This is a big, true story of my people… (David Gulpilil, Ten Canoes)

Over more than thirty years, actor, dancer, musician and visual artist David Gulpilil has been deeply engaged in telling the “big, true” stories of his people. When Peter Weir made The Last Wave in 1977, the process of working with Gulpilil and other Indigenous actors opened a door to a new way of seeing the world. They created what Gulpilil himself has described as a film that was not only “very important for his people”, but also one which he said was “the first film to authentically describe Aboriginal ‘Dreamtime’ mythology”. (1)

The Last Wave is significant as a major film of the 1970s Australian film renaissance, a critically well-received film from a leading director of that period, and also, a marker film in the career of David Gulpilil. At 24, he had been acting in Australian film and television for six years since his debut in Nicholas Roeg’s Walkabout (1971 UK/Australia). The Last Wave was a key film in a journey that was to become both his life’s work, and his most important contribution to Australian cinema: to engage in a dialogue with Australian auteurs, audiences and Indigenous people to communicate Aboriginal identity, culture, values and history.

I say this not to downplay his enormous talent as one of Australia’s most significant and respected actors, but to identify the way in which he has used that talent for his people, the land he loves, and an agenda to communicate Aboriginal knowledge. He has been centrally preoccupied with engaging in a dialogue that communicates that we are ‘all one red blood’ (2) – which is not only to say that we are all human, but also that we are interconnected and share a mutual history.

Peter Weir has said that he wrote the role of Chris Lee specifically for Gulpilil (with Tony Morphett), and that it was inspired by interchanges with him. Weir has recalled an illogical conversation that ‘drew’ him ‘to write a part for Gulpilil. I’d never written a part for a person. It’s dangerous: you might not be able to get the person’. (3) An intercultural exchange informed Weir’s understandings, as he has recalled:

… we were chatting in a bar one night after work and he said some things about his family and then suddenly he said some English sentence. It was something like, “You see my father and I and that’s why because the moon isn’t.” And I said, “What’s that mean – your father and I and the moon isn’t?” And he repeated it. I said, “David, I don’t understand.” And he said it again. This was ridiculous – we’d been talking. I said “What are you talking about?” So he rearranged the sentence. It still made no sense. Well, I had to leave it, otherwise we couldn’t continue the conversation. And I thought about it that night and the next morning and suddenly I realized what it was. That he was talking about another perception. He was talking about an experience for which there is no words. He’d seen something in another way. (4)

The conversation between the two men, and later with Amugula Nadjiwarra (who played Charlie), possibly delivered the ‘authenticity’ Gulpilil claimed the film achieved in relation to the Dreamtime. Gulpilil led Weir to understand something about Aboriginal culture that came to form the basis of the film. The Dreamtime is non-linear, the past, present and future all happen simultaneously, and this is the state which audiences experience in Weir’s film. As I have written elsewhere, Gulpilil has spent his career in dialogue with auteurs, sharing Indigenous knowledge, (5) and this is his central project, which he communicates not just with his interactions with the filmmakers, but through his performance.

Weir has observed that ‘certain scenes in the film were all his [Gulpilil’s], such as those about getting messages from his family through a twitch in his arm — those were either added by Gulpilil or by Nadjiwarra’. (6) An example of this occurs in a scene early in the film at the home of lawyer David Burton. Lee offers that there are other ways of being in the world and understanding it, or of “knowing things”). He illustrates this by pinching the skin on his arm and telling Burton that he will have a bodily reaction (a twitch), should his family need to call him. Moving the overhead light without taking his intense gaze off Burton, he says that a dream is just ‘a shadow of something real’, expressing the belief that dreams are reality from an Aboriginal perspective. Through this, the film’s story emphasizes Gulpilil’s message that we need to think outside our own perceptual schema — he shares Indigenous knowledge that underscores the idea that European ways of thinking do not explain all phenomena. Gulpilil uses his body, his gaze, and silence in his performance to communicate his Aboriginal perspective. (7)

David Gulpilil • The Last Wave film analysis

Weir has said that his favorite scene is the dinner sequence early in the film; according to him, ‘Nadjiwarra put in all the lines about the law and the law being more important than the man, and that is really the heart of the film’. (8) For Aboriginal people the Dreamtime or creation period was when the laws were set down and cultural custom established. So the identification of the importance of law as being at the ‘heart’ of the film, locates the conversation Weir was having with his Indigenous collaborators as being about the paramount importance of culture and custom. It may explain how the film works towards the ‘authentic’ depiction of Aboriginal mythology that Gulpilil identified. The Dreamtime is repeatedly referenced through the motif of the talisman, an artifact that has a face denoting the spirit of the Dreamtime. Burton sees the talisman in his dreams, and it appears as part of the court case. Lee (Gulpilil) tells Burton that he is in trouble because he does not know what dreams are any more. He is in strife because he has lost sight of the law, and his connection to spirituality and culture.

As Gulpilil has observed of himself, he is a cultural mediator: ‘I’m a true Aborigine, a true cultural man … I believe in education and people writing stories about me so everyone can learn about us’, (9) and The Last Wave exemplifies this facilitation. We are left with an insight into the Dreamtime as an irrefutable source of energy – which Weir metaphorically signifies from the film’s opening through the surreal representation of the weather. As film historian Bill Routt has observed ‘the culture is more powerful than the white man’s history’ (10), the connection to the law cannot be broken. The story told by the film underlines this, and is based on a notion of an enduring and unchanging basis for law:

Dreaming is a really big thing for Aboriginal people. In our language, Yanuwa, we call the Dreaming Yijan. The Dreamings made our Law or narnu-Yuwa. This Law is the way we live, or rules. This Law is our ceremonies, our songs, our stories; all of these things came from the Dreaming. One thing that I can tell you though is that our Law is not like European Law which is always changing – new government, new laws; but our Law cannot change, we did not make it. The Law was made by the Dreamings many, many years ago and given to our ancestors and they gave it to us. (11)

Likewise, David Gulpilil has offered it to his collaborators, and his audience, in The Last Wave.

The Melbourne International Film Festival will present a retrospective look at David Gulpilil’s onscreen career from 30 July16 August 2015. Find out more at the MIFF website.


1. Author not attributed, ‘Need for more ‘dreamtime’ films—actor’, The Sydney Morning Herald, Wednesday November 30, 1977, p.8.

2. David Gulpilil quoted in Gill Harbant, ‘Actor’s Search for Truth’, Herald Sun, July 25, 2012, p.14. A documentary about Gulpilil, which was suggested by the actor, was titled Gulpilil: One Red Blood (Darlene Johnson, 2002). This is a message he frequently reiterates in interviews. The film itself was intended for ‘his people’ in particular, and marks an intracultural communication with Indigenous people that has become an interest of his work and communication prevalent since the 2000s.

3. Judith M. Kass, ‘Peter Weir Interviewed by Judith M. Kass’, accessed 16/6/15 from: http://www.peterweircave.com/articles/articlei.html

4. ibid.

5. As I have outlined previously, other directors he has engaged with in this way include Phillip Noyce and Rolf de Heer. See Lisa French ‘David Gulpilil, Aboriginal Humour, and Australian Cinema’ Studies in Australasian Cinema, Vol.8, Issue.1, April 2014, pp. 34-43. http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/17503175.2014.925319

6. Sue Mathews, ‘Years of Living Dangerously: The Last Wave, The Plumber, Gallipoli, The Year of Living Dangerously’, in John C. Tibbetts (ed.), Peter Weir Interviews, University Press of Mississippi: Jackson, 2014, p.91.

7. French, p. 40.

8. Mathews, p. 91.

9. Ruth Dewsbury, ‘Gulpilil’s Dream A Homeland with a Waterbed’, The Sydney Morning Herald: Good Weekend, May 8-9, 1987, p. 10 (article runs page 8-13)

10. Bill Routt quoted in Tom O’Regan, Australian National Cinema, Routledge: London, 1996, p. 192.

11. Mussolini Harvey from Bradley 1988, pp. x-xi quoted in Graham Harvey (ed.), Indigenous Religions, A Companion, Castle: London, 2000, pp. 126-27.

About The Author

Lisa French is Deputy Dean in the School of Media and Communication at RMIT University. She co-authored the book Shining a Light: 50 Years of the Australian Film Institute (2009 & 2014), and was the co-writer/editor of the anthology Womenvision: Women and the Moving Image in Australia (2003).

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