Australian Screen

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The Back of Beyond (1954)

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clip The Birdsville Track education content clip 1, 2

This clip chosen to be G

Clip description

A pan across a skeleton-littered desert of ‘prehistoric bones’ sets the scene. As the camera sweeps across this vast landscape, the voice-over narration tells of the Aborigines, explorers, settlers, prospectors and drovers who travelled up and down the land defying ‘loneliness, droughts, dust storms’.

Emerging over the sand hills in his reliable Leyland Badger, comes Her Majesty’s Royal Mailman Tom Kruse, with his passenger William Henry and a little traveller in the back, ploughing through the desert to bring the mail to the people living on stations and outposts along the track – 'their only link to the outside world’.

Curator’s notes

The poetic narration in these opening scenes is used throughout the film and adds to the documentary’s romantic image of the ‘never-never’ country. This builds up a narrative rhythm that, with the layers of metaphor, casts the film into the realm of folklore. The narration describes the Birdsville Track as a place ‘disappearing into the mirage over the edge of the world’; Marree as a ‘corrugated iron town shimmering in the corrugated air; and Birdsville as ‘seven iron houses burning in the sun between two deserts’. Heyer employed poet Douglas Stewart to co-script the narration, and his turn of phrase is evident in descriptions such as these.

The narration also describes the landscape as the 'path of a vanishing race, the Australian Aborigines, who travelled up and down for centuries’, reflecting the belief, commonly held at the time, that Indigenous Australians were a dying race, part of the continent’s history but not its future.

Teacher’s notes

provided by The Le@rning FederationEducation Services Australia

This black-and-white clip shows staged scenes of outback country – cattle being driven across the desert, an Aboriginal camp, prehistoric fossils and scattered human and animal bones – as a voice-over describes the history of the Birdsville Track, including the trading activities of Indigenous Australians and a reading from Edward Eyre’s diary. Tom Kruse, Her Majesty’s Royal Mailman, appears in his truck, stops to check on his load and on the welfare of a young passenger, Paddy, chats with his other passenger, William Henry Butler, and sets off again.

Educational value points

  • This clip is from The Back of Beyond, a documentary that incorporates elements of documentary-drama, including staged dramatised scenes and a lyrical theatrical narration. The juxtaposition of eerie music, dramatic and poetic narration and sweeping cinematography stretched the limits of the objective and factual style of Australian documentary filmmakers at the time, to the extent that The Back of Beyond was often categorised as an ‘art film’.
  • To a modern audience the theatrical cadence and poetic use of language in the voice-over narration appears melodramatic. The poet Douglas Stewart (1913–85) was brought onto the project to give a lyrical tone to the script. Some film damage and possibly the desire for more ‘polished’ voices meant that the voices of Tom Kruse and other characters were revoiced in the studio by actors, which added to the theatricality of the soundtrack.
  • Filmmaker and writer Ross Gibson says the documentary sets up ‘the folklore of the outback as an alienating, menacing environment … an insignia of threat which comes to nothing’ (http://www.mcc.murdoch.edu.au). While the initial images, music and narration played into then current fears and mythology about the outback, the arrival of cheery Tom Kruse and his passengers brings a human dimension into what appears an inhospitable environment.
  • The clip shows the harsh terrain around Mount Hopeless and the surrounding desert that the early European explorers Eyre and Sturt may have travelled through. Edward Eyre (1815–1901) discounted the notion of an inland sea and advised Charles Sturt (1795–1869) against his journey. However, Sturt’s expedition set out in August 1844. The clip shows various fossils, playing on the irony that the explorers were ‘12 million years too late’ to find the inland sea.
  • The presence of Paddy, a young Aboriginal child travelling on the top of the truck, could be seen to challenge the narrator’s assertion that Indigenous Australians were a ‘vanishing race’. By the 1950s when the documentary was made the commonly held belief that Indigenous Australians would no longer exist had been largely discounted. Instead, during this decade, a policy of assimilation was adopted by the Australian and all state governments.
  • A legend of the outback, Esmond Gerald (Tom) Kruse (1914–) delivered mail for 27 years to isolated homesteads along the Birdsville Track. He was renowned for always getting the mail through, overcoming floods, dust storms and mechanical breakdowns. Kruse was awarded an Order of the British Empire (MBE) in 1955 for services to the people of the Australian outback and continued delivering mail until the early 1960s.
  • Since the late 1860s mail and other supplies had been delivered to people along the Birdsville track from Marree in South Australia to Birdsville in western Queensland – 517 km one way. The arrival of the railway in Marree and the SA Government’s drilling of ten bores at intervals of 50 km (between 1890 and 1916) established the Birdsville Track as Australia’s greatest droving route. Since 1970 the mail has been delivered by air.
  • The Back of Beyond gave audiences a glimpse of outback Australia. The documentary, made in 1952 by John Heyer (1916–2001) for the Australian Shell Film Unit, was first screened in 1954 at the Marree Town Hall (NSW). The film won the Grand Prix Assoluto at the Venice Film Festival in 1954. From 1954 to 1955 an estimated 750,000 people saw it – around 10 per cent of the population of Australia at that time.

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  • You may embed the clip for non-commercial educational purposes including for use on a school intranet site or a school resource catalogue.
  • The National Film and Sound Archive’s permission must be sought to amend any information in the materials, unless otherwise stated in notices throughout the Site.

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