Water in Australian cinema
Our national cinema has long been preoccupied with it, perhaps because we can’t take it for granted. More than most other countries, Australian movies worry about water: getting it, keeping it, damming it, drowning in it.
In the 1920s, we were concerned about the lack of it, coupled with a fear of its power to destroy. Dorothea McKellar’s ‘droughts and flooding rains’ were a primary theme. In the 1930s, water was inseparable from ideas of nation-building, especially in the films of Ken G Hall and Charles Chauvel. There was a strong sentiment that if only we could control it, we would all get rich with its bounties. By the 1970s, it had become mixed up with Aboriginal mysticism and spirituality, in such films as The Last Wave (1977) and Walkabout (1970). In recent decades, it has become associated with tragedy – the girl in the river in Jindabyne (2006), or the drowned man in Japanese Story (2003). In a sense, it has moved from being a natural resource to a supernatural one.
There are many clips on this site with references to water. What follows is a short splash around in some of the damper corners of our cinema heritage.
Australian silent cinema was obsessed with bushranging for its first five or so years, from The Story of the Kelly Gang, Australia’s first feature in 1906, until 1912, when the NSW government banned the making of such films (South Australia and Victoria moved against them in 1911). The handful of active directors and producers had already begun filming rural stories, especially those that had been popular on the stage as melodramas. Actors Bert Bailey and Edmund Duggan had considerable success with their 1905 play, The Squatter’s Daughter, a story of love and rivalry set on neighbouring sheep stations (with a touch of bushranging). The first version of this was filmed in 1910 and included a flood, perhaps the first depiction in an Australian fiction film of a natural disaster. The Squatter’s Daughter was filmed again by Ken G Hall in 1933, and it concluded with a memorable sequence in which the main actors are nearly incinerated in a bushfire; they are saved by rushing into a dam.
In 1919, Franklyn Barrett, a former newsreel cameraman, filmed the ravages of the drought around Narrabri and Moree in northern NSW. These scenes became the basis of The Breaking of the Drought (1920), a melodrama that ends with a similar conflagration – a bushfire, followed by a timely deluge (clip 3). These devices are as old as storytelling itself: many of the earliest stories for which we have records tell of great floods (The Epic of Gilgamesh, and Noah’s building of the Ark). They are often associated with purification, an idea that pops up in several Australian films of the 1970s (The Last Wave, 1977, in particular).
Most Australians did not live in the cities in the ‘20s and ‘30s, so films with flood, fire and drought were closer to the life they knew directly. Bert Bailey was probably the biggest star of the 1930s. He returned to themes of the land, and in particular water, again and again in his long career. More than any actor of his time, Bailey was the voice of the rural pioneers – not the squatters, but the battling selectors for whom life on the land was governed by a terrible natural lottery.
Bailey is most famous for his portrayals of Dad Rudd in a series of films made at Cinesound Productions in the 1930s, and his first film at Cinesound – indeed the first Cinesound film – was a 1932 remake of On Our Selection. In clip 1 (see below), Bailey gives the first version of the kind of stirring speech he would repeat often in his films. It was adapted from the sort of speech he had already been giving for 20 years in his stage adaptations of Steele Rudd’s stories. In this one, the Rudds are up against the wall, their squatter neighbour is trying to use a terrible drought to take their cattle, but Dad Rudd tells him in no uncertain terms that he’ll never give in. At the end of the clip, merciful rain starts to fall and the tables are turned on the squattocracy.
Drought was to some extent a metaphor in the Dad and Dave films. The whole country was in the grip of the Depression, and the Rudds’ travails on the land were a kind of mirror of the desperate straits of the unemployed in the cities, leavened with humour. The Rudds always came through and so will we, the films seemed to say. In Dad Rudd, MP, the final Cinesound film, made in 1940 after Australia was already at war, Bailey gave the most stirring and patriotic speech of his film career. In clip one, shot beside the Woronora Dam outside Sydney, he tells his grasping neighbour Webster, played by Frank Harvey, why the dam must go to 200 feet, not the 150 feet that the neighbour wants. ‘Why there’s thousands of square miles of this country that could be made to flow with milk and honey if it only had water’, says Dad Rudd, ‘but it remains dry. Why? Because there’s so many selfish people standing in the way.’
This exchange encapsulates many arguments about water that are still current, but Rudd’s sentiment was then an article of faith – if we could only tame the water and irrigate, milk and honey would flow. No-one talks about salination or the effects of dams on river health in these films, although that’s partly what the evil neighbour’s argument points to – whether some land is too marginal to farm in the first place. We can see how unpopular such an argument might have been in the way that Webster is characterised as a mean-spirited toff.
Webster so enrages Dad that he decides to stand for parliament, so that he can defeat the defenders of privilege. This leads to his final speech, just before the credits, in clip 3 (see below). This is a particularly rousing Bailey speech, possibly because it was to be the last of his film career. He retired soon after. It’s as close to outright propaganda as Cinesound’s movies ever get. The film uses water politics to call for national unity in the face of war. The climax of the film is the dam overflowing its unfinished walls – water has become like the new enemy then facing Australian soldiers overseas.
There was another, quite different strain of watery metaphor and myth at work in the 1930s, in the films of Charles Chauvel. Chauvel was a more starkly nationalistic director than Ken Hall and much more of an independent maverick. His films are full of stunning scenery, naked young people taking romantic swims in natural pools, and the extremes of weather that only Chauvel would have attempted to film on location, and on a low budget. Sons of Matthew (1949) is a good example of his daring use of water imagery. The film is about conquest of virgin mountain land by the sons of a northern NSW farmer; it’s also about the sexual rivalry between two brothers for the love of the same woman. In clip 2 (below), the brothers have climbed the inhospitable range to the forest they intend to clear, but they start with a skinny dip in a cool clear mountain pond, where they talk about women and the hard work ahead.
It’s an idyllic scene, and unusual even for Chauvel, who used nudity often to spice up his early films (see Uncivilised, 1936, and In the Wake of the Bounty, 1933). Sons of Matthew uses nudity to emphasise male virility and nobility. The swim in the pond is a purification rite, for the sacred task they have ahead – the felling of a forest, a noble pursuit for fit young men. Their naked bodies are here a sign of their innocence and purity in what is clearly a version of the Garden of Eden. The sexual rivalry that erupts between the two brothers shatters the balance. Chauvel was a classical storyteller in that sense, influenced by the Bible, as well as Shakespeare. He climaxes the film with an almighty storm in which Michael Pate rescues the woman he loves, Cathie McAllister (Wendy Gibb), from the raging river. In some ways the message is similar to the nation-building in Cinesound films, but it’s much more poetic and lyrical. Chauvel was a sensualist; Ken Hall was a realist. A pond was just a pond in a Cinesound film; in a Chauvel film, it might be a symbol of woman, life, death, fertility or nature’s infinite bounty. The strain of watery symbolism in 1970s Australian films seems to derive more from this tradition, combined with Aboriginal mysticism, than from the agricultural triumphalism of Cinesound. Conquering the land, so dear a concept in Dad and Dave films, had become an unsound concept by the 1970s, with the rise of a new ideology of environmentalism.
Two key films signalled that change, and both were made by foreigners. Wake In Fright (1971) was one of the first films of the modern era to directly criticise the idea that white Australia was anything but a fortunate addition to the landscape. It presented a savage portrayal of white men living like beasts in the outback; without women or limits, they have become drunken, feral and murderous. That idea continues to be exploited in recent horror movies such as Wolf Creek (2005). Walkabout (1970) took a different path: two innocents, a late teenage girl and her young brother, are lost in the desert after their father kills himself. They are found by a young Aboriginal man (David Gulpilil) who guides them to safety, but then he commits suicide, apparently destroyed by her rejection. This 1970 film has a famous scene in which the 16-year-old girl (Jenny Agutter) swims naked in an outback pond. Water has often had a feminine connotation in Western art; like women, water gives life. In Walkabout, the distance from water presents a very clear limit to life. Like many explorers before them, these two children will die without help from an original Australian to lead them to water. The tables have turned.
One of the first films to recognise the importance of water in relations between blacks and whites was Bitter Springs, a now almost-forgotten Ealing production made by Ralph Smart in 1950. The film is about ownership of a waterhole in arid country. The blacks have lived off it for centuries when Chips Rafferty brings his family and sheep to settle on it, courtesy of a government land grant. The story soon escalates to bloodshed. It’s probably the first film made in Australia that suggests that blacks had prior rights to the land. Again, it was a British film, rather than a local production.
One of the defining features of 1970s Australian cinema could perhaps be the lack of water, in one sense. Wake In Fright (1971), Walkabout (1970) and a series of other films took Australian cinema into the desert, generally beyond the reach of irrigation and agriculture. The people were dominated by the land, not the other way round. When water appears in these films, it’s often associated with Aboriginal mysticism – as in the final scene of Dead Heart (1996, clip 3, below), in which Bryan Brown tries to recapture an Aboriginal man accused of murder. The scene takes place beside a desert oasis, and it uses the water to suggest the power of Aboriginal magic and knowledge. There’s an obvious element of white romanticism in this idea, but that’s very common in our films.
In Peter Weir’s 1977 mystery The Last Wave, Aboriginal magic is brought out of the desert and into the heart of urban Australia. Sydney becomes inundated with an inexplicable deluge for several weeks as Richard Chamberlain tries to solve a legal case involving Aboriginal defendants; as he delves deeper into their beliefs, he is given access to subterranean secrets, the Aboriginal substrata literally beneath the city that whites never encounter. As he realises just how far back this culture goes, the city is about to be engulfed by a tsunami. It’s not quite clear if the film is saying that white Australia deserves it for sins against the first nations, but plenty of people interpreted it that way at the time.
In recent Australian cinema, there’s a strong element of tragedy and fear associated with water. In Newsfront (1978), director Phil Noyce recreated the Maitland floods in a lake at Narrabeen, on Sydney’s northern beaches (clip 3, below). The film’s most lovable character, the English migrant played by Chris Haywood, dies trying to row a boat down the main street of the town. The film cuts real and recreated footage together, so that the flood becomes terrifyingly real.
In Ray Lawrence’s films, the water is often a scary place. In clip 1 of Bliss (1985), Harry Joy dies and his spirit rises out of his body in a fine misty rain as the camera flies up into the clouds. He then descends into reedy water where he encounters a terrifying demon – or is it God? Later, he has a vision of his mother in a boat crossing a misty river, leaving a half submerged church with a large cross in her hand. In Jindabyne (2006), four white friends go fishing in a river in the Snowy Mountains; when they find the naked, battered body of a young black woman in their trout stream, they tie it up to the bank and move upstream to fish. The short story by American Raymond Carver was not set in Australia, nor was the girl Aboriginal. Those details were added by Lawrence and his scriptwriter, Beatrix Christian, to thicken the plot with the idea of race relations. Again, as in Chauvel’s mountain pool, the film is dealing with concepts of purity and original sin. The body despoils a pristine place; the fishermen then despoil it further by putting their desire to fish ahead of their consciences (see clip 1, below).
Australian cinema has long been drifting between these two polarities – the pre-Christian ideas of the flood as retribution and death, and the biblical Garden of Eden, where water gives life. Rolf de Heer’s Ten Canoes (2006), made with David Gulpilil and the Ramingining community of Arnhem Land, offered a third point of reference, with its mesmerising recreation of a traditional hunt in the Arafura Swamp. The film delved into Aboriginal lore on its own terms, telling two stories of the deep past that were related by a theme of love and desire. The scenes in the swamp, as the men collected magpie-geese and eggs, were like nothing else in our cinema – this was a place of pristine abundance, neither threatening nor damaged, a vision of what Australia was like before it even had a name. In a great act of generosity, the film gave us access to stories and practices that are much older than the oldest written stories from the Middle East. Ten Canoes was a very powerful gesture of conservation – of both place and memory. This third idea, where we look at sustaining ourselves in the landscape, has yet to be explored in any great depth in our cinema. As water becomes scarcer and climates more unpredictable, it is likely to become more prominent.
- Directed by Ken G. Hall: autobiography of an Australian film-maker (1977)
Hall, Ken G
Publisher: Melbourne : Lansdowne Press ISBN 0701806702
- Australian film, 1900-1977: A Guide to Feature Film Production (1998)
Pike, Andrew and Ross Cooper
Melbourne: Oxford University Press ISBN 0195507843
- Australian Cinema: The First Eighty Years (1989)
Shirley, Graham and Brian Adams
Sydney: Currency Press ISBN 0868192325
Titles in this collection
Bitter Springs 1950
A family of white farmers fight to take possession of land and water that is home to a well-established Aboriginal clan.
To say Bliss was ahead of its time is an understatement: the bold metaphors and sharp satire weren’t appreciated by everyone in 1985.
An outback family faces ruin through drought and a son corrupted by life in the big city.
Dad Rudd, MP 1940
Dad Rudd, MP truly signals the end of an era, the last gasp of the cycle of rural comedies featuring yokels and livestock that went back 30 years in Australian cinema.
Dead Heart 1996
Bryan Brown plays a second generation Northern Territory cop caught up in a power struggle over whether black or white law is supreme.
Jindabyne is based on a 20-year-old short story by American Raymond Carver, but it’s been so well adapted to the Australian milieu that it feels home-grown.
The Last Wave 1977
As the weather gets worse, tax lawyer David Burton has a premonition of disaster, in which he is to play a key role.
Some believe that Newsfront, set in the late 1940s and incorporating extensive newsreel footage, is Australia’s best film.
On Our Selection 1932
This film was technically innovative and, when it opened in 1932, a box office sensation, rejuvenating the local film industry.
Sons of Matthew 1949
Sons of Matthew is an extremely vivid depiction of the heroic conquest of the land by Australia’s white settlers.
Flammable nitrate film fed the fires in the spectacular bushfire finale to Ken G Hall’s The Squatter’s Daughter. The fires rapidly got out of control during filming but no one was hurt.
Ten Canoes 2006
The jumping-off point for Ten Canoes was a 1930s photo of Indigenous people taken by anthropologist Donald Thomson.
Wake in Fright 1971
A young schoolteacher loses all his money in an outback two-up game, while en route to Sydney. In the next two days he loses a lot more – self-respect, inhibitions, almost his life.
A 16-year-old English girl and her 8-year-old brother are stranded in the desert, after their father shoots himself. They are rescued by a young tribal Aborigine.