The Outback Upfront

Some filmmakers have set the arid landscape of Outback Australia against their stories of isolation and self-exploration…

In the 70’s an important handful of films emerged from Australia, ushering in the era of what would later become known as the Australian New Wave. Most of these films were shot on location in remote areas on modest budgets, some breaking records of profitability for their ingenious productions with limited resources.

Below, in order of release are 5 influential films from Australia through the decade of the 70’s…

Mad Max (1979)

At the top of the list is one of the best Science Fiction films of all time, and a speed-laced ride through a dystopian vision of writer and director George Miller.

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The movie that was to open doors for the highly acclaimed filmmaker; along with many in the Australian film industry also held the Guinness world record for most profitable film for decades. It has since birthed a fourth feature instalment and was the top grossing film to come out Down Under.

Set against the desperate madness of a lawless and post-apocalyptic landscape, the diminishing populace are frequently terrorised by the fierce motorcycle gangs that run rampant through under-policed and isolated towns.

As a result, fellow Main Force Patrolmen Max Rockatansky (young NIDA graduate Mel Gibson) and Officer Jim ‘Goose‘ Rains (the charismatic Steve Bisley) fight to uphold what little justice remains.

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Mad as a cut snake. Mel Gibson in Mad Max.

 

A film like Mad Max comes with many exciting production stories and urban legends. Director George Miller’s vision was to cast lesser known actors with little-to-no previous film work.

As the story goes, Mel Gibson had attended the auditions with old friend and fellow NIDA classmate Steve Bisley. He had been in a bar fight the night before, and in his words showed up like a ‘black and blue pumpkin’. This tough guy image turned out to be exactly what Miller was looking for.

Most of the biker gang extras were members of outlaw motorcycle clubs, and most rode their own motorcycles in the film. It is even widely thought that George Miller used his family car for one of the crash scenes.

The Chant Of Jimmy Blacksmith (1978)

The chant of Jimmy Blacksmith is the chant of the underdog

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Written, produced and directed by Fred Schepisi from the Thomas Keneally novel, the story of a young Aboriginal man utterly exploited and pushed to the point of irreversible violence is both starkly savage and boldly beautiful.

The Chant Of Jimmy Blacksmith dances on that knife-edge of political correctness when it comes to issues of inherent racism and class divide within Australian culture. Keneally himself would later say he was wrong to write the novel from an indigenous person’s point of view… he himself a white man.

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Tom E. Lewis and Freddy Reynolds in The Chant Of Jimmie Blacksmith

One of the first Australian films with a budget over $1M, it would have many hurdles to overcome… and because of the promotional costs involved the producers only received a return of $50,000. A disillusioned Schepisi lost his entire investment and left Australia soon after to work in Hollywood.

The Last Wave (1977)

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Lawyer David Burton (played by American actor Richard Chamberlain) takes on the legal case of defending  a group of Aboriginal men accused of the murder of another man in their community.

Despite the defendants claiming otherwise, the lawyer suspects the victim had been killed for violating a tribal taboo. As Mr Burton rummages through the many textured layers of a misunderstood culture, he finds himself deeply haunted by reoccurring visions and prophecy of impending natural disaster.

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Often overlooked in his colourful catalogue of feature films, The Last Wave came 2 years after Director David Weir’s other important and more renown Australian film Picnic At Hanging Rock.

The film would further explore Weir’s previous themes of the unknown and the curious interaction between traditional Aboriginal and European cultures.

Wake In Fright (1971)

Also known as Outback, Wake In Fright is Canadian Director Ted Kotcheff’s disturbing vision of ultimate isolation and vulnerability.

Based on Kenneth Cook’s 1961 novel of the same name, the story follows a young middle class teacher who slowly descends into a state of mental despair and helplessness after arriving for work in a small, sinister outback town.

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Made on a budget of around 800,000 Aussie Dollars, for many years the film earned a reputation as ‘the lost film‘ because it was almost impossible to find a VHS cassette, or subsequently DVD copy.

Since 2009 however, the film has grown a steady – and arguably overdue cult following with a thoroughly restored digital release. Indeed the story behind the film’s actual rediscovery in an American University by archivists is almost as thrilling as the film itself.

Walkabout (1971)

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Loosely based on the novel of the same name by author James Vance Marshall, Walkabout was the second feature film from the English director and cinematographer Nicolas Roeg.

Commenting in later years about the level of improvisation involved, he said:

‘We didn’t really plan anything – we just came across things by chance… filming whatever we found.’

The film very much feels like an outsider’s vision of a foreign, and ultimately alien land.

The film stars the director’s son Luc Roeg, who plays the small brother alongside his teenage sister (Jenny Agutter). The 2 siblings find themselves helplessly stranded in the outback after their father’s failed attempt to have them killed. Upon the point of severe despair and utter dehydration, the pair cross paths with an Aboriginal boy (played by a young David Gulpilil) and with this encounter the fascinating juxtaposition of opposed cultures ensues.

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Bush tucker. David Gulpilil with Jenny Agutter and Luc Roeg in Walkabout.

With the stunning, stylised cinematography of Nicolas Roeg himself, Walkabout uses images of the outback to carry themes of isolation and personal belonging throughout the film. Indeed the 2 very different worlds we encounter seem equally as foreign on screen.

Australia is indeed a bloody big place. Many filmmakers have utilised it’s open spaces and vast outback settings to explore themes of isolation, identity, belonging, bewilderment.

That colourful decade of the 70’s brought accomplished filmmakers to it’s shores and saw local talent sprout from it’s growing industry. The Australian New Wave would soon be appreciated by a global audience, and these films would set the benchmark for those that followed.

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