Bitter Springs is a 1950 Ealing Studios production shot around Quorn, South Australia. Financed in part by the South Australian Government, who contributed some of the funding as investment to promote the tourist potential of the Flinders Ranges, as well as the agricultural industry of the region, director Ralph Smart was consequently required to compromise his hard-hitting topical film about Australian race relations by the substitution of a ludicrous ending that would undermine the entire film. A conclusion that Bob Larkins remembers as nothing more exciting than a “hardy Western movie perennial – the pioneering family fighting off the savages whose tribal lands they have invaded” (1).
In sentiment, the film’s plot shared much with other Hollywood Westerns of the time – such as Broken Arrow (Delmer Daves, 1950), Comanche Territory (George Sherman, 1950) – that also focused on racial conflicts. The central problem that Smart faced, however, was the requirement to draw attention to the South Australian Government’s new policy of assimilation for Aboriginal peoples. Accordingly, under no circumstance could Smart represent Aborigines as a race that could not be tamed and socialised by white colonists.
The film is an ambitious B-Western, notwithstanding its stock-characters and stock-situations. In 1900, the King family, led by Wally (Chips Rafferty), travel a gruelling 600 miles to acquire their newly purchased land package, which they discover is populated by a tribe of Karagarni Aborigines. Setting the scene for a battle between the natives and colonists, the turf war is played out with neither party refusing to give up their ground, or water spring, in this barren and destitute landscape. As a historical film set just before Federation, Smart had a greater allowance to raise a series of confronting political questions related to the subject of terra nullius. Yet, rather than portray the indigenous peoples as wild savage beasts, Smart takes a Broken Arrow approach to show them sympathetically and in-depth, enhanced by his many close-ups and compassionate lighting.
Smart’s initially conceived ending had the tribe of Karagarni Aborigines brutally slaughtered to enable colonial progress. But with Ealing Studios fearful of another box office failure like their previous kangaroo Western Eureka Stockade (Harry Watt, 1949), and the South Australian Government petrified of the social ramifications of such a conclusion, he reluctantly assented to the hysterically ludicrous ending of the tribe relinquishing their watering-hole (and indigenous culture) to work as station hands for Wally.
In the exciting lead-up to this daft ending, the Kings are left destitute after the Aboriginal tribe has burned down their house and starved them of water. Inside the one-room timber hut, they wait for the tribe’s looming return. The chanting of the approaching ominous tribal pack lets them know of the imminent attack. The camera, positioned outside the hut, pans from side to side searching for their actual location and, like the Kings, it has to wait. From the hut, each family member (in silence) takes a position behind the rickety wooden fence. They point their rifles in the direction of the chanting.
From the field, the tribe emerge running directly towards the camera, scattering in all directions. Wally aims his rifle only to enjoy the paradox of what he’s witnessing. The tribe are not attacking but fleeing from Trooper Ransom (Michael Pate) and his men, who give chase on horseback. The Kings are safe and the tribe are rounded up. Yet as a nod to the Government’s policy of assimilation, Wally refutes Ransom’s government orders to cast them away from his land: “That’s my orders, out they go the whole lot of them. Where they go I don’t know – I guess no one cares.” But Wally does care. In response he explains:
Wally: Fighting don’t get you nowhere Mr Ransom… I found that out. What was it you once said about dealing with the natives?
Ransom: I said you could shove ’em out. I said you could ease ’em out…
Wally: No, I tried that.
Ransom: Or you could take ’em in with you – you want to try that too?
From here the camera cuts from a mid-shot of the two characters to a medium close-up of Wally. The camera is positioned behind Ransom’s shoulder to include both characters in the shot. However, its front-on position to Wally makes this more like his epiphany of racial tolerance: in order for assimilation to work, whites (Wally) must be willing to “give it a go”.
Wally: If they’d only help me grow wool. Get new water dug. Could I ever make them understand?
Ransom: Maybe the point is you understand. That’s the big thing – it’s a start.
Wally dreamingly smiles back to set up the following scene, which in itself becomes a kind of dream. Dissolving from Wally’s corny smile, the film jumps to some time in the future, or some future fantasy, of a Karagarni elder dressed in labourer’s clothes helping Wally shear a sheep in what Deb Verhoeven describes as a
wishful image of bucolic idyll. This cursory ending constitutes the stiffest and most embarrassed of nods to the contemporary social policy of “assimilation”; an ending that signals a certain discomfort, if not with assimilation, then with the scene’s status as an “ending”, which the film strongly suggests should be also regarded as a beginning of sorts – “a start”. (2)