From the perspective of Hollywood. “Australia” in the opening title scrawl from <em>Botany Bay</em> (John Farrow, Paramount, 1953). Digital frame enlargement.In the night, and overhead a shovel of stars for keeps, the people march:

“Where to? what next?”

– Carl Sandburg, “The People, Yes”

Whether or not it is strictly true that, as many scholars claim, Hollywood dominated the motion picture industry during its first century, it is certain that as a point of vantage Hollywood has been central to framing our most popular cinematic depictions of the world. This means that the way the world looks – our popular sense of geography – is determined largely by what has been seen from a middle-class American perspective influenced by a solidly industrial-bureaucratic vision of art, achievement, effect, glamour, and truth. As Thomas Elsaesser has it,

From the perspective of Hollywood, […] it makes little difference whether one is talking about the Indian cinema or the Dutch cinema, the French cinema or the Chilean cinema: none is a serious competitor for America’s domestic output, but each national cinema is a ‘market’ for American films, with Hollywood practices and norms having major consequences for the national production sector. (1)

Further, Hollywood strongly influenced the world’s view of what was dramatic onscreen, and of how cinematic drama could have meaning for people’s experience, as I hope to suggest here in relation to one particularly interesting film, Botany Bay (1953), directed by Australian-born John Farrow.

In Australia, Hollywood’s influence was felt partly because Hollywood filmmakers worked hard to market their products to exhibitors there, in the earliest days of Australian cinema, and partly because, after World War II, with Australian film production slowing, Hollywood’s vision of Australia (in films like Stanley Kramer’s On the Beach, 1959) came to dominate what audiences everywhere meant by “Australian film” (see Routt). If in the early days of cinema and between the wars Australian film production was dominated by bushranging and backblocks stories, by the 1950s a more generalized sort of Hollywood adventure or melodrama picture, topically set in Australia, began to hold sway over audiences’ imaginations outside the country. And in a much more general way in Australia, as in other countries fighting to preserve and stabilize a national cinema, the internal view was at war with Hollywood’s more globalized, more innocent and more lucrative perspective. What Australia “was” came more and more to overlap with what the executives in Hollywood imagined it to be – this, according to Stephen Crofts, during a revival of Australian film that followed a decidedly fallow period in indigenous filmmaking: “During the 1960s only fifteen features were made in Australia. Of these, eight were wholly or substantially financed and controlled by non-Australian interests.” (2) Even though in 1927 a Royal Commission had been established “to investigate the influence of Hollywood films” in Australia, and “although there were concerns over the state of the Australian film industry”, it remained the case that “the commission was equally concerned by the decline of the number of British films screened in Australia” (3). The Imperial view, in other words – like Hollywood’s – was important to Australians’ view of themselves onscreen; and when in the Quota Act of 1935 minima were established for the annual distribution in Australia of Australian films, they were hardly so daunting as to restrict fluid British and American export to Australian screens. (4)

David Martin-Jones discusses the importance of triumphalism in the American national vision as embodied by Hollywood toward the end of the 20th century, positing American identity as “stemming from certain historical origins” that came into question with the Vietnam War but which the Gulf War opened a channel to reassert. (5) We could say that by picturing Australia (and other nations whose geography was central to their identity), indeed by modelling ways in which Australian filmmakers might later picture their own culture, Hollywood was already asserting an iconological and rather “triumphalist” hegemony through its alignment of Australia with its own rather incorporative national concerns: to the extent that the cinematic “Australia” was depicted as a locus of otherness, after all, America could be understood onscreen as globally central, the nexus according to which “down under” was “down” and “under,” or even the new Eden from which global experience might emigrate and develop. America’s “Australia” was a way of picturing America, then, yet also, as we shall see, something else.

Death sentences commuted. “Transportation” commenced in the 1780s, with Botany Bay a preferred destination. Digital frame enlargement.In the Dominion of Canada in the 1950s, when on weekends I was watching motion pictures for the first time while from Monday to Friday learning about Australia as yet another member of the Commonwealth of Nations (pink, like us, on the massive screen-like classroom maps all faded on old parchment), the “Australia” that I was seeing was certainly not one that had been fashioned or designed by Australians. It was a “local” or home-grown view that first entranced me – grown near my home – one structured in almost every respect by Hollywood and Hollywood’s vision, if not by England’s (which was not unallied with Hollywood’s); and this view, this perspective relegated Australia to one of the furthest points of distance on earth, twice on the other side of the world: by longitude and by latitude. “Australia”, in fact, was precisely, and even wholly, a point of distance, an unreachable zone, a “there” that always receded in such a way that it could be found, no matter how one travelled, only outside and immeasurably far from the boundaries of one’s own territory. To move from here to Australia was more than taking a trip or voyage, more than a pilgrimage, more than an excursion. A view like this is hyperrational, inhering in the dream space where we only “travel” through time, where we exercise our memories and aspirations, approach the world as an object of feeling. Once one has come to understand “Australia” as remote and unyieldingly disconnected, one is in a certain sense incapable of going there even in one’s material life: one gets off a plane and finds an airport like other airports, streets that are familiar, birds flying free that one has only seen in cages but that look the same, bringing reminiscence of some other place one rather intimately knows. The friendly people are like one’s other friends, quite human and quite up to date. The Australians, when one visits, are here and now, but still Australia remains somewhere else, over some far horizon, the place to which one can voyage but at the shores of which one can never quite arrive, a strange Laputa.

The image of Australia as ineffably distant is beautifully epitomized by tales of exiles from England and Ireland to Botany Bay in the late 18th and early-19th centuries. Here can be found all the figures of a metaphor of homelessness and sorrow: the cherished familiar civilization, analogous to the Americans’ America, which elicits the deepest sentiments and loyalties among those who are to be banished forever, especially as they are dragged away from it; the long sea voyage, in which all the barbarisms of aristocratic justice are meted out in the name of an always receding Crown; and the rudimentary penal colony, with its alien environment already invaded by ostentatious military authorities in white wigs and full regalia and its topography, however hospitable, destined as a lifelong prison. Underpinning these cinematic tales of reorientation and salvation – among which Botany Bay stands as a signal example – is a vision of England (in moral terms, read also America) as prurient and hypervigilant, a culture in which the power structure rests upon a fragile fulcrum of policing, punishment, and protection. As the pleasures and excitements enjoyed by the rich and powerful are on public display, the tensions of the class system – that deny most people and reward only the very few ­– are constantly threatening to collapse it, so that public demonstrations must be made of social control and of official force. Peter Ackroyd writes of public punishments in London, for example:

The time of the punishment in the pillory was exactly measured. For spreading lying reports that foreign merchants were to be allowed the same rights as freemen – one hour. For selling cups of base metal rather than silver – two hours. For selling stale slices of cooked conger – one hour. Yet the timing was only one measure of pain and humiliation. To be identified and paraded in front of neighbours and fellow tradesmen was, for any citizen of London, the cause of extreme embarrassment and shame. It could also be perilous. Some were plied with rotten fruit, fish and excrement, but the most unpopular or unprincipled offenders were in danger of being pelted to death with sticks and stones. (6)

Since punishments – and therefore the crimes that had invoked them – were intensively dramatized, they became educational, morally restitutive, communal, even, in some macabre respects, charitable, especially in cases of hanging in the late seventeenth century and onward where, as the corpses of victims were cut down there was “a general rush for them, since the bodies of the hanged were believed to be of curious efficacy in the healing of disease” (7). Banishment, however, overturned the communal efficacies of earlier forms of justice by isolating criminals in a kind of public hygiene and removing them so that no part of their bodies or souls could be conjoined with civil society to any direct purpose. The moral reprobate had to be sent out of society, out and away, and to the furthest possible remove, so that neither could his actions be remembered nor his body be the source of further mischief in what was to become an increasingly “purified” island society. He and his progeny would inhabit another, and isolated, part of the world. To the extent that Americans could understand this yen for moral purity, American films could successfully represent “transportation” to Australia, which sharply defined otherwhere, in powerful and emotionally engaging terms onscreen.

“Transportation” as a major form of punishment in lieu of the death sentence commenced in the 1780s, and it came into use, as well, for many who had committed forgery, housebreaking, horse, cow, or sheep stealing, desertion, breaking out of prison and numerous other offences. (8) By the early-19th century, capital punishment had come under disrepute because it tended to glorify those whose lives were taken. (9) For the British court, the destination of choice was Botany Bay, a navigable inlet tucked into the south end of Sydney and which was named by Captain James Cook in May of 1770 after the plethora of botanical samples his naturalist shipmates Joseph Banks and Daniel Carlsson Solander found there. Botany Bay came for citizens of the United Kingdom and Ireland to signal quite a determinate remove, in point of fact a penal colony but more deeply a place of exile from all that was known to them as heimlich and civilized and true (to this day there is a “Botany Bay” at the far reaches of the campus of Trinity College, Dublin, named, perhaps for the old botany department that was nearby but certainly now known as a spot as far away from the centre of activity as could be imagined). Through the late-18th and nineteenth centuries, the location rang with the hollow sound of distance and terror. Charles Dickens’ fleeing convict, Abel Magwitch, in Great Expectations describes himself, harrowingly, as “A. M. come back from Botany Bay”. Botany Bay had become by the 19th century an epitome of alien space, in much the same way as the colony that was founded there by the families of the original transported convicts became absolute Others. Botany Bay came to stand for Australia more generally, the land “down under” – yet under more than the equator: under the world as Europe knew it – and also the land beyond time. It is not infrequent even today to hear Australians (both familiar and unfamiliar with their genealogies) boast of living in the future, which is to say, in a time beyond European time or, as I shall intimate soon, a time altogether beyond what we know on earth.

One prisoner on a voyage to New South Wales (paying for the crime of having kicked a college chum in the buttocks) noted how the prisoners were herded below decks as her Majesty’s yacht steamed past, “being unworthy to gaze at the ship containing our Queen; or perhaps that her kind heart might not be pained by the mournful sight of a cargo of criminals” (10). There was also melancholy aplenty: in Pete St. John’s contemporary “The Fields of Athenry”, the singer mourns a man who could be transported to Botany Bay for the trifling misdemeanour of stealing a little of Lord Trevelyan’s corn and whose girl back home in Ireland “lived in hope and prayed” for him. Brooke and Brandon report the story of 16 year-old James Burley and his chum George Barland, who were transported for stealing the Bishop of Peterborough’s coat, while a 22 year-old servant girl, Elizabeth Colley, received fourteen years’ transportation for receiving “one linen gown and a silk cloak worth 13 shillings” (11). They note that for many convicts,

some of whom had not ventured far in their own country, let alone travelled beyond it, the time before departure must have been intensely emotional, charged with trepidation, fear and sorrow. Others displayed only indifference. The rich human tapestry included people of diverse character and ages – hardened criminals, drunkards and violent offenders were gathered together with the honest, sober and unfortunate. Some convicts copes less well than others with the transition from the boredom of the prison and hulk to the noise and crowding of the ship. In some cases, the trauma of the move took physical expression in vomiting, hysteria, and confusion. (12)

When the transportation vessels were preparing to sail, “families wept, cried out loud and tried to hold hands of their loved ones, knowing they would not see them again” (13). In considerably more than a small number of cases, it must be emphasized – and was, at the time, through the dramatization of the imprisonments aboard ship and the emotional ceremonies of leave-taking and sailing – the convicts were sailing for having committed the very pettiest of offences, but this in a strict society where the wheels of “justice” moved with inexorable fluidity—“they were convicted for protesting against the loss of their livelihoods caused by changes in rural work, such as the introduction of new agricultural machinery” (14); and in some events were being committed to a journey that would prove to be much more than long and arduous.

A languid drawl and a long pipe. James Mason (r.) with Alan Ladd, as the captain takes the measure of a convict. Digital frame enlargement.In Farrow’s film, the hero is an American who has in fact been pardoned of his crime (stealing back his own legacy), but the royal messenger arrives too late to forestall the prison ship’s departure. Desperate to regain his freedom, the convicted Hugh Tallant (Alan Ladd) jumps overboard in full leg irons but is recaptured and flogged at the command of the exceptionally sinister, even perverse Captain Paul Gilbert (James Mason): between each lash, Gilbert patiently explains his need to control the ship and preserve an atmosphere of “civility”, a disturbing sense of ominousness effusing from him as he speaks with a pompously languid drawl (characteristic of Mason’s performances at the time) and twiddles his long clay pipe.

Gilbert’s “civilized” domain: John Hardy (r.) with Ladd at the brig. Digital frame enlargement.Gilbert’s “civil” atmosphere includes keeping female and child convicts locked up below decks in an environment festering with rats and disease, whipping one of the women and shaving the heads of three of them. At one point, a young boy, caught with the boat’s compass, receives a hundred lashes and solitary confinement, where he meekly dies; when during the funeral-at-sea scene (with the waters silvery under a low overcast sky) the mother attempts to shoot the captain in revenge, he makes plans to hang her. Attempting to escape again, Tallant and the ship’s mate, Spencer (Noel Drayton), are caught and subjected to keelhauling, Spencer, indeed, twice, so that it is certain he cannot survive.

The double keelhauling: Noel Drayton (l.) with Ladd, going into the sea. Ropes are also attached to the feet, and the convicts will be dragged under water the whole length of the keel. Ladd’s Tallant will survive. Digital frame enlargement.Throughout, the exceedingly abject treatment accorded the convicts is contrasted with the sophisticated captain’s maintenance of high standards, aristocratic manners and a relatively luxurious lifestyle. The notably dank and depressing quality of the ship’s inner regions, where the anxious convicts are crowded in quarters suffused with darkness, and the tense and punitive nature of everyday life above decks in the sunshine and under the surveilling eye of the maniac captain combine to dramatize and emphasize the arbitrariness of a legal system which condemns essentially innocent people for the most trifling of misbehaviours while those who remain close to the seat of power can wilfully abuse these unfortunates at will in order to preserve ‘order’. Implied in the structure of this tale is a reading of the convict’s experience on the way to Botany Bay: if voyaging by sea to any destination can be tiresome, troublesome and taxing; if any seaborne substitution for the fineries and nobility of high British society can be rough and wild; the trip to New South Wales, specifically, was nothing less than hellish.

The pleasure of entertainment: Gilbert watching the keelhauling with a surveilling eye. Digital frame enlargement.While in other Hollywood-produced films about perversions of authority on the high seas, such as the various versions of Mutiny on the Bounty (Frank Lloyd, 1935; Lewis Milestone, 1962) or Billy Budd (Peter Ustinov, 1962), a comparatively ordinary voyage is complicated by the disastrously warped personality of a deranged (thus, socially maladjusted) captain (Charles Laughton, Trevor Howard, Peter Ustinov), in Botany Bay the obscure and torturous solipsism of the captain colours every aspect of the voyage: he does not stand out as exemplary, but instead characterizes the “transportation” process itself.

The unrelentingly shadowy journey, depicted by Farrow as a kind of unrelenting descent, serves brilliantly to contrast against the concluding passage of the film, in which, the transport ship, having docked successfully in New South Wales and the horrid Gilbert having received his comeuppance by dying in agony from the wound of native spear, the medically savvy Tallant saves the small British colony from an epidemic of plague, receives the commendation of the Governor (Cedric Hardwicke), and, just as so many convicts really did at the time, refuses an opportunity to return to England and decides to make his home in Australia. The New South Wales sequence, with action set against lush forests populated by painted charcoal-skinned aboriginals, sapphire-blue skies, calmly reposing, amicable koalas, and a bouncing kangaroo suggests a land far removed from the noxiousness of the ship and the sea voyage, a place not only of stability but of lushness, naturalness, strange animal life, and tropical beauty: a Rousseauan paradise. Tallant’s love interest Sally Munroe (Patricia Medina) pets the koalas as they cling to the branches of a eucalyptus curiously watching her, and at film’s end, as the two walk off toward their future on a charming forest path (shot, like the whole sequence, on Paramount’s soundstages in stunning Technicolor), two more koalas watch them happily from one of the trees, one of these actually turning to wink charmingly at the camera as “The End” flashes onscreen.

The pleasure of entertainment II: Koala bears watching Alan Ladd with Patricia Medina, disappearing into the beautiful forest. Avalon, or, Strange Paradise. Digital frame enlargement.While the vision of Australia as a tropical paradise rich with palms, streams, gentle beaches, turquoise lagoons, genteel koala bears, energetic kangaroos, and cryptic aboriginals is something of a Hollywood construction, indeed a jerry-rigged vision of “afar” in every conceptual dimension, it nevertheless suggests that, for the Hollywood that imagined it, this “Australia” is not quite, and not only, the remote prison that in the 18th and 19th centuries Britain needed it to be. There are two senses of the ineffably far, after all. For the English hegemony, Australia could be a relieving no man’s land, an unsettled and indeterminate repository for all who were beneath the dignity of civilized society. But for Hollywood (which, symbolizing an America that had triumphed over it, could afford to mock that hegemony), Australia was the faraway land of oneiric strangeness that Ireland had been for Britain, and that America was for Ireland – a destination not in the unmapped “nowheres” but in the West, beyond that sacred and seductive horizon where the sun sets, where one might finally find, as Leslie Fiedler suggested, “the Great Good Place beyond death, the region where what survives of the human spirit bides forever or awaits resurrection”. It was the Irish, writes he,

who, from their home on the very verge of the West, have dreamed most variously and convincingly of that other Place, naming it Tir-nan-Og, and Tir-nam-Beo, Mag Mon and Mag Mell, at last Avalon: the island of apple trees where good King Arthur sleeps and awaits his second coming. (15)

Hollywood’s Australia in Botany Bay is at once, then, prison colony and dreamland: the dark negation of Britain, as historical authenticity would have it be; and also Avalon, as America, and viewers of the screened American dream around the world, most fervently needed.

* Thanks to Ian Dahlman and R. Barton Palmer


  1. Thomas Elsaesser, European Cinema Face to Face with Hollywood (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2005), p. 38.
  2. Stephen Crofts, “New Australian Cinema”, in Geoffrey Nowell-Smith, The Oxford History of World Cinema (London: Oxford University Press, 1996), p. 722.
  3. Geoff Mayer, “Australia,” in Barry Keith Grant (Ed.), Schirmer Encyclopedia of Film Vol. 1 (Detroit: Thomson Gale, 2007), p. 133.
  4. Ibid.
  5. David Martin-Jones, Deleuze, Cinema and National Identity: Narrative Time in National Contexts (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2008), pp. 34; 121 ff.
  6. Peter Ackroyd, London: The Biography (New York: Vintage, 2001), pp. 290-91.
  7. Ibid, p. 293.
  8. Thomas Reid, Two Voyages to New South Wales and Van Diemen’s Land (London: Longman, 1822, p. 32.
  9. Ibid? (1, 2).
  10. J. T. Mortlock, in G. A. Wilkes and A. G. Mitchell (Eds), Experience of a Convict: Transported in 1843 for Twenty-One Years (Sydney: Sydney University Press, 1965), p. 58.
  11. Alan Brooke and David Brandon, Bound for Botany Bay: British Convict Voyages to Australia (Surrey: The National Archives, 2005), p. 37.
  12. Ibid, p. 43.
  13. Ibid, p. 63.
  14. Ibid.
  15. Leslie A. Fiedler, The Return of the Vanishing American (New York: Stein & Day, 1969), p. 30.


Peter Ackroyd, London: The Biography (New York: Vintage, 2001).

Alan Brooke and David Brandon, Bound for Botany Bay: British Convict Voyages to Australia (Surrey: The National Archives, 2005).

Stephen Crofts, “New Australian Cinema”, in Geoffrey Nowell-Smith, The Oxford History of World Cinema (London: Oxford University Press, 1996), pp. 722-30.

Thomas Elsaesser, European Cinema Face to Face with Hollywood (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2005).

Leslie A. Fiedler, The Return of the Vanishing American (New York: Stein & Day, 1969).

David Martin-Jones, Deleuze, Cinema and National Identity: Narrative Time in National Contexts (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2008).

Geoff Mayer, “Australia,” in Barry Keith Grant (Ed.), Schirmer Encyclopedia of Film Vol. 1 (Detroit: Thomson Gale, 2007), pp. 131-40.

J. T. Mortlock, in G. A. Wilkes and A. G. Mitchell (Eds), Experience of a Convict: Transported in 1843 for Twenty-One Years (Sydney: Sydney University Press, 1965).

Thomas Reid, Two Voyages to New South Wales and Van Diemen’s Land (London: Longman, 1822).

Bill Routt, “The Emergence of Australian Film”, in Geoffrey Nowell-Smith, The Oxford History of World Cinema (London: Oxford University Press, 1996), pp. 422-7.

T. B. Wilson, Narrative of a Voyage Round the World (London: Sherwood, Gilbert, and Piper, 1835).

About The Author

Murray Pomerance is an independent scholar living in Toronto.  His most recent books are Virtuoso: Film Performance and the Actor's Magic (Bloomsbury, 2019), A Dream of Hitchcock (SUNY, 2019), and Cinema, If You Please: The Memory of Taste, the Taste of Memory (Edinburgh, 2018).

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