As the landscape teems with the dust of a thousand cattle stampeding towards him, Nullah (Brandon Walters) takes a stand on the edge of a precipice. At this moment, it is not just courage and the strength of his ancestors that he summons, but this vista recalls certain “storylines” running through Australian cinema. By “storylines” I am referring to the way in which stories move through culture – or are retold in our films – and the conversation that Baz Luhrmann is having both with, and about, Australian cinema in his feature film, Australia (1).
This key moment immediately follows an aerial shot of the majestic landscape as the cattle charge towards the abyss. It recalls classic Hollywood westerns, but is also a magnificent feat of CGI technology that simultaneously denotes cinema as a transnational, internationalised art form (something particularly relevant to the practice of Luhrmann himself, who works across a range of industrial contexts and attracts international investment and talent). In this preceding action, there are two iconic faces from Australian cinema: David Gulpilil playing King George, and Jack Thompson playing Flynn – both of whose bodies are key signifiers within the history of Australian cinema since the revival. Flynn, an archetypal larrikin in his last moments, is caught in the stampede, which is a narrative device used to increase the sense of jeopardy in this key moment, of Nullah standing on the edge of the cliff.
Nullah faces the cattle in a direct homage to Harry Watt’s 1946 locationist feature, The Overlanders. In both films it is stated that nothing scares cattle more than a person standing on foot, staring them in the eyes. Nullah’s balance, on the edge of the sheer drop of a cliff – not just any cliff, but a precipice not rivalled since Jedda (Charles Chauvel, 1955) – makes a move towards reconciliation when instead of going over the rock face, as Jedda did in Chauvel’s film, Lady Ashley’s (Nicole Kidman) arms reach out and pull Nullah to safety, and her breast. For some this is too corny by half – it is in the same vein as Luhrmann’s use of lyrics from “Love Is A Many-Splendored Thing” or “I Was Made For Lovin’ You” in Moulin Rouge! (2001) (2) – but through a pastiche of these films, Luhrmann tries to say something about contemporary Australia (an Australia that understands the myth of terra nullius, and the pain of the “stolen children”). Lady Ashley’s gesture – that of someone from England – could also be understood as recalling that Australia is a nation built on English stock. Certainly she signifies the “squatter’s daughter” type that was prevalent in early Australian cinema (see, for example, the character of Joan, played by Jocelyn Howarth, in Ken G. Hall’s The Squatter’s Daughter , or Mary, played by Daphne Campbell, in The Overlanders) (3).
It is also significant that this is the gesture of a woman. Lady Ashley posed the question (earlier in the film), in relation to the stealing of Aboriginal children, whether anyone had asked their mothers. This signals not only a female point of view, perhaps even a move to counter the overwhelming masculinism of Australian cinema, but also three other ideas: the collective shame of a nation around stolen children; the broader stories in Australian film and culture about lost children (a colonial psychosis about being unable to protect one’s progeny in a strange and alien land); and, finally, the absent mothers and dysfunctional families that widely populate Australian cinema. As Lady Ashley embraces Nullah, she offers herself as his mother (“It’s all right….you’re safe with me”), while Drover (Hugh Jackman) clutches them both. They are a family and Nullah is not lost – or not yet. The importance of this in the film’s structure is to foreshadow and create emphasis for a later action in the narrative, when Nullah is whisked away (“stolen”) to Mission Island.
This moment, and the scene it is part of, brings together character types, landscape, gender relations, national history, and alludes to their psychic resonances. Nullah does not die, he bravely faces what is in front of him. This is significant. It is a shift from the past, and also an acknowledgement of it. There is some optimism that we can change or rewrite our story. Nullah is the hero here, one of too few Aboriginal heroes (or central protagonists) in the history of Australian cinema. This scene sums up the message of Luhrmann’s film, a discourse of national belonging, and national identity: Australia was built on inter-cultural relations, and populated by particular character types and values. Although Kidman and Jackman are transnational, as the Australian industry must be for the future, Australia can be understood as offering an allegory for the importance of Australian cinema to Australia as a country, and of nationalism to Australia’s film industry: “Stories…that’s how you keep them people belonging always”, says Nullah. The land and your luggage can be taken away from you, but in the end, as Drover observes, “the only thing you really own is your story”.
- For more on this idea of storylines, see Lisa French and Mark Poole, Shining A Light: 50 Years of the Australian Film Institute, ATOM, Melbourne, 2009, p. 7.
- Luhrmann’s achievements as a postmodern collagist are clearly evident in his other films, but this is lost on many audiences who don’t have the knowledge of Australian film that would allow them to access his bricolage in this moment.
- The “squatters daughter” type is the one great role for women in Australian films prior to the 1970s – a heroine, competent on the land or a horse; an asset and a friend, while still feminine.