During the recent Melbourne International Film Festival (MIFF), I had an interesting discussion about whether genre films can ever deal with important social issues in a way that is not titillating or exploitative. One example of a genre film that does, shown at this year’s MIFF, is Peter Weir’s 1977 film, The Last Wave.
The Internet Movie Database classifies The Last Wave as a ‘drama/mystery/thriller’ but it is also laced with supernatural/occult tropes popular in many horror films of the seventies. It’s a story about weather and the climate, in a way that can now be viewed as a remarkably prescient. But most importantly, given my introductory comments, it is also a relatively sophisticated attempt by a white director to engage with Indigenous Australian issues and mythology and the clash between Aboriginal law and Western law.
The centrality of the changing weather is signposted at the beginning of The Last Wave, a brilliant bright blue sky over Outback Australia while thunder rumbles ominously in the distance. A moment later rain and large hailstones pour down over a remote outback school, smashing the windows and terrifying the children. Meanwhile in the middle of Sydney CDB, torrential rain blankets the city, causing traffic chaos. One of the people caught in the downpour is lawyer, David Burton.
Burton – who has been having trouble sleeping due to strange, apocalyptic dreams that involve the world being engulfed in water – is asked by a friend in legal aid to leave the safety of his corporate taxation practice and provide pro-bono assistance in the case of five Aboriginal men accused of murder.
All five of the Aboriginal men maintain they are innocent but refuse to give Burton any details about what happened on the night of the alleged murder. ‘’Determined to get to the bottom of the case, Burton immerses himself in studying Aboriginal history and Dreamtime mythology and comes to the conclusion the killing was ‘tribal’ in nature. Burton wants to argue this as a defence in court, but his colleague scoffs at the idea, saying there are no ‘tribal’ Aborigines in the city. The five defendants, he says, are ‘no different culturally than depressed whites… We destroyed their languages, their ceremonies, songs and dances – and their tribal law.
During the court case, Lee admits to Burton he is actually a tribal Aboriginal man and that Sydney contains some of their sacred sites. That night Burton is alone in his house during a particularly fierce storm when Lee appears, much as he did in his dream, and tells him to follow if he wants to know what is going on. We watch them going down the same tunnels the dead man, Billy, emerged from earlier in the film.
The Last Wave was the third in a series of dark, uniquely Australian films helmed by Weir early in his career. The first, The Cars That Ate Paris (1974), featured a small country town that survives by deliberately causing road accidents and salvaging the remains, both mechanical and human. The second, Picnic At Hanging Rock (1975), told of the disappearance of several school girls and their teacher during a picnic at Hanging Rock in Victoria on Valentine’s Day in 1900 and the ramifications triggered by the mystery. Justifiably lauded as a classic of seventies Australian cinema, its glimpse into white Victorian-era Australia is infused with a dark take on society’s attempts to control female freedom and sexuality and the women’s efforts to resist.
The Last Wave neatly fits into the cycle of ‘when nature attacks’ horror films popular in the seventies and early eighties, of which there are several local examples. These include: Long Weekend (1978), which focuses on a materialistic city couple who go camping in remote bush and treat the environment terribly before the environment fights back; Dark Age (1987), about a pair of Aboriginal trackers (one played by David Gulpilil, who also stars in The Last Wave) who help a park ranger track down and contain a giant saltwater crocodile which has Dreamtime significance to local Indigenous people, before it is killed by a gang of red neck hunters; and Razorback (1984), the story of a vicious killer boar that terrorises a remote outback town.
The weather in The Last Wave, in particular water, is an out-of-control elemental force that renders meaningless anything humans can do to protect themselves from it. Water pours from the sky, drips from buildings and in one particularly evocative scene, gushes from Burton’s car radio, threatening to submerge everything. And when it is not raining, there are ever-present signs water is not far away, the distant rumble of thunder, swirling ink black clouds. In an effect that is particularly eerie, the sounds of nature are layered with other noises, half heard weather reports on the radio and chanting.
Weir is on record as saying he initially conceived of The Last Wave to explore the question ‘What if someone with a very pragmatic approach to life experienced a premonition?’ In this regard, Richard Chamberlain is an excellent choice as Burton, whose ordered, white middle-class certainties fall apart in the face of another worldview, the Dreamtime and Aboriginal spirituality, and the dawning realisation his apocalyptic dreams may, indeed, be premonitions.
It is difficult territory for a white director to tackle and there are moments in the film in which he doesn’t totally pull it off. Parts of the script by Tony Morphett and Petru Popescu are clumsy and a bit silly. And the conclusion, that another race, the Mulkurul, pre-dated the arrival of Indigenous Australians is open to various interpretations.
That said, The Last Wave engages with Indigenous Australia in a way few local films of the time did. In this video, Weir gives a fascinating account of how he tried to incorporate Indigenous viewpoints into the film. Gulpilil acknowledged how important this was, telling the Sydney Morning Herald in November 1977, that the film was not only ‘very important’ but the ‘first film to authentically describe Aboriginal ‘Dreamtime’ mythology’.
Weir insisted actual traditional Aboriginal people play all the Aboriginal characters on screen. As part of this effort he flew to Groot Island, off the coast of Northern Territory, to recruit Nandjiwarra Amagula, an actor, elder and local magistrate, to play the intriguing character, Charlie. An apparently harmless old man who pretends at first he can’t speak English, he is also a fierce guardian of his tribe’s sacred culture and, it is strongly hinted, has mystical powers of his own. Born in Arnhem Land, Gulpilil had led a largely traditional upbringing, including becoming a skilled tracker and ceremonial dancer, before UK director Nicolas Roeg cast him at the age of just fifteen alongside Jenny Agutter in Walkabout (1971). The Last Wave was Gulpilil’s fourth film.
The participation of Amagula and Gulpilil lends The Last Wave a rich texture and authenticity. This manifests in numerous scenes. In an admission that is probably as common now as it was in 1977, Burton’s wife, Annie, confides in her husband before Charlie and Lee arrive for dinner, ‘I’m a fourth generation Australian and I’ve never met an Aboriginal before’. Over dinner, they enter into a lengthy discussion about the Dreamtime. Burton quizzes Lee about what dreams are. ‘Like seeing – like hearing – like talking,’ replies Lee.
The courtroom scene in which Burton cross-examines Allen about sacred sites also resonates today. Think of so many mainstream current affairs shows and news item when an Indigenous person has tried to argue the value and equality of their spiritual beliefs in the face of Western bureaucratic law and modern economic rationalist principles. Nearly four decades after it was made, The Last Wave undermines our cultural certainties, leaving us to contemplate the existence of something deeper and more powerful beneath the exterior of white Australia.