In 2008, the release of Australia (Luhrman, 2008) marked a return of Australian historical romance genre movie on screen. Throughout the adventure of three main characters Lady Sarah Ashley (Nicole Kidman), the Drover (Hugh Jackman) and the half-casted Aboriginal boy Nullah (Brandon Walters), the film recounts highlighted events in Northern Australia in the period from 1939 to 1942. Australia (Luhrman, 2008) revisits the heroic period of Australian cinema in the 1970s and 80s in which common themes were exploring debating issues such as “the relationship of white Australians to this mysterious new land, guilt over the treatment of dispossessed natives, the burden of cultural inferiority and the shaping of a national identity” (French, 2008). In particular, the scenes of a journey to transfer two-thounsand cattle across the outback to Darwin which is captured from 50th minute to 83rd minute of the movie profoundly illustrate the combination of major concepts in Australian films. Those concepts include the landscape theory, the bush legend, the notion of masculinity, and the representation of indigenous Australian. This article aims to analyze how the above concepts intertwine in this thirty-three-minute sequence, and how this sequence is criticized to be overly Americanized and poor scripted.
Throughout this sequence, it is the endless deserts that make unforgettable images. According to Frediric and Brussat’s film review (n.d.), Baz Luhrmann has made a fascinating movie which celebrates the awesome landscape of his homeland. Following a common motif of landscape theory, Australia’s mainland is represented as extremely harsh condition. Although this challenging nature can be half-tamed by humans which is demonstrated by the ability of Nullah to stop the going-wild’ cattle heading towards the edge and the Aboriginal old man’s song to guide them to cross over the Never Never, the land is yet “ultimately untamable” and “never allows human dominance” (Gibson 1993, p.212) which is told by Nullah that “everyday drier, harder … and big dust”, and the images of empty continent with bare population. In the same article, Gibson (1993, p.215) also recognizes that these images are a sign of Australia as the author states that “It has been transmuted into an element of myth, into a sign of supra-social Australian-ness’. Furthermore, the character Nullah once affirms that ‘the places got the spirit’, and it is this spiritual land that creates the uniqueness of Australian representation. The image of the character King George sitting on the cliff at night, and singing the natives’ song reminds the audience of the Dreamtime which is distinctive Australian culture. Other popular images are also presented through the beautiful blue sea, the kangaroo as iconic demonstrations of Australia’s nature. Therefore it can be concluded that in this short sequence, the land is installed as the country. The landscape theory has been effectively exploited to promote classic Australian images and to generate a typical impression of Australian-ness.
Masculinity is other concept that can also be depicted throughout this sequence. According the Mc Farlane’s description (1987, p.61), The Drover represent typical images of Australian males. With his implied leading role in this voyage, the Drover character is portrayed as physically tough and adaptable with this hard condition as interpreted above. In both competitions which are to control the cattle falling off the edge, and to load them onto the ship before their competitor, he is also seen as a very brave and quick responding man. Masculinity is further presented in the drinking scenes in the pub and the separation of ‘ladies lounge’ to create a purely ‘male’ atmosphere. However, unlike other traditional Australian films in which women is considered as the “peripheral” (McFarlane 1987, p.62), the role of Lady Sarah Ashley in this sequence of the movie is in fact a leading role, and as important as the men’s one. This is evidenced when the Drover explicitly declares at the beginning of the sequence that “everyone does exactly what she told”, and the approval of the other men for her to stay in the same lounge with them. It is also implied throughout the journey that Lady Ashley equally shares the leading position with the Drover and outweigh other male characters in their voyage. The sequence reveals the perception that female can now be recognized as a hero which is rarely experienced in previous films. Therefore, this sequence simultaneously celebrates the notion of masculinity as well as introduces new role of women in Australian films. This development is coherent with the increasing participation of women in social activities and the encouragement of gender’s equality in recent years. This notion is also agreed by Simpson (1999, p.24) that the increasing numbers of women in the industry have reallocated the cinema’s focus away from those traditional masculine sceneries. The portrait of Lady Sarah Ashley in this sequence may revolutionize a brand-new concept of for future filmmakers in positing female characters in later Australian films.
The sequence illustrates the changing discourses about Indigenous Australian. Firstly, it promotes multiculturalism as government policy abandoned the assimilations’ approaches in the past (Darrenarcher, n.d.) There are images of people from different ethnics’ background (i.e. British, Anglo-Australians, Aboriginals, Asian) joining together in the same adventure. The existence of Aboriginals’ culture (i.e. the Black magic spirit) is recognized rather than previously ignored because “Aboriginal people had no eugenicist theory, no need to theorize a racial superiority to justify exploitation or land theft” (Langton 1993, p.28-29). King George follows every footsteps of the team throughout their voyage. The audience can feel his importance in every hardship they face. It is the Aboriginal song that leads them to cross over the Never Never. He challenges the idea of the “lurking savage” which was popular in most of colonial literature. As the ritual leader, he represents the power of Aboriginal religion and culture (Langton 2008). Furthermore, Nullah’s knowledge of the importance of storytelling creates a sense of belonging and the meaning of the Aboriginal dreamtime, a spiritual perspective that declares the land is sung into existence (Frederic and Brussat, n.d.).
The sequence also attracts many criticisms. Firstly, it was the storyline to be attacked for being too ‘Americanized’. The adventure to transfer the cattle across the outback with the team of children and drunken men has a similar logic of other famous Hollywood film – an Indiana Jones travelogue (Christopher 2008). Secondly, the romantic scene between the Drover and Lady Ashley comes suddenly and is not set appropriately with the harsh condition. Their sudden love does not relate to any of the previous nor later scenes in the sequence. It’s billed as a love story, but it will be soon realized that the love story isn’t the film’s true intention. The construction of the character King George is also critised. The unrealistic appearance of King George is claimed that he has nothing better to do than to hang around, performing some rituals and singing, living on nothing but air (Greer 2008). In attempting to depict so many topics in a short sequence (i.e. the love story, the cruel competition in beef industry, the culture of Aboriginals, the landscape of Australia etc), this over ambition has resulted in the poorly structured scripts for some characters.
In conclusion, during a short sequence that depicts the journey of the crew to transfer 2000 cattle from the Faraway Downs to Darwin, major concepts of Australian films (i.e. the landscape theory, the notion of masculinity, and the representation of indigenous Australian) are exploited. Beside the demonstration of those components, it is also a revolution which introduces new role of women in Australian movies. Therefore, despite few minor critics for poorly scripted scenes, this sequence is the most attractive moment throughout the film Australia (Luhrmann, 2008)
Australian Fim n.d., accessed 21 March 2011, <http://darrenarcher.name/ftv/PDF%27s/Australian%20Film.pdf>
Brian McFarlane, “Ch.4: Mates and Others in a Wide Brown Land: Images of Australia” in McFarlane, Australian Cinema 1970 – 1985 (Melbourne: Heinemann, 1987), 47 – 69
Catherine Simpson (1999) ‘Suburban Subventions: Women’s Negotiation of Space in Contemporary Australian Cinema’, in Metro Megazine #118, 24 – 32
French, P. 2008, Guardian.co.uk, accessed 25 April 2011, <http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/2008/dec/28/australia-review>
Frederic and M. Brussat n.d., Spirituality & Practice, accessed 25 April 2011 <http://www.spiritualityandpractice.com/films/films.php?id=18599>
Germaine Greer 2008, Guardian.co.uk, accessed 25 April 2011 <http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/2008/dec/16/baz-luhrmann-australia>
James Christopher 2008, The Times, accessed 25 April 2011 <http://entertainment.timesonline.co.uk/tol/arts_and_entertainment/film/film_reviews/article5389109.ece>
Marcia Langton, “Section Two: The Politics of Aboriginal Representation,” in Langton,“Well I Heard It On The Radio and I Saw It On the Television …” An essay from the Australian Film Commission (Sydney: AFC, 1993)
Marcia Langton 2008, The Age, accessed 25 April 2011, <http://www.theage.com.au/articles/2008/11/23/1227375027931.html>
Ross Gibson, ‘Camera Natura: Landscape in Australian Feature Films’ in John Frow and Meaghan Morris, eds., Australian Cultural Studies (St. Leonard’s: Allen & Unwin, 1993), 209 – 211
Australia (Luhrmann 2008)