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Journey Out of Darkness (1967)


Central Australia, 1901. Constable Peterson (Konrad Matthaei) is dispatched from Melbourne to arrest an Arunta (Arrernte) man (Kamahl) responsible for a ritual killing in Central Australia. Local commander Sergeant Miller (Ronald Morse) orders police tracker Jubbal (Ed Devereaux) to accompany Peterson on the trek into Arrernte territory. When the Arrernte chief (Nukitjilpi) refuses to accept Peterson’s demand, the wanted man gives himself up. Jubbal dies on the return journey, leaving Peterson stranded in the desert with the prisoner, and Arrernte men on his trail.

Curator’s notes

Made in the decade when the Australian feature industry was virtually non-existent, and little-seen since its limited theatrical release in late 1967 and early 1968, Journey Out of Darkness is a fascinating forgotten Australian film. It was the first and final feature made by Australian-American Pictures. Darrel Killen, a director of the company at the time, spoke with australianscreen on 16 September 2010. ‘The project evolved through [Australian-born, US-based writer-director] James Trainor being the son-in-law of Howard Koch – the Howard Koch who [co-]wrote Casablanca (1942) and was an early associate of Orson Welles.’

The producer of Journey Out of Darkness was Frank Brittain, a US theatre manager who packaged the project and brought it to Australia. Speaking from his home in Rome on 22 September 2010, Brittain recalls: ‘Koch wrote the script in upstate New York where he lived. I don’t think he ever had anything to do with the Aborigines. Koch said, “You can have the script as long as you use James Trainor as the director.”’ On raising the production finance, Brittain says:

A lawyer friend of mine read the script and liked it and took it to a young man who owned The Playhouse in New York and he said he liked it too … and he’d put up the money if he could play the leading role. That’s how the casting of Konrad Matthaei came about.

Set in 1901 (the year Australia became a commonwealth), Journey Out of Darkness focuses on many issues relevant to Indigenous Australians in 1967, such as tensions around the imposition of white man’s law, and the cross-cultural conflicts faced by Jubbal, who is born black, raised white and considered a traitor by some members of his community for having joined the police force. Jubbal’s immediate superior, Miller (Ronald Morse), is the voice of white reason. He is at least sympathetic to traditional cultural practices and prepared to turn a blind eye to incidents such as the ritual killing which has brought Peterson to the outback. An arrogant policeman from Melbourne (then Australia’s capital), Peterson represents white authority which has no interest in understanding ‘the natives’ and is concerned solely with enforcing justice as written in white man’s statute books.

The dramatic core of the story is Peterson’s transformation. Dismissive and unyielding at the start of his mission, his views are challenged at first by contact with Jubbal and change profoundly in the closing stages when he tells the wanted man ‘I was your prisoner’. With its sympathetic treatment of Aboriginal characters and cultural issues it seems surprising that Journey Out of Darkness failed to find an audience, particularly in light of the overwhelming ‘yes’ vote in a referendum held on 27 May 1967 which granted Indigenous Australians significant new rights and recognitions.

Its failure can largely be attributed to the casting (but certainly not the performances) of Kamahl and Ed Devereaux. A popular Malaysian-born singer of Tamil heritage, Kamahl vaguely approximates the look of an Arrernte man, but the ‘blackface’ make-up applied to white actor Devereaux (the father in TV hit Skippy, 1966–69) severely compromises the film’s credibility. Blackface had all but been abandoned in Hollywood by the late 1930s, making Devereaux’s appearance seem all the more anachronistic in the socially progressive 1960s.

Despite its serous central flaw the messages in Journey Out of Darkness are conveyed with an impressive sincerity. Given the chance to view it, many modern audiences would probably agree with Frank Brittain’s 2010 comment that what he and his collaborators produced was ‘not a bad film at all’. Journey Out of Darkness was the first Australian colour feature film to be entirely shot, processed and post-produced in Australia.

Journey Out of Darkness was released in Australian cinemas on 15 December 1967.

Secondary curator’s notes

by Liz McNiven

Set in Central Australia at the beginning of the 20th century, Journey Out Of Darkness begins with a ‘tribal’ dispute being dealt with under Aboriginal law. Although the interpretation of this practice appears fanciful, the film aims to portray the existence of two systems of law in Australia and to highlight the inadequacies of the Western legal system in coming to terms with Aboriginal law.

Two non-Aboriginal actors play the lead Aboriginal roles in this film: Malaysian-born singer Kamahl as the Aboriginal captive, and Ed Devereaux in blackface as the police tracker Jubbal. This casting decision detracts from the sound arguments presented in the film and undermines its strengths and relevance.

The train rattling its way into town symbolizes the connection between the civilised and uncivilised worlds and functions as a lifeline to the non-Aboriginal people living in these harsh, remote places. Its journey ended at the colonial frontier, the coalface between local Aboriginal peoples and the settlers.

Geographically and culturally the film jumps between central and northern Australia, from the desert to Arnhem Land. This creates an illusion of a wild and exotic place. The Australian landscape along with its Indigenous peoples once again takes centre stage.

This is a good film but unfortunately it will be remembered more for casting Ed Devereaux in blackface than for its important social commentary on the existence of two systems of laws in Australia.