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Burke & Wills (1985)


The Victorian Exploring Expedition leaves Melbourne on 20 August 1860, amid great fanfare and optimism. Before a large crowd, the leader, Robert O’Hara Burke (Jack Thompson), promises that he will beat the South Australian expedition led by John McDouall Stuart, to become the first man to cross the continent. Miss Julia Matthews (Greta Scacchi), light opera star and object of Burke’s affections, farewells him tenderly, watched by wealthy businessmen Ambrose Kyte (Hugh Keays-Byrne), who has substantially funded the expedition. Halfway across Victoria, Burke dashes back to Melbourne, riding through the night, to ask her to marry him.

The expedition is already in trouble by the time it crosses the Murray River into New South Wales. The hot-tempered Burke sacks Landells (Barry Hill), his second-in-command, in a disagreement over the camels. The young surveyor William John Wills (Nigel Havers) becomes Burke’s right-hand man. At Menindee, Burke splits the party, worried about the time it is taking to transport his 21 tonnes of supplies. He hires local bushman Bill Wright (Roderick Williams) to guide him further north, then sends him back to bring the remaining stores on to Cooper Creek, where they are to form a depot. Once at Cooper Creek, Burke divides the party again. He will lead a small group which includes Wills, Charley Gray (Ralph Cotterill) and John King (Matthew Fargher) in a dash to the Gulf of Carpentaria. They hope to return within three months to Cooper Creek, where a small party led by William Brahe (Drew Forsyth) is to wait for them.

After much privation, Burke and Wills reach the Gulf country. On the way back, the elderly Charley Gray dies, but the other three men reach Cooper Creek. They are starving and weak. It is more than four months since they left, and the camp is deserted. Brahe’s party has left the camp a few hours earlier. The stores from Menindee have not arrived. Bill Wright has waited two months for a letter from the Royal Society organisers to confirm his position and send money. Starving, unable to leave Cooper Creek, Burke and Wills perish from hunger. A rescue expedition arrives a few months later to find the youngest man, John King, clinging to life. The local Aborigines have kept him alive. King returns to Melbourne to give evidence at an official inquiry into the disaster.

Curator’s notes

In late 1984, when director Graeme Clifford began shooting Burke & Wills, it was the most expensive Australian film to date, with a budget of $9.3 million. There were high expectations, buoyed by the relative success in the early 1980s of Australian films dealing with big national stories, such as Gallipoli (1981). The legend of Burke and Wills was part of the national mythology. Like Gallipoli, it was another glorious failure. Australian audiences had also shown a fondness for films with epic landscape and horses, as in The Man from Snowy River (1982), although this was never going to be a feel-good project. The film had a strong cast, with Australian actors of international standing (Greta Scacchi, Jack Thompson) and the popular English actor Nigel Havers, who was prominent after Chariots of Fire (1981). The large budget allowed Clifford to fulfil his ambition to shoot as much as possible in authentic locations – especially the area around Cooper Creek, where the most dramatic events occurred.

Clifford was returning to Australia after a distinguished career in the US, Canada and Britain as an editor, working with prominent directors such as Robert Altman and Nicolas Roeg. He had directed his first feature a few years earlier in the US: Frances (1982) was a well-received drama about the tragic life of Hollywood actress Frances Farmer starring Jessica Lange. Clifford was 42 and had been working on the idea for Burke & Wills for at least eight years. He had loved the story since he was a Sydney schoolboy. He tried initially to access a script left by the late British playwright Terence Rattigan, developed for the British company EMI. When that failed, around 1980, Clifford teamed up with expatriate Australian writer Michael Thomas, a self-described ‘gonzo’ journalist, to write a new script.

According to David Stratton’s book The Avocado Plantation (1990, Pan Macmillan), Clifford took the project initially to Greater Union. They were interested, but not at the budget Clifford required. He then took the film to Hoyts Edgley, a partnership between one of the most powerful Australian exhibitors and the expatriate impresario Michael Edgley. They had teamed up to exploit a generous film investment tax scheme, which had initially offered investors a tax write-off of 150% (the 10BA system).

David Stratton writes that Clifford spotted Jack Thompson in the departure lounge at Los Angeles International Airport. They were on the same plane back to Australia, so he asked him to read the script on the plane. ‘We shook hands and agreed to do the picture at 35,000 feet outside the business class toilet’, Clifford told Stratton. Actors Equity objected to the importation of Nigel Havers, but they lost their case in arbitration. The production filmed for 13 weeks, basing itself for much of the time at the tiny South Australian border town of Innamincka, on Cooper Creek.

Clifford had originally planned to make a three-hour film with an interval, an indication of the grandeur of his ambition. The final film runs 140 minutes, with no interval, still longer than most feature films of the time. The premiere was a Royal Gala, attended by Prince Charles and Lady Diana in Melbourne in November 1985. The film went to the Cannes Film Festival in May 1986 and opened soon after in Australia. It was a flop.

David Stratton believes that part of the failure can be attributed to a rival production, funded by Greater Union. Wills & Burke (1985) was a satire, directed by Bob Weis, which opened a week before the Clifford film, to universally bad reviews. Whether the Australian public was confused, or just disinterested in either film, is impossible to say. Clifford’s film certainly divided critics. The New York Times gave it a scathing review, and the film never opened in the UK.

More than 25 years later, it is fair to say the film does some things very well. The script has an unusual degree of accuracy about the mechanics of the expedition itself; the locations are impressive and some of them match where the events occurred. The performances are strong, especially those of Thompson and Havers, who establish a credible rapport. The bond between Burke and Wills is probably the best aspect of the drama.

It’s also true that the film is relatively sensitive in its treatment of the Aborigines. The story has always been a metaphor for black and white relations in Australia. Burke and Wills died in a place where groups of Aborigines had long survived. Indeed, the local Aboriginal people kept John King alive long enough to be rescued. The film makes clear that Burke would have increased his chances of survival had he not been so suspicious of the Aborigines, but suspicion is part of this man’s nature. Burke is driven by many demons in Jack Thompson’s portrayal.

The film scores less well on questions of accuracy in the supporting characters. It’s perhaps unfair to Ambrose Kyte, for instance. Kyte was an Irish-born merchant who put up £1000 on the condition that another £2000 could be raised from the public. He did not organise the expedition – that was under the auspices of the newly formed Royal Society of Victoria. In the film, Kyte’s motives are base, because he wishes to remove Burke from Melbourne, so that he may pursue the light opera singer Julia Matthews, played by Greta Scacchi. There is no historical evidence for this, but the script goes even further. When Burke sends a letter back to Melbourne requesting more money, Kyte ignores him, with a callous disregard, in effect leaving him to die in the wilderness. Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Kyte like the top-hatted villain in a Victorian melodrama. According to Dave Phoenix, president of the Burke and Wills Historical Society, there is no evidence that Ambrose Kyte was anything other than a great supporter of the expedition.

This sexual subplot dominates the first half of the film, to a puzzling degree. Clifford keeps cutting back to scenes in Melbourne, most of them featuring Greta Scacchi, long after the expedition is underway. These slow down the narrative, rather than adding complexity. There are more flashbacks around Wills, who remembers green and pleasant England as he slowly starves to death.

The film’s biggest departure from fact is perhaps a scene at the Gulf of Carpentaria, in which Burke and Wills frolic in the sea, while Burke’s horse Billy runs excitedly along the sand. Burke and Wills never reached the coast. They turned back in swampy country near the Gulf, as soon as they could establish that they were in a saltwater tidal zone. Later in the film, the gallant horse Billy collapses with exhaustion. Burke shoots him, in a very moving scene, and the three remaining men push on. In fact, Burke shot the horse before crossing the worst part of the desert, believing that he would not make it. They cut him up and ate the meat.

The real story of the last days of Burke and Wills is more agonising than the film depicts, and more complicated. The three remaining men struggled on for another two months after reaching the depot at Cooper Creek. The man charged with waiting there for them, William Brahe, had buried a box of food, and blazed a tree with the word ‘Dig’. Burke found this food, but he chose not to try to go east and south along his old route back to Menindee, judging that they had not enough food, water or strength. They went west and south instead, hoping to reach the closer farms of South Australia. They travelled up and down Cooper Creek, even returning to the ‘Dig’ tree after Brahe and Bill Wright – who had finally made his way north – returned there looking for them. Brahe and Wright could find no evidence of anyone else having been there, so they left, back towards Menindee.

Burke, Wills and King were kept alive by gifts of fish from Aborigines along the creek. The Aboriginal people also taught them how to gather and grind nardoo, part of their staple diet. But by heading west, Burke was going away from help. Rescue parties were eventually sent out looking for them in three states. At least three men died trying to find them in the second half of 1861, almost as many as died on the expedition itself. (One of Brahe’s men died returning to Menindee, the fourth of the originals to die).

In fact Burke and Wills were dead by the end of June. Their bones were eventually brought back to Melbourne for reburial. As in the film, John King gave evidence at an official inquiry. The inquiry heavily criticised Bill Wright for delaying his return from Menindee to Cooper Creek with the supplies. That delay of two months meant that he did not leave Menindee until late January, three months after Burke and Wills set off north from Cooper Creek. The inquiry also criticised Burke’s decision-making, but praised his heroism, and that of Wills and King.

One of the aims of the film, according to Clifford, was to demonstrate that Burke was not a fool. That was popularly believed in many circles, based on his depiction in some of the popular, and inaccurate, books about the expedition. The film succeeds in that regard. Jack Thompson’s Robert O’Hara Burke, an Irish Protestant former soldier and policeman, is a man driven by ambition, governed by a strong passions, not given to deep reflection, but capable of inspiring great loyalty – at least among the few men that he trusts. He is mercurial, impatient, romantic, all of which helps to explain some of the mistakes he made. The contrast with the character of William John Wills, an Englishman of genteel background, who nevertheless becomes his greatest friend and ally, gives the film great poignancy. This is the deepest relationship in the film, and fully successful in dramatic terms.

Burke & Wills was released in Australian cinemas on 7 November 1985. At the 1986 AFI Awards, it was nominated for Best Cinematography (Russell Boyd), Original Music (Peter Sculthorpe), Sound (Syd Butterworth, Phil Heywood, Ron Purvis, Lee Smith, Peter Fenton, Jeanine Chialvo) and Costume Design (George Liddle).

Secondary curator’s notes

by Liz McNiven

This film dramatises an epic journey in Australian colonial history, as Burke and Wills travel from Melbourne to the Gulf of Carpentaria in Queensland and back to Cooper Creek. It then follows Burke, Wills and King as they attempt to travel west to South Australia before the demise of Burke and Wills and the rescue of King. The film presents the expedition as a smokescreen for a southern land grab on vast tracts of country, beyond the frontier of white settlement, in Queensland.

The driving force of the film resides in its two main characters and how their fears, desires and aspirations affect the outcome of the expedition. Burke is portrayed as a working-class man seeking the status required to marry the girl of his dreams. As he travels he imagines the fame, fortune and accolades he will enjoy on his arrival back in Melbourne. Wills, on the other hand, is a mild-mannered and well-educated man of science, secure in his privileged background. Unlike Burke, Wills has nothing to prove and just wants to see the landscape to observe and study it.

Even though Aboriginal people assist the expedition, both Burke and Wills maintain a position of superiority in their relations with the Aboriginal peoples. By contrast, King is shown questioning British imperialism in a conversation with Wills at the beginning of the expedition and at the end of the film is kept alive by Aboriginal people before his rescue and return to Melbourne.

The Aboriginal characters in the film are played by members of the Arnhem Land community aiding the film’s appearance of traditional authenticity. Yolngu peoples have represented Aboriginal characters in a number of Australian films depicting pre-colonial or early colonial times including Manganinnie (1980), and in television productions like Women of the Sun (1981).