his inside coat-pocket, which he opens with trembling hands. A pocket-book and a letter fall out, and, as he lifts them from the dust we see that the last leaves of the pocketbook have been torn out. There must have been great discussion about this amongst the mates on that far-away out-station on the margin of the Never Never. Doubtless all hands agreed that it would never do to send the dying man's diary to his wife. There were some doubts re the advisability or the obligation of sending the last message written in his own hand. One would suggest sending the pocket-book later on, when 'she'd pulled round,' another to send it at once, if at all, so that she'd get over it at once, and be done with it; for if she had it later it would only 'bring it up again'; again it was objected that if she had it at all it would only bring her loss fresh back to her every time she looked at it; and finally, it was decided that 'Andy,' who was returning south, and would be the first to see her, should have a yarn fixed up for him to tell her.

And so 'Andy' is come to break the news, and he has brought his mother with him to help him, driving the old woman out and treating her with unwonted care and kindness, for she is the only hope in this 'job.' 'A blanky bad job all round,' he would call it. The sort of job he isn't use to, and would give something to be well out of. But the mother comes willingly for, in trouble like this, the first thing the other bush-woman says is, 'Harness up the horse at once, and let everything go till I git back. I must git across to that poor woman as soon as I can.'

'Andy' lays the packet on the foot-board of the cart, and glances round. His mother is bending over the kneeling widow and lifting her up. 'Joe — my good, kind husband — Joe!'

'Andy's' hands wander on to the top of the wheel, which he seizes and jerks violently backwards and forwards, as if to find out whether the 'cup' and 'rings and washers' on the axle are firm and all right. On the breast of that other bush-woman the drover's wife sobs as if her heart would break, and perhaps, for the first time in years. It will 'do her good,' but 'Andy' gives the case up as hopeless; and, throwing his arm along the top of the tyre, drops his forehead on it, and, as his mother would put it, in his case, 'simply blubbers.'

 

The very devil must be in the music! No! It is the voice of the dead lad singing the song of the dead men, and of lonely weary and widowed bush-women:

Moneygrub, as he sips his claret,
Looks with complacent eye
Down at his watch chain, eighteen carat,
There in his club hard by:
Recks not that every link is stamped with
Names of the men whose limbs are cramped with
Too long lying in grave mould camped with Death,
where the dead men lie!'

 

The last scene is also a 'speaking' as well as a ' living' picture to me; and a brighter one, in spite of all, for the drover's wife is quiet now. and sits tearful but resigned; while 'Andy's' mother bustles about the place, 'straightening up' and getting a cup of tea ready, and occasionally prompting 'Andy,' whom she has coached well and cunningly for his part, with such hints as — 'Why don't you tell her?' &c, 'What was that you told me about?' &c.

For 'Andy,' his hat on his knee, sits facing the drover's wife, and telling her in a low, sad voice, how her husband died of heart disease at the head-station, how all that could be done was done for him; and that he scarcely felt any pain at all, and his last words were for her not to fret. So 'Andy' sits and lies like a man, and feels it somewhat easy (and natural) to him as he warms to his work. And he never once takes his solemn grey eyes from those of the drover's wife, lest she might, by a bare chance, doubt him.


Garry Gillard | New: 3 February, 2017 | Now: 7 February, 2017