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Bitter Springs (1950)

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clip Kings saved by Ransom

Original classification rating: G. This clip chosen to be G

Clip description

The King family is about to turn back, defeated by dry waterholes, when they meet a government patrol officer. Ransom (Michael Pate) tells them where to find water. He and Wally (Chips Rafferty) then discuss the King family’s new land at Bitter Springs. Ransom tells him that he’s moving onto the ancestral lands of the Karrigari Aborigines, and that he needs to be careful to share the water. Wally King isn’t pleased to hear that the land is already occupied. Carpenter-cum-stockman Mac (Gordon Jackson) listens to the advice with interest.

Curator’s notes

Ralph Smart’s original script was rewritten in England by two Ealing writers, WP Lipscomb and Monja Danischewsky, who never visited Australia. Nevertheless, this exchange shows pretty clearly that someone had studied the history of black-white conflicts over water in Australia. Michael Pate gives an unusually informed and sympathetic summation of the trouble ahead – ‘Their hunting disturbs your stock, your stock disturbs their game’. Very few Australian films before this had dared to go near this kind of drama, possibly because it was still too raw. There were massacres of blacks by white farmers and police as late as 21 years before this film was made. Questioning the legal basis for this land grab, as Ransom does here, was unheard of in our cinema at this point.

Ralph Smart may have been attracted to the material through his work a few years earlier on Bush Christmas (1947), and The Overlanders (1946), directed by Harry Watt. Henry Murdoch, who plays Blackjack in this film, was Nipper in The Overlanders. That film also starred Chips Rafferty and Jean Blue as pioneering bush settlers. Murdoch is said to have tutored Neza Saunders, who appeared in Bush Christmas. Thus, there were Aboriginal characters in each of the films Smart had been involved with during his time in Australia.

The tribesmen here were all Pitjantjatjara and Kokatha Mula peoples, and they spoke those languages in the film, according to Mick Starkey, senior ranger at Uluru – Kata Tjuta National Park. His father was one of the men brought south to Quorn in South Australia for the film. They were mostly from around Ernabella Mission, 1,100 kms north-west of Quorn. Starkey says the body painting, dancing and war shields shown in the film are all authentic. The film itself presents a fairly accurate picture of what happened between settlers and Aborigines, he believes. ‘That is what happened all over the western desert – they pushed us off our waterholes.’

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