Garry Gillard > writing > Ten Types of Australian Film > Western

Chapter 2: The Western

“The western”: right from the outset the word does not suit the Australian context. The implication is that people had to move from the established east (of the United States of America) in a westerly direction to enter the territory known as “the frontier” (although most westerns have actually been made in the most westerly state, California). Australia was settled on eastern, southern and western seaboards, so an equivalent geographical term for this country might be something like “the interior”. However, there is a term we actually use colloquially for this multi-faceted frontier: “the bush”. And there is also a key character who is an iconic actor in this location: the bushranger. We’ll come to him in a moment.

But first it’s necessary to look at how (American) westerns have been described, in order to be able to say in what way Australian films which are similar are also different. The time and place of the western is very conveniently summarised by Kitses.

Hollywood’s west has typically been from about 1865 to 1890 or so ... within its brief span we can count a number of frontiers in the sudden rush of mining camps, the building of railways, the Indian wars, the cattle drives, the coming of the farmer. Together with the last days of the Civil War and the exploits of the badmen, here is the raw material of the western. 1

Kitses also suggests several of the metaphorical uses of the western genre.

While the structure animates many forms of cultural activity the use of frontier history in the western brought it into particularly acute focus, for the period was placed “at exactly that moment when options are still open, the dream of a primitivistic individualism, the ambivalence of at once beneficent and threatening horizons still tenable”. 2

One important reason for beginning with a consideration of the western is that it was the first type of film to be written about in the context of filmic genre. It was as recently (and as long ago) as the 1950s that French critic, André Bazin wrote what are generally thought to be the earliest papers on the subject.

For Bazin, the western is a contemporary emanation of the desire for mythical meaning, and the form reaches back to earlier genres such as the courtly romance. In dealing with some of the fundamental problems of civilization, the western evokes “the great epic ... which sets the forces of evil over against the knights of the true cause”.3 These “knights”—the cowboy heroes—of course require “ladies”, whose function is to represent that good for which the knights must strive against the representatives of evil, the cattle barons and other symbols of wealth and power.

The other early writer on the western is Robert Warshow, writing in 1958. 4 He, like Bazin, is also concerned with the essence of the western which he too sees in terms of its epic forbears and as dealing with good and evil. His approach, however, is to look at the central character—the “westerner”—as opposed to the film as a whole. The other difference in Warshow is that he is prepared to deal with style: with the mise-en-scene of the desert and the western town, and with the iconology of the gun: “guns as physical objects, and the postures associated with their use, form the visual and emotional center”. 5 Whereas for Bazin the ideal western is Stagecoach (John Ford, 1939), made during the period 1937-40 when the western was at its best (the “ideal balance between social myth, historical reconstruction, psychological truth, and the traditional theme of the western”), for Warshow an “archetypal” western is The Virginian (Victor Fleming, 1929, with Gary Cooper). 6 Cooper’s character has to see his best friend hanged for cattle rustling: “the Virginian is ... in a tragic dilemma where one moral absolute conflicts with another and the choice of either must leave a moral stain”. 7 The woman, the force for civilization, intervenes in an attempt to stop the killing, but the hero does what he has to do, and avenges his friend’s death by killing the villain.

Yet his victory cannot be complete: no death can be paid for and no stain truly wiped out; the movie is still a tragedy, for though the hero escapes with his life, he has been forced to confront the ultimate limits of his moral ideas. 8

By the time of Shane (George Stevens, 1952), the form has become aestheticised: “the legend of the West is virtually reduced to its essentials and then fixed in the dreamy clarity of a fairy tale”. 9

The hero (Alan Ladd) is hardly a man at all, but something like the Spirit of the West, beautiful in fringed buckskins ... and when he has accomplished his mission, meeting and destroying in the black figure of Jack Palance a Spirit of Evil just as metaphysical as his own embodiment of virtue, he fades away again into the more distant West, a man whose “day is over”, leaving behind the wondering little boy who might have imagined the whole story. 10

Perhaps the earliest book-length study of the western is Kitses Horizons West. 11 The body of the book is an auteurist study of the styles of three selected directors, but the first chapter sets out historical and ideological bases for the genre. Kitses draws attention to its historical basis in frontier history (see the quotations above), but also to the fact that history has been not merely retold but reworked through archetypes also found in narratives of other kinds. Drawing on Henry Nash Smith’s book, Virgin Land, which sets up the binary of garden and desert as being basic to American ambiguity about the west, Kitses draws up two lists under the headings of “wilderness” and “civilization”, which represent a “philosophical dialectic, an ambiguous cluster of meanings and attitudes that provide the traditional/thematic structure of the genre”. 12 Meaning in this structure works not only in the oppositions between left and right, but also in the change from top to bottom: the wilderness column begins with “The Individual” and “freedom” and moves down to “tradition” and “the past”, while the civilization column begins with “The Community” and “restriction” which by the end has turned to “change” and “the future”. Kitses’ dynamic model, which is both synchronic and diachronic (structural and historical), permits a complex understanding of the ambiguity of the western, in which even the iconography is capable of expressing a change of meanings.

The plains and mountains of western landscape can be an inspiring and civilizing environment, a moral universe productive of the western hero, a man with a code ... Equally the terrain can be barren and savage, surroundings so demanding that men are rendered morally ambiguous, or wholly brutalized. 13

But let us continue our discussion of the western in the context of a key film for this chapter by looking at the film Ned Kelly (Gregor Jordan, 2003), which is based on the screenplay by John Michael McDonagh and, in turn, the novel Our Sunshine, by Robert Drewe. 14

First, the film has the superficial aspects of the western mise-en-scene of the period. Near the beginning of the film a card indicates that the time is “1871”—right in the principal era in which the (American) western is typically set, about 1865-1890, as we have seen. Not only are there “realistic” costumes etc. (ie. historical accuracy), but there are also iconographic elements (ie. “generic accuracy”). The most notable of these are the frontier towns which the Kelly gang enters on at least two occasions. They exhibit the classic western town characteristics: the muddy unpaved street between the two lines of shopfronts and, behind that, the landscape extending to infinity. Given that the computer graphics people must have been asked to provide precisely this mise-en-scene, there is no doubt about the genre to which the film-makers were intending to refer.

Then there are the horses, which are not only ridden, but also provide the first plot complication, when Ned (Heath Ledger) recovers a horse which is actually stolen, although he believes in good faith that it is the rightful property of “Wild” Wright. Due to the first of several over-reactions on the part of policemen and other authority figures, Ned becomes a “horse-thief”—a man with a criminal record and a chip on his shoulder.

Then there are the guns. Ned fires at least one specifically American gun: a Colt is mentioned in the screenplay (one recalls the Colt “Peacemaker” of numerous American westerns). But a difference from the American western is that Ned and his friends only begin to carry weapons when they see themselves as being embattled, or in order to take revenge. They arm themselves for a specific purpose. In this film the use of a gun is not an element of style, or an expression of a sense of self, or even a way of life—at least not at the outset: it is taken up as a means to an end.

However, once it has become a way of life, as Warshow suggests, the open carriage of guns brings with it a greater sense of responsibility. There is at least one moment in the film which can be seen as signalling this sense, when Ned and Joe Byrne (Orlando Bloom) enter the bank, guns in hand. They then politely ring the bell and hide the guns behind their backs. But when the moment for the robbery can no longer be put off, they present them, aimed at the manager. Another significant such moment is at the mining camp when Ned takes up a weapon on hearing of his mother’s arrest, before going off to deal with it.

As Warshow suggests—and I think this applies to Heath Ledger’s Ned Kelly—the westerner has a distant relation to violence. The westerner’s violence is an expression of his inner self, and he uses it only when he is being true to his character. In the fight in the bush with the police, for example, it is they who have brought violence to the gang, not the other way around. Ned only shoots the police when shot at, expresses regret at having shot the policeman (the one who says he has a wife and children), and then, surprisingly, gives him the coup de grace to put him out of his misery.

In the case of the prize fight with Wild Wright, there are two good reasons for the violence. One is to make some money, especially from the policemen who have bet on Wright; the other is to get even with Wright himself, as he was the cause of Ned’s going to jail in the first place.

A third reason for violence is expressed in the Jerilderie letter, in which Kelly makes a very long-winded case for his threats in the lengthy list of injustices to which he, his family, his countrymen and supporters have been subjected. In this case we might say that the threatened violence has a political basis.

For there is a conflict between good and evil, a struggle for power between heroes and malicious forces, rather in the manner suggested by Bazin and Warshow. Because we see events from the point of view of the Kellys, what is good here is poor and honest—and Irish. What is bad is dishonesty, and the irresponsible exercise of state power, the power of the (English colonial) state.

Alan Lovell, writing a decade later than Bazin and Warshow was less interested in metaphysical questions and the western’s ideology and more in its formal history. He lists four elements—of different kinds.

1. a structure drawn from nineteenth century popular melodramatic literature, involving a virtuous hero and wicked villain who menaces a virginal heroine;
2. an action story composed of violence, chases and crimes appropriate to a place like the American west in the nineteenth century;
3. the introduction of the history of the migration westwards and the opening of the frontier signalled in such films as The Covered Wagon (1924) and The Iron Horse (1924); and
4. the revenge structure, which was present by the time of Billy the Kid in 1930. 15

To take the last first: there is no doubt that Ned Kelly is animated to some extent by revenge, not only for his own brutal treatment at the hands of the police, but also for his mother in particular (“I am a widow’s son, and I will be obeyed”) and for people of Irish origin in general—not to mention all the downtrodden people in his part of the world. Many of these people are migrants, but from a different part of the world, not just from another part of the same country. However, as we see the diggings, we can also assume that many have come to that particular place in search of gold, which was also one of several reasons that took people to the west of America.

The most interesting item to contemplate on Lovell’s list is the first. It’s almost as if the non-historical subplot involving Naomi Watts’s character, Julia Cook, was written in to reinforce this characteristic. Not that the wicked villain menaces her; nor that she’s a virginal heroine! ... once again, horses are involved. Julia is shown in her first encounter with Ned to understand horses well, and to be concerned about their welfare. Her husband Richard Cook (Nicholas Bell), on the other hand, is cruel and peremptory, shooting the recalcitrant horse despite Ned’s offer to do some savvy horse-whispering. It might be suggested that the villainous threat is displaced from the wife to the horse; anyway, it leads indirectly to some heroic bodice-ripping. A more historical virtuous maiden can be seen in the character of Ned’s sister, Kate Kelly (Kerry Condon). She is menaced by the nasty Constable Alexander Fitzpatrick (Kiri Paramore), whose visit to the Kelly household starts the chain of events which leads to Ned’s being declared an outlaw.

It would seem that, at least superficially, this film conforms in a number of ways to what critics expect from a western. It may be fruitful to speculate whether this is, indeed, one of the reasons why the film did so poorly at the box office. Looking rather like a conventional American western, a form whose finest exemplars are in the distant past, and having little of any vital spark to set it off as Australian, it’s just possible that there was little here to appeal to a young film-going audience—apart from the youthful appeal of Heath Ledger, Naomi Watts and Orlando Bloom.

There is one important characteristic which is not evident in this film but which is found in many Australian westerns, bushranger films, or bush films generally: it has no significant Indigenous character. There is a brief appearance in Ned Kelly of a tracker (David Ngoombujarra) in the service of the police, but his character is not developed: he is seen in a long shot and does not speak—and he is on the wrong side. There has been a surprisingly large number of films of these kinds with an Aboriginal character who has an important function as far as the white characters are concerned, typically as a tracker, but also as interpreter, go-between, or just simply a companion. In the service of continuing our investigation of the “Australian western”, it may be useful to consider variations on this figure further, taking as the first example one of its major interpreters.

The best-known Aboriginal actor in Australia is David Gulpilil, who starred in a film in fact called The Tracker (Rolf de Heer, 2002). 16 With the success of de Heer’s film, and the award of Best Actor at the AFI Awards 2002 to Gulpilil, who plays the title character, it is timely to look at the figure of the tracker in Australian cinema. Trackers and other Indigenous character companions have been essential to the success of European penetration and control of Australia. They have not only aided the colonisation of their own country, but have also been sought as a source of values and ethics—as spiritual as well as physical guides. And in Australian films, even when not specifically employed as trackers, individual Indigenous characters often serve as carriers of meaning and insight.

In this context, this one actor’s career stands out as being of particular importance. Gulipilil was there at the beginning—or at least the rebirth—of Australian cinema in 1971, with his appearance in Walkabout (Nicholas Roeg, 1971). And now he has been rewarded—or at least awarded—in recognition for his performance in the film which takes the name of this sub-genre. He has often been cast in the role of the wise guide and companion. In the second feature film in which he appeared, Mad Dog Morgan (Phillippe Mora, 1976), Dennis Hopper’s crazy character needed all the help he could get, and he was lucky to have Gulpilil’s character, Billy, with him during his wanderings. Another isolate, Storm Boy (in the film of the same name, 1976, dir. Henri Safran), also needs the companionship of a character played by Gulpilil, Fingerbone Bill, whose very name refers to his capacity to point out a direction. Fingerbone is perforce also an isolate, having been banished by his people, the Kunai—perhaps recalling the situation of Marbuck in Jedda (Charles Chauvel, 1955).

Gulpilil plays the part of spiritual guide to Richard Chamberlain’s character in Peter Weir’s The Last Wave (1977), this time in an urban setting. In his next major appearance he is seen in the ‘same’ place, but as it was 200 years previously, in the mini-series The Timeless Land (1980, TV mini-series), as Benelong, one of the first people to offer advice to European colonisers. By the time Paul Hogan comes to make Crocodile Dundee (Peter Faiman, 1986), David Gulpilil is such an iconic figure as an Indigenous companion that his presence can be used as the basis of a joke. When Sue Charlton (Linda Kozlowski) attempts to take Neville’s photo he tells her she can’t do that. Responding to what she imagines to be his animistic belief system, she asks whether it is because it will take his spirit? She is told by Neville (Gulpilil) that, no, she has the lens cap on! Hogan’s writers present other such moments in the other two films in the series. Croc 1 does, however, take its Aboriginal characters seriously in the scenes where Neville joins other men for some secret business, the importance of which we are meant to see Mick Dundee understands—even though Sue Charlton shows less respect.

Gulpilil returns to a more significant role in Dead Heart (Nick Parsons, 1996), where, among other things, he plays the traditional Aboriginal to Ernie Dingo’s completely assimilated character. In one fascinating sequence in the film, Gulpilil’s (nameless) character uses his bush skills to show Dingo’s character (David) how to avoid being followed—by wearing feathers on his feet to disguise his tracks. David suffers greatly by being deprived of his sandals.

Two films starring David Gulpilil won major awards at the 2002 AFI Awards. He plays the tracker Moodoo in Rabbit-Proof Fence (Phil Noyce, 2001) which won Best Film perhaps as much for its political importance as for its aesthetic qualities. The significance of the film for Aboriginal politics was signalled by the producers’ (Noyce and Christine Olsen) decision to to let the writer of the source book do most of the talking at the presentation. Doris Pilkington Garimara’s written account of her grandmother’s story, Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence, dramatises the ordeal experienced by some of those young Aboriginal people we now refer to as the Stolen Generation. When they escape from detention at the Moore River settlement, it is Moodoo’s job to track them. In the only line given to him in the film, he expresses his admiration for the girls’ ability to disguise their tracks. Indeed, this film is remarkable for being one of the very few when the tracker does not succeed in catching his quarry—presumably because he decides not to. In the only other instance I can recall, Barron Films’ Southern Cross (Mark DeFriest, 2001; a remake of A Waltz through the Hills (1988, Frank Arnold), the Aboriginal tracker is unsuccessful because he realises he is following the track of a fellow Aboriginal (played by Heath Bergerson). In Southern Cross, the tracker played by Nigel Wilkes clearly intends not to find the children (and his cousin); in Moodoo’s case the situation is perhaps more open to interpretation. (His single line is: “Pretty clever that girl. She wants to go home”—which clearly expresses sympathy.) The other major award for Rabbit-Proof Fence went to Gulpilil, in his own right, as Best Actor for 2002. 17 The part was a natural for him, in more than the usual metaphorical sense. He claims that “Acting to me is a piece of cake” (Gulpilil: One Red Blood, documentary, Darlene Johnson, 2002). “I don’t work,” he told the media after the AFI Award presentation. “I wait for acting to come ... I am a real tracker. You have to be a good tracker to find me”. 18

Although David Gulpilil is arguably the most significant actor ever to play such roles, he is certainly not alone, and there is a long history of Aboriginal characters as helpers of various kinds—even if not all of them were played by Indigenous actors. What is sometimes said to be the world’s first feature film was released in 1906: The Story of the Kelly Gang (Charles Tait). Only one year later, a film was released which features the second bushranger on film—and the first black tracker: Robbery under Arms (Charles McMahon, 1907). Sadly, the part of Warrigal was played by one Jim Gerald “in blackface”. 19 A few years later, the third feature film with an Aboriginal character—played by the director’s wife Agnes in blackface—was Moonlite (John Gavin, 1910), about a bushranger who “never wronged a woman”. 20 In the following year, in The Squatter’s Son (E. J. Cole, 1911), “in a climactic horseback escape, the hero is helped by an obedient ‘Black Boy’ who destroys a bridge to delay the pursuers.” 21 Also in 1911, in Assigned To His Wife (John Gavin, 1911), Yacka, the hero’s “faithful Aboriginal friend”, “contrives to rescue him with a ‘Dive for Life’ in which the Aboriginal boy dives 250 feet over a precipice into a river”. 22 Robbery under Arms is the story of Captain Starlight. He is only one of many bushrangers with similar names (such as Captain Moonlite and Captain Midnight—not to mention Moondyne, Thunderbolt and plain Ben Hall and Dan Morgan, aka Mad Dog Morgan, as mentioned above) who are accompanied or helped by Aborigines.

One of the more rounded Aboriginal characters—in a strikingly early film—was played by Indigenous actor Henry Murdoch in Bitter Springs (Ralph Smart, 1950). An Ealing Studios (England) film, but shot in Australia and starring Chips Rafferty, it tells a story in which Black Jack (Henry Murdoch) is not a tracker as such, but a guide, in physical, social and moral senses. When the settler family is granted the “rights” to land, including a waterhole on which an Aboriginal group is completely dependent for water and food, there is inevitable conflict. Black Jack, placed in a complex and ambivalent position, is called upon not only to interpret and advise, but to save the day for the whites and reconcile the parties. The film concludes with an unfortunately cursory happy ending, but until those last two minutes is, for its time, an admirable study of serious issues. Henry Murdoch also played a tracker in another offshore production, Kangaroo (Lewis Milestone, 1952).

Not such an admirable film is Journey out of Darkness (James Trainor, 1967), not least because both of the key Indigenous roles are played by non-Aboriginals Ed Devereaux (at the time a quite prominent white Australian actor) and Kamahl, from Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). Devereaux blacks up to play Aboriginal tracker, Jubbal, and popular crooner Kamahl plays an Aboriginal prisoner. When Jubbal dies, the prisoner becomes his captor’s guide “out of darkness”.

This reversal of the usual power hierarchy—when the Aboriginal person has to help the white person—is a frequently occurring trope, almost a cliché. Something similar occurs in Dust in the Sun (Lee Robinson, 1958), based on Jon Cleary’s story, Justin Bayard. 23 The eponymous hero (Ken Wayne) is a policeman in the Northern Territory taking an Aboriginal, Emu Foot (Robert Tudawali), to Alice Springs in on a murder charge for having committed a killing required by his own law. When Bayard is wounded in an attack, Emu Foot saves his life, at the cost of losing his own life in a later reprisal. Bill Bennett’s Backlash (1986) is another film in which the Aboriginal prisoner has to take control. When the two police officers (David Argue and Gia Carides) taking her from Sydney to trial in Broken Hill lose their way, they have to be helped by Kath (Lydia Miller) and her bush skills.

A contrary case is provided by Burke and Wills (Graeme Clifford, 1985). Despite being observed by Indigenous people as they approach their deaths, they have no black companion as such, and so die—ironically—of starvation, despite being surrounded by (bush) food. The mise-en-scene of this moment perhaps recalls that of the one in Walkabout, when the children meet Gulpilil’s character for the first time. He is moved to laughter when he realises that they are in danger of dying of thirst, despite having just been sleeping at a waterhole where the water is only centimetres below the surface of the sand.

Two tentative conclusions may be drawn from this observation of subtle differences between American and Australian westerns. One has to do with a slightly greater sensitivity to the interdependence of the two peoples and cultures, Indigenous and settler, having to get by in the bush; the other, closely related, is a slightly greater emphasis on community as opposed to individual. The first point has been demonstrated in my discussion of those films which show the dependence of settlers and Aborigines on each other, and especially those in which a principal white character is accompanied by a black companion, tracker, guide or friend.

Regarding the second point, if we return to the 2003 version of Ned Kelly where we left off, at the scene in the Kelly house in which Constable Fitzpatrick presses his unwanted attention on Kate, what is striking is that it is the villain who is alone, whereas there is a strong sense of community among the Kellys and their friends. It’s also noticeable that Ned never acts alone (until the very end, when his companions have been killed): he is always with relatives and friends, usually his brother and Joe Byrne. Also, when he takes his stand, as set out in the Jerilderie letter, it is on behalf of his family and community—and he even takes up a suggestion from at least one of the people listening. Whereas the essence of Warshow’s “westerner” is his solitude, the essence of Ned Kelly—and many equivalent such characters—is his companionability.


1 Jim Kitses 1969, Horizons West: Anthony Mann, Budd Boetticher, Sam Peckinpah: Studies of Authorship Within the Western, Secker & Warburg/BFI, London; Indiana University Press, Bloomington & London: 8.

2 Pam Cook & Mieke Bernink 1999, The Cinema Book, second edition, BFI, London: 151; quoting Kitses 1969: 12.

3 André Bazin 1971, “The western, or the American film par excellence”, What is Cinema? vol. 2, tr. Hugh Gray, University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles: 145.

4 Robert Warshow 1974, “Movie chronicle: the westerner”, repr. in The Immediate Experience, Atheneum, New York (orig. publ. Partisan Review, 1954).

5 Warshow 1974: 135.

6 Bazin 1971: 148-9.

7 Warshow 1974: 142.

8 Warshow 1974: 143.

9 Warshow 1974: 150.

10 Warshow 1974: 150.

11 Kitses 1969.

12 Kitses 1969: 11.

13 Kitses 1969: 10.

14 John Michael McDonagh 2003, Ned Kelly: The Screenplay, Currency Press, Sydney (based on the novel by Robert Drewe, Our Sunshine).

15 Alan Lovell 1967, “The western”, Screen Education, 41, Sept-Oct: 97.

16 David Gulpilil filmography:
Walkabout (1971) (as David Gumpilil) [Black Boy]
Mad Dog Morgan (1976) [Billy] (aka Mad Dog [USA])
Storm Boy (1977) [Fingerbone]
Last Wave, The (1977) (as Gulpilil) [Chris Lee]
Timeless Land, The” (1980) (mini-series) [Benelong]
Right Stuff, The (1983) [Aborigine]
Crocodile Dundee (1986) [Neville Bell]
Dark Age (1987) [Adjaral]
Bis ans Ende der Welt (1991) [David] (aka Jusqu’au bout du monde [France] aka Until the End of the World [USA])
Dead Heart (1996) [2nd Man (Tjangala man)]
Serenades (2001) [Rainman]
Rabbit-Proof Fence (2002) [Moodoo]
Tracker, The (2002) [The Tracker]
Gulpilil: One Red Blood (documentary, 2002)

17 His complete speech, as broadcast: “Yep. I deserved it”.

18 Sophie Tedmanson 2002, “Gulpilil of two worlds wins AFI”, The Australian, 9 December 2002: 3.

19 Andrew Pike & Ross Cooper 1998, Australian Film 1900-1977: A Guide to Feature Film Production, revised edition, Oxford University Press, Melbourne: 8; as is so often the case, one has to rely on the legendary scholarship of Pike and Cooper, as the film no longer exists.

20 Pike & Cooper 1998: 11.

21 Pike & Cooper 1998: 17.

22 Pike & Cooper 1998: 27.

23 Jon Cleary, Justin Bayard, Collins, London, 1955.

New: 11 February, 2009 | Now: 20 December, 2018