By naming Hugh Jackman’s role the Drover Luhrmann alerts the audience that this character is a caricature of Australian mythic masculinity. Moreover, he is constructed as Hollywood cinematic hero who allows for audience identification. He not only drives cattle but also drives the narrative. Here again Luhrmann creates multiple reading positions producing not only identification but also a distanced parodic reading.
King Carney stands in front of a map demarcating his land. King George stands on a cliff overlooking his peoples’ land. Until the Mabo decision in 1992 Aboriginal land fell into the category of terra nullius or unsettled land allowing British settlers to disregard the traditional lands and the rights of Indigenous people.
King George watches the destruction of Darwin by Japanese bombers.
Australia and Walkabout: The Aboriginal man balanced on one leg looking over the Outback is a reoccurring representation. Roeg’s highly aestheticized shot of a young David Gupilil in Walkabout was circulated internationally by the success of his film. Luhrmann also uses the stance to convey traditional Indigeneity.
Luhrman’s altranative Oz — utopian and multicultural.
These bird’s eye view shots transform landscape into an abstract aesthetic object. They exemplify Bourdieu’s aesthetic gaze so central to bourgeois status legitimation. In these shots real material struggles for land and for survival disappear. Moreover, they support the principle of terra nullius, that Australia was an unsettled land.
Jedda, We of the Never Never, and Australia: The adoptive relationship of an Aboriginal child is laden with the contradictions of colonialism associated with the Civilizing Mission or the White Man’s Burden. In all three films ‘going walkabout’ functions to signify a return to Indigeneity.
King George and Nullah: Luhrmann’s use of walkabout signifies the desire to preserve Aboriginal traditions.The discourse surrounding walkabout has shifted historically. It was first used in a derogatory way when Aboriginal peoples left work at cattle stations. The meaning shifted with Marshall’s book Walkabout, which served as the basis of Roeg’s film. There and in Australia walkabout is associated with an initiation ritual.
While the cattle drive and the bombing of Darwin give the story an adventure theme, the deep structure of the film is represented by Nullah. Not only is he the narrator but also in Propp’s typology ‘the prize.’ It is what happens to Nullah that determines the outcome of the narrative. We are given three options. First, Nullah can be placed in the Mission School and become part of the Stolen Generations. Fletcher and ‘the coppers’ attempt to execute this outcome. Sarah fights against it. Second, he can be raised by Sarah and be culturally assimilated into white Australian society. Third, he can go walkabout with King George and learn Aboriginal traditions and thus help produce a multicultural Australia.
Roland Barthes reminds us myth drains itself of history. Even though excess is used as a parodic device to unveil the codes of mythology, it does not necessarily debunk the content of the myth itself. Myth rehabilitation is not so simple.
Myth is complex, ambiguous and inextricably bound to the institutions and structures of the dominant. In Orientalism Edward Saïd argues that Western hegemony is based on a “flexible positional superiority” (1979: 7). As discourses shift from colonial to postcolonial, modern to postmodern, the enunciating agent is still the West. Despite Luhrmann’s use of excess to disrupt an old mythology and perhaps his desire to produce an alternative way of seeing, old hegemonic forms creep into the narrative, characterization and cinematic practices. We see this in the construction of The Drover and King George and also in the fantasy place called Faraway Downs.
White narrative: the construction of The Drover
The excessive construction of The Drover potentially lays bare the myth of white masculinity. Even the use of the generic title The Drover refers to an historical stereotype upon which the myth of white masculinity toughened by Australian landscapes permeates Australian national identity. The film might have further disrupted this mythology if The Drover died in the desert, as Luhrmann originally intended.
The script suggests interpreting Drover as caricature by his very name. But a caricature of what? Pragmatic masculinity? Autonomous masculinity? White masculine privilege? The Drover is constructed like a classic Hollywood hero with a toughened exterior and a moral sentimental interior. Luhrmann also imprints him with an excessive political correctness. The narrative aligns the Drover with Aboriginal people. He married an Aboriginal woman who died because a hospital refused her treatment because of her race. Even though Magarri is his sidekick, they function as friends. And he speaks Magarri’s language. Moreover, he is our anthropologist explaining Aboriginal customs to Lady Ashley and to us the audience. He even points out how the Darwin aristocracy sees him as black. Do we read him as parodic? Is Luhrmann unveiling the codes of masculinity of both Hollywood and Australia, perhaps suggesting they are one and the same? Or does his position as the all-knowing male negate the caricature’s flatness?
Nullah provides an alternative voice. Like The Wizard of Oz the grandiose magical quality of both character and narrative is verbally constructed through the imagination of a child. Nullah introduces the film and provides a voice-over, which both innocently informs and naively reveals. His voice-over functions as a reminder that we are being told a story from the eyes of a child. But can Nullah speak for the subaltern? Or do we read this as a white-driven narrative in which the Aboriginal voice is reduced to the voice of an androgynous excessively neotenous child? Who drives the narrative, Nullah or The Drover?
Whiteness works as the invisible hand of the film. The conflict between Fletcher, the Drover and Sarah drives the plot. The Drover speaks for and about Indigenous peoples. The Drover changes history. Aboriginal people help him. Bandy, the Aboriginal woman who serves as a drover, becomes invisible after her introductory scene. Ivan serves Magarri at his whites-only bar only because The Drover demands it. And while the idealism of Sarah Ashley sets the drama in motion and Nullah’s eyes and voice serve as an innocent witness, it is The Drover who carries out the action in Hollywood style, reproducing the mythology of the bushman as the founding force of Australia.
Played by David Gulpilil, King George is referred to as a Gulapa , a magic man, a cipher who exists on the periphery watching over his grandson Nullah. Referring to Aboriginal leaders as “king” was a practice by British settlers reflecting a need to mimic the hierarchical structure of Britain, even though it made little sense to Indigenous peoples. Luhrmann, however, appears to use the title of King to create a binary with King Carney. Two forms of power inhabit the film: Magic versus Capital. Magic is associated with the moral and the aesthetic, the Law and the Dreaming; Capital with greed and destruction, in which fire serves as its destructive device (starting the stampede). In Luhrmann’s Australia King George is the knower; he stands outside of history in the timeless-placeless realm of magical realism. He walks the periphery, a symbol of Aboriginal traditions disappearing under the destructive weight of colonialism and modernity.
But is the construction of King George as a magic man also parodic? I argued earlier that the shot of The Drover washing himself was held excessively long, producing a self-referential moment. A second form of gratuitous posing are the multiple shots of King George standing on one leg reminiscent of Gulpilil posing in Walkabout. But unlike the shot of The Drover, these shots are woven into the narrative and so slide by unproblematically for most viewers. In a similar vein, looking at the history of this kind of image, Russell argues that the editors of Walkabout magazine in the 1950s promoted highly romanticized representations of Indigenous people with little spatial or temporal variation. She notes:
Likewise Lutz and Collins(1993) argue that National Geographic imagery has defined the way we look at Indigenous peoples ; its construction is a form of aestheticized exoticism produced for the Western gaze. Can we look at King George as a parody of the romantic excess of the Western gaze? Or is our reading of this particular image so constrained by National Geographic and similar texts, as well as Australian tourist advertising’s depiction of Indigenous people, or the use of an image of Gulpilil’s one-legged stance in the marketing of Roeg’s Walkabout that we forego a counter-hegemonic interpretation? And, does representing Indigenous peoples as an aesthetic object undermine or reinforce the positioning of Aboriginal peoples as occupying the periphery?
Muecke (2005) uses the concept “post-representation” to remind us that all representations are intertexual. Reading representation does not take place in a cultural vacuum; the circular reiteration of past representations narrows interpretive possibilities. Romantic excess is so ingrained in the representation of Indigenous peoples in film, literature, photographs, and tourist literature that excess now becomes read as “real.” Some viewers of Australia bring to the film counter-hegemonic interpretations, but this presumes critical knowledges. Nevertheless, the weight of Luhrmann’s representation of King George leans away from a reading that recognizes parody and self-referentiality.
Faraway Downs and terra nullius
After the successful cattle drive into Darwin, we see a brief interlude before the film restarts the narrative. A landscape montage, which ends with a zoom into Faraway Downs, introduces this transitional moment. I argue that it is in the construction of Faraway Downs within this interlude that we find the film’s most problematic moment. Why is Faraway Downs constructed as a utopia rather than a colonized land? In presenting that place, Luhrmann gives us not only images of the happy family but also of the happy plantation. The evening dinner which includes a British table setting with Indigenous workers, the Chinese cook, and the family of The Drover, Sarah, and Nullah looking on offers up a postcard image of universal humanism. Perhaps we are also expected to read these images as parodic. But considering the political drift of the film, this seems unlikely.
More important, although Luhrmann centers the Stolen Generations as metonym for racist Australia, his Imaginary disguises another history — not of stolen children but of stolen land. While apologizing for colonial ravages is a necessary ethical step towards reconciliation, the materiality of land rights has proven a more difficult issue to resolve. How did Lord Ashley obtain Faraway Downs? Whose land was it? Where are the Indigenous people? The film constructs an empty land, a wilderness, a human-free landscape. The panoramic montage that initiates this interlude functions as a cinematographic terra nullius.
The visual aesthetics here support Australia’s origin myth as a nation produced by whites Europeans. The moment of origin starts when whites act upon the land. The history of Indigenous people becomes reduced to a signifier: King George standing on one leg looking over the landscape. As Foord (2004) argues, Australia like the United States has a frontier myth which positions whiteness as an ego ideal. Calling invaders “settlers” creates a heroic national past. While the plot of the film is overtly driven by the Stolen Generations policy, here Greer is right. The film, especially in its omissions, disguises the violence of colonization and the deeper contradictions in the processes of colonization.
Luhrmann’s Australia parodies the cinematic structure of the epic melodrama, while it leaves mythic Australia intact. Its excessive Aussiewood style can be read as reflexively disrupting Hollywood coding practices. The film is a pastiche assembled out of other cinematic texts, both Australian and Hollywood. These intertextual allusions provide interpretative openings to the proposition that cinema is only a set of coding practices. And, within the realm of cinema, history at best is an ambiguous referent.
The referent, however, is not just cinema. Australia is based on an actual policy and related events associated with the Stolen Generations. Luhrmann weaves this historical event into the film, often using heavy-handed didactic tactics. And yet, because of the film’s shifting stylization, it never achieves a deep empathetic understanding of the suffering produced by such policies and practices. The film speaks to a deep national scar for which there is no easy morally coherent solution, but it does so in a haphazard way.
Reading the film politically hinges on one’s relations to these contradictions. By making the issues of the Stolen Generations and racism central to the film, Luhrmann opens the door to political criticism. What about the hovels outside of Darwin? Where are the workers for Faraway Downs? Is King George a poorly constructed, simplistic stereotype? Is this an example of Colonialism Light made digestible for international audiences? Moreover, Luhrmann’s parodic tactics fail to disrupt the hegemonic, natural, invisible, taken–for-granted world of white masculinity so central to Australian mythology. Although Luhrmann creates an Imaginary, an apocryphal history of reconciliation, he leaves the mythology of whiteness as an epistemological regime intact.