In the first narrative the Drover and his motley crew drive a herd of cattle through the Never Never to Darwin. When Fletcher’s men start a stampede, they crew must stop it. The scene is clearly self-referential. Using the same editing structure as Red River Luhrmann cuts between close-ups of riders with low angle shots of the stampeding cattle. It looks like a formulaic Western. Moreover, his excessive use of CGI creates an almost video game look to the sequence.
Despite the issues surrounding the Stolen Generation and Luhrmann’s critique of those practices, the dominant relationship in the film is between a colonial woman and a displaced Aboriginal child. Does Luhrmann’s multiculturalism simply replicate those practices in a more acceptable form?
In a horrid scene Daisy, Nullah’s mother, hides with Nullah in a water tank when the ‘coppers’ come to take him away to the Mission School. When the water pump gets turned on and the tank fills with water, she drowns. Shortly after, Nullah’s grief disappears when Sarah sings a verse of “Over the Rainbow’ to him. It is at this moment that Daisy and any memory of her is wiped from the film.
Two Australian films, which directly confront colonial racism, are Noyce’s Rabbit Proof Fence (2001) and de Herr’s The Tracker (2002). Set in Western Australia in 1931 Rabbit Proof Fence is a Hollywood style production that follows three young Aboriginal girls who are taken from their mother and placed in the Moore River Mission School. They escape and follow the rabbit proof fence across Western Australia to return home. Foregrounding the trauma associated with the Stolen Generations the film served as a vehicle to educate both Australian and international audiences about the practices of state governments to both culturally and biologically assimilate Aboriginal children to white Australian society.
Luhrmann’s use of fire in the film as a destructive force speaks to the role of bush fires, which ravage Australia yearly.
Drover's motley crew suggests that pluralistic egalitarianism can transcend all obstacles to defeat the vulgar use of raw power.
Australia and Gallipoli: Magarri’s dying pose mimics Archie’s death in Gallipoli. The representation of self-sacrifice functions as a legitmation tactic of the nation state.
Nullah playing tennis is an allusion to Evonne Goolagong, an Aboriginal tennis player who won 14 Grand Slam titles. In the second shot three Aboriginal children watch. By combining these two shots Luhrmann adds ambiguity to the moment. Goolagong herself began playing tennis as a child when a Barellan resident saw her peering through a fence and invited her to learn to play.
After Darwin is bombed, the Drover invites Magarri to have a drink with him in a whites only pub. At first Ivan refuses to serve him but then after Drover’s insistence relents. While this is a symbolic moment in the film, it falls short of any real political change. Moreover, it is the Drover not Magarri that makes the demand. Magarri maintains the passive status of the side-kick.
These two shots of Sarah on the Darwin wharf are taken through a telescope. In the former she is Lady Ashley, the prim and proper British aristocrat. In the latter, she is Sarah, Australian bush woman. Luhrmann’s Australia constructs the Australian landscape as transformative, a characteristic turned into marketing trope by Tourist Australia.
As the film progresses, however, it becomes increasingly melodramatic in the classic sense of the term in that hyperbolic music cues affect for any particular scene. The characters take on more depth and their struggles become personal, as the drama of relationality unfolds. Who will protect Nullah from being put in the mission school? How will the conflict with Fletcher unfold? When will The Drover and Sarah fall in love? Although the death of Daisy is the first event to disrupt the film’s comedic tone, it is portrayal of the death of Flynn in melodramatic excess that signals the film’s stylistic turning point.
The film then draws on codes of the epic Western. The herd must be taken over a hostile land (deserts, river crossings, hostile natives, and rustlers — in this case Fletcher and his henchmen). The dramatic scene of the Western is the stampede. Here Luhrmann uses a similar shot/editing structure as Red River, relying heavily on the close-up to show the courage and determination of the cowboys/drovers trying to control the stampede. Overly done (the use of CGI blended with close-ups), the scene's referent is cinema not reality. The Real as referent is further undercut by use of the fantastic. Nullah magically stops the herd from cascading over the cliff by pointing a finger at it. Magical moments remind us that it is just a story and that good stories take us beyond the ordinary.
After successfully driving the herd to Darwin and loading the cattle on the ship before King Carney’s cattle get there, the film moves into an interlude allowing The Drover and Sarah to become intimately involved while also providing an idyllic life for Nullah. But literally storm clouds are on the horizon, and the film shifts to a romantic adventure with the Japanese bombing of Darwin and the daring rescue of the children from the island, which has been taken over by the Japanese.
The film blends these styles, genres and tones to produce a Manichean allegory. The battle between good and evil is played out between Fletcher and Lady Ashley. This battle takes place across the body of Nullah, Fletcher’s illegitimate son; the prize is the soul of Australia itself. Fletcher provides a caricature of consummate evil. Obsessed with power he kills Lord Ashley and King Carney, he sexually exploits Aboriginal women, and he is further demonized by his relationship with his son Nullah whom he beats, has put into a mission school, leaves on an island that will be bombed by the Japanese, and attempts to kill. This caricature of power knows no limits. In two scenes we see him tying a piece of thread around a fly’s neck, a moniker of his sadism. Although Lady Ashley is first constructed in comic tones, she is transformed into Sarah, a toughened Bush woman. As Nullah recognized from the beginning of the film, under Sarah’s strange appearance, there exists a strong caring woman. It is Sarah’s willingness to stand up to Fletcher that sets the battle in motion. Luhrmann gives us two Australias: racist, power-obsessed, driven by greed and self-interest or multicultural, caring, and self-sacrificial. The allegorical spectacle is further reinforced by the camera work. Heavy handed, overusing the close-up, the scenic tracking shot, and the low angle shot that creates a sense of characters larger than life, the cinematography itself adds another level of excessiveness.
The music is also eclectic. It includes Elton John, Cole Porter, the Glenn Miller Orchestra, and the Ink Spots. Titles include “Waltzing Matilda,” “Journey to Faraway Downs Hoedown,” “Over the Rainbow,” “The Drover’s Theme,” “Time Passage” (From Jane Eyre), “Wild Colonial Boy,” and “Prelude” from Anna and the King of Siam. Luhrmann both samples from a range of musical genre and composes original songs for the film. Unlike Moulin Rouge which foregrounds sampling, here it is less disjointed and tends to remain invisible.
The film is a pastiche assembled from film allusions, different genre styles, and a wide range of musical forms. The collision of these forms ought to function reflexively, drawing attention to both the codes of cinema and to the codes of myth-making. But this rarely happens. The film tends to be read as a poorly constructed historical epic. Nevertheless, Luhrmann’s use of these devices clearly positions Australia as postmodern parody. So, why is reading it as a parody so problematic?
Mythology and spectacle
Considering Luhrmann’s previous work and stylized use of cinematic excess, reviewers and critics fail to suggest that Australia is Luhrmann’s exploration of the structure of the Hollywood epic. Unlike Moulin Rouge it is not read as a self-referential piece just as excessively melodramatic as that earlier work. One argument is that Luhrmann didn’t go far enough. Here he is praised for the film’s early comedic sequences that produce an obvious parodic stance, but that tone disappears fairly early in the film. Another argument is that melodrama by its very nature is excessive, so unless one moves into the comedic, melodrama might absorb excessiveness more than other genres would. I argue that it is Luhrmann’s desire to redefine the politics of Australian mythology that defeats self-referentiality. Despite Luhrmann’s use of parodic excess, the script has a recurring political message constructed in the dialogue, narrative, and character portrayal in which Australia’s racist history is critiqued and transcended. Australia is a political film. It uses every opportunity to point to racist practices of white Australia, particularly in relation to the Stolen Generations. Moreover, it attempts to insert a multicultural, non-sexist, non-racist myth of a nation coming-into-being. Clearly, Luhrmann wants to produce an alternative historical account about the emergence of the nation. This parallel account is not meant to be a social realist account. It is purely Imaginary, an Oz.
The problem is that from the very beginning the film’s political engagement with racism is both parodic and social realist. The film starts with these titles.
Before the film starts we are given contradictory expectations. An historical epic? A romantic adventure? A social realist drama? In the first scene with The Drover, he responds to a racist comment by initiating a bar fight; it turns into a comedic scene reminiscent of the bar fight in Crocodile Dundee. To add to the comic element Lady Ashley’s trunks are torn apart and her underwear gets tossed in the air. By the end of the scene the issue of racism has disappeared. The film’s politics are absorbed by its hyperbolic style. This scene demonstrates the shifting affective tone throughout the film. The consequence of such unevenness is critical. How can Luhrmann treat racism so lightly? Why doesn’t he depict the real suffering produced by racist policies?
In another scene the film shows Nullah’s mother tragically killed. Attempting to protect Nullah from being taken away to a mission school, the mother drowns in a water tank. This scene is not undermined by comedy, and yet it is quickly forgotten. It is even more problematic because it is used as a narrative device to “clear the way” for Sarah Ashley to become Nullah’s surrogate mother. Racism is usually constructed as a binary category. And while it is clear that the film sets itself up to dislodge and critique racism, the treatment of racism often appears “light.” Unlike other films that more clearly position themselves, such as The Tracker and Rabbit Proof Fence, Australia’s excessive and inconsistent style violates the topic’s seriousness.
Australia engages with three historical tensions central to the mythology which underlies nation-building: unabashed greed of the individual versus the good of the nation, status inequality versus egalitarianism, and the exploitation of Aboriginal peoples versus a respect for Aboriginal rights and tradition. In Australia each of these tensions is transcended. First, as Anderson (1983) noted, the nation-state exists as an imagined community. Giving up one’s life for one’s country is honored, praised, and memorialized. The sacrificial event of Gallipoli in which four waves of soldiers charged into Turkish machine guns has been mythologized as the defining moment of Australian national identity. Here self-sacrifice is honored. In the film Australia the conflict between nation and individual is played out in the battle between King Carney and Lady Ashley. On the surface this could be read as a battle between two cattle barons. However there is a war going on and King Carney is constructed as a profiteer. Moreover, his henchman will use any means necessary to win this battle. The Drover and Sarah must bring the herd to Darwin to defeat Carney’s monopolistic intent.
Despite Fletcher’s attempt to stop the drive, The Drover’s motley multicultural crew consisting of two Aboriginal men (Magarri and his cousin), an Aboriginal woman (Bandy), Sarah, Nullah, the Chinese cook (Sing Song) and the alcoholic Flynn drive the cattle through the Never Never into Darwin. Through the magic of King George and the gritty determination of The Drover and his crew the cattle are delivered at the knick of time. But national mythology demands sacrifice. During the stampede created by Fletcher and his men Flynn dies. Through his death, he not only redeems himself for helping Fletcher doctor the books but also serves as the sacrifice for Luhrmann’s imagined multicultural national community. Later in the film Magarri sacrifices himself to save The Drover and the children. While he runs diverting attention from The Drover and the children, Japanese bullets mow him down.
The second tension is constructed around the desire for egalitarianism. The myth of equality is central to democratic nations. Here issues of race, class, and gender are foregrounded. Racism is the subtext of this film and ever-present in the form of derogatory language, segregated spaces, public policy and limits on relationality. The narrative of the film centers on the Stolen Generations. Nullah lives in fear of being taken away from his mother and then Faraway Downs. Fletcher is obviously a racist. He exploits Aboriginal woman sexually, frames King George for Lord Ashley’s murder, and even attempts to kill Nullah, his ‘half-caste’ son. His defeat is the culminating event signaling the new Australia. Moreover, racism and sexism is structural. Ivan the bar owner will not serve women or ‘Boongs.’ The Drover tells a story of the death of his Aboriginal wife because she was denied medical care. There are also ironic moments. The Wizard of Oz is shown in a segregated theater. While Nullah learns tennis, perhaps an allusion to Evonne Goolagong, three Indigenous children watch behind a fence. But in the myth of democracy ascribed status has no place. There are symbolic moments of transcendence. First, Sarah is accepted in the bar and served a drink for the heroic feat of driving the herd through the Never Never. Later, with The Drover’s insistence, Magarri is served a drink breaking the taboo of serving Indigenous people in a whites only bar. The Drover breaks the class barrier when he enters the Mission Island Ball and dances with Lady Ashley. And Lady Ashley herself sheds her aristocratic status to become Sarah a bush woman. The film celebrates the myth of egalitarianism so central to Australia’s self-image.
The third tension is expressed as a conflict between Nullah and Lady Ashley over Nullah’s desire to go walkabout with King George. While the film employs Australia’s racist history to build its mythology, the Oz of the film is a cultural Imaginary in which Australia emerges as a multicultural world, which respects the cultures of Aboriginal peoples. The adoptive relationship of a white woman to an Indigenous child is a reoccurring theme in Australian cinema. In Jedda (1957)Sarah McMann after losing her own child adopts Jedda; in We of the Never Never (1982) Jeanie Gunn takes in Bett Bett; and in Australia (2008) Sarah Ashley functions as a surrogate mother for Nullah. In all three cases the child is orphaned, legitimizing the relationship. In each of these films there is conflict between maternal care and paternal distance. On the one hand, the women of these films express care and concern for what appears to be an unprotected child. They also enunciate a missionary colonial relationship, a sense of obligation to “civilize the savage.”
On the other hand, the men are totally conditioned and hardened by both history and landscape. They express a realism, a consequence both of their own position of power and a sense of Nature that is both unpredictable and intractable. In Jedda Sarah McMann states,
In We of the Never Never Jeanie Gunn stops an Indigenous man from striking an Indigenous woman, she is told not to interfere in their way of life. Later she brings Bett Bett into her home to live. “I’m sick of people telling me there is nothing I can do” — a statement which speaks both to the constraints on her because of gender and her desire to act in a more caring manner towards Indigenous people. In Australia Sarah states, “Just because it is, doesn't mean it should be.” Later The Drover uses the same aphorism demanding that Ivan serve Magarri a drink in a whites only bar. The phrase signifies a transcendent in which Australia constantly renews itself by rediscovering the contradictions in its history while moving toward a more egalitarian society. In all three films the women take the active role based on a colonial maternalism.
Ironically, the men express a much more passive position. It is not a world of their making. The best they can do is accept and adapt. Moreover, their position does not disrupt patriarchal privilege. It is in this relationship between father/ mother/ adopted Indigenous child that contradictions of colonialism are embedded.
The critical moment emerges with the practice of walkabout. In Australia it expresses a romanticized relationship to the deeper meanings of Aboriginal tradition. Failure to participate in this ritual limits ones claims on traditional Indigeneity. When Nullah wants to go walkabout with his grandfather King George, Sarah Ashley refuses to let him go. The Drover responds,
This echoes Doug McMann’s statement in Jedda, but now it is nostalgic statement, speaking to a multicultural Imaginary. Here, walkabout is associated with loss and recuperation. Nullah’s desire to go walkabout signifies a relationship to disappearing cultural formations and to the postcolonial desire for a multicultural society. In Luhrmann’s Australia walkabout signifies a desire that Indigenous culture and knowledge remains, that Indigenous culture is not overwhelmed by Western culture and the processes of modernity.
Australia does not disrupt the mythology of democratic nations. Rather it produces a fictional account celebrating it. This is Luhrmann’s alternative history. But does it limit engagement with the past? Does his Imaginary reinforce myth rather than interrogating it?