History is one of the key battlegrounds in the war for social progress. When used correctly, history confers not just a sense of tradition and legitimacy but also a sense of inevitability: Why bother fighting to change society when things have always been the way they are? Why bother fighting to overthrow the status quo when history tells us that there are no viable alternatives to the existing model? To control history is to control the narratives that govern society and to control the narratives that govern society is to govern society’s moral compass.
Once a group controls all the narratives and sets the moral tone of the discussion, all they need to do in order to win an argument is to present themselves as being history’s natural endpoint. Indeed, it is one thing to criticise the morals of the ruling elite and the moral righteousness of the status quo but it is quite another to pick a fight with the implacable Darwinian logic of human history. By staking out the historical high ground and claiming to be the culmination of long-standing historical processes, defenders of the status quo can make their critics appear not merely wrong but ignorant and downright delusional. One spectacular example of this type of thing is Francis Fukuyama’s infamous decision to celebrate the end of the Cold War by asking whether America’s victory over the Soviet Union marked the end of history. By attempting to claim American liberal democracy as history’s logical end point, Fukuyama was making a bold political claim namely that in the grand scheme of things, All Paths Lead to Us. Thus, the Soviets were not merely wrong; they were fighting against history’s oceanic tide. Another example of the battle to control a society’s historical narratives can be found in the evolution of the cinematic Western.
The Hollywood Western provided America with an appealing creation myth. According to the Western, American society arose when groups of heroic individuals conquered that American wasteland and built a civilisation. They did this because they wanted to be free. They did this because they wanted to be rich. They did this because they relied upon themselves and not upon the government. They did this because they were the blessed and the blessed always have pride of place in God’s Own Country. This creation myth appealed because it pandered to the right-wing values of the political status quo and presented them in a way that was not just romantic but downright mythological. John Wayne is an American Zeus, which is why the likes of George W. Bush have been swift to don cowboy boots as they mosey their way into power.
Only too aware of the reactionary politics embedded in the traditional Western, left-leaning filmmakers have long tried to subvert the traditions of the Western in the hope that it might help them to seize control of America’s historical narratives. For example, Revisionist Westerns such as Sam Pekinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969), Robert Altman’s McCabe and Mrs Miller (1971), Clint Eatwood’s Unforgiven (1992) and Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man (1995) paint the Old West as a place full of violence, oppression, madness and death.
- Right-wingers look to the Old West as a time of moral clarity to which Americans must return.
- Left-wingers look to the Old West as a time of moral calamity that Americans must move past.
Both of these views claim to be realistic but in truth, both are simply part of a wider cultural battle for the soul of American society. One side believes that American cannot change because it has always been a particular way and the other side believes that America must continue to change because the American story is ultimately one of continuous progress and renewal. While the Western is now widely recognised as a key skirmish point in the battleground of American cultural politics, the role played by the Western in the political discourse of other cultures is perhaps less well known.
Given its wide-open spaces and its history of ethnic cleansing, it is hardly surprising to note that Australia has a long history of flirtation with the Western genre. Referred to locally as Meat Pie Westerns (a play on the Italian-made Spaghetti Westerns), films such as Lesley Selander’s The Kangaroo Kid (1950) and George T. Miller’s The Man From Snowy River (1982) take elements of the Western genre and modify them to fit in with popular perceptions of life in the Australian Outback. The director Simon Wincer has even gone so far as to explicitly address the similarities between the American West and the Australian Outback by first sending a cowboy to Australia in Quigley Down Under (1990) and then sending a bushranger to America in Lightning Jack (1994). However, while the Meat Pie Western has a history almost as long as that of the traditional Western, it is only comparatively recently that we have begun to see the emergence of Revisionist Meat Pie Westerns that challenge Australian history in the same way that the original Revisionists challenged America.
The Ur text of Australian Revisionism is arguably John Hillcoat’s The Proposition (2005). Like many American Revisionist Westerns, The Proposition is decidedly ambivalent about the encroachment of civilisation onto the Australian wilderness. For example, while the gang at the centre of the film are presented as a group of dangerous psychopaths, the officer sent to capture them is just as dangerous and just as violent despite his colonialist rhetoric and his promise to bring civilisation to the Australia. At the time of its release, The Proposition was praised for its realistic depiction of Indigenous Australians. Indeed, whereas American Revisionism has always maintained quite a broad-based attack on traditional values, Australian Revisionism seems far more interested in Australia’s racial past than it is in questions of individualism, civilisation and colonial rule. This interest may go some way towards accounting for the conspicuous absence of Ned Kelly from the history of the movement for, as The Proposition suggests, one white man with a gun and an agenda is really no different to another.
One film that tackles Australia’s racial past head-on is Rolf de Heer’s The Tracker (2002). The film revolves around four men who venture into the Outback in order to track down an Indigenous Australian who is accused of murder. Three of these men are white and mounted on horses; one of these men is not white and travels on foot. Beautifully shot and littered with brilliant character moments, the film explores the tension between the Indigenous tracker’s desire to fit in and be a good employee of the army and his need to defend his people against the racism and fanatical violence of his employers. The idea of the white population pushing an Indigenous Australian to breaking point features prominently throughout the Australian Revisionist movement as well as in such books as Thomas Keneally’s Booker-nominated The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith (1972). It also underpins Patrick Hughes’s Red Hill, a Revisionist Western set in modern-day Australia.
Red Hill opens with a young man turning up for his first day at work as a rural police officer. As Shane Cooper (Ryan Kwanten) walks into town, he is confronted by a local museum featuring a dubious waxwork dummy of an Indigenous Australian. From there, Cooper makes his way to the town hall where the local chief of police is addressing a gathering of concerned locals. The problem is that the town is broke and a local female politician is trying to convince the local people to agree to make the kind of changes that might attract new business and new people. Fearful that his dominion over the town might be at risk, the chief of police (Steve Bisley) makes a powerful speech about the history of Australia and how people built the town with the sweat of their brows rather than by pandering to wealthy sophisticates. Despite his views having no basis whatsoever in reality, the police chief wins the argument. He wins the argument because he controls the history of the town and uses it to both flatter the locals and present himself as the logical endpoint of Australian history. In other words, all paths lead to him and any attempt to deviate from these paths can be dismissed as nothing more than ignorant lunacy and deluded hypocrisy.
Cooper’s first encounter with the chief of police proves problematic as while the chief looks, talks and acts like something out of the Old West, Cooper is a liberal who prefers understanding criminals to shooting them. Upon hearing this, the chief of police starts referring to him simply as ‘Constable’, with emphasis placed squarely on the ‘Cunt’.
After attending to both a rumoured panther attack and an incident of horse rustling, Cooper is called back to the station where he learns that Jimmy Conway (Tom E. Lewis, who also appeared in the cinematic adaptation of The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith) has escaped from prison. Once a fabled tracker and outdoorsman, Conway is a local man who reportedly went mad and murdered his wife before being tracked down by the chief of police. Mindful that the man might return to town in search of revenge, the chief of police sends his boys out to intercept him.
Conway is a fantastic cinematic presence. Built like an Australian barn with a face covered with hideous scars, Conway is black rage made flesh. In a series of spectacular and brilliantly conceived set pieces, he ambushes and murders his way through most of the local police force. Particularly noteworthy is the hugely entertaining sequence in which Conway enters a bar and puts Stevie Wright’s “Black Eyed Bruiser” on the jukebox before initiating a gunfight. Also wonderful is the scene in which a detective begs for his life as Conway looks on impassively. Suddenly, the detective pulls a gun and sneers “you black bastard” before firing at Conway and completely missing him, at which point the detective shamelessly resumes begging for his life.
Still an outsider to the town, Cooper darts in and out of the action only to be systematically outwitted by Conway. However, while Conway does not hesitate in killing the other policemen, he always goes out of his way to incapacitate rather than kill Cooper. This begs the question: what, if not his outsider status, is keeping Cooper alive? Far from being an escaped madman on a killing spree, Conway seems to be acting on some kind of plan with a list of pre-defined targets. Suddenly wary that he might not be in possession of all the facts, Cooper begins digging into the original case and discovers that Conway is not the monster the chief of police makes him out to be.
Aside from being a flawlessly paced, imaginatively directed and elegantly shot action move, Red Hill also attacks the accepted history of Australia. Australians, the film argues, did not carve civilisation out of the bush using only the sweat of their brows and the courage of their convictions. Instead, White Australians made a country for themselves by killing, raping and generally mistreating the indigenous population. Then, adding insult to injury, the White Australians sought to justify their racism by re-writing history in such a way as to emphasise their superiority over the indigenous population. By attacking this historical narrative, Red Hill is challenging the political status quo and encouraging Australians to acknowledge the racism that lies buried in their collective history. However, despite Red Hill’s laudable desire to confront prejudice, it is interesting to note that the character of Jimmy Conway only gets one line of dialogue in the entire film. This, it transpires, is something of a trope in its own right.
Though hailed in some quarters as heroic attempts to address the historical mistreatment of Indigenous Australians, both Thomas Keneally’s The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith (1972) and Fred Schepisi’s 1978 cinematic adaptation of the book are profoundly problematic works. The most obvious problem is that, much like the writers and directors of The Proposition, The Tracker and Red Hill, neither Keneally nor Schepisi are actually Indigenous Australians. This means that the anger and pain these works express are ultimately founded upon empathy rather direct experience. Setting aside the issue of cultural appropriation, the fact that all of these films involve white men get angry on behalf of non-white men distorts the nature of the anger. For example, as Allan James Thomas points out in his excellent piece on Schepisi’s film:
Once he rejects white culture once and for all (or is rejected by it), the film identifies him more and more with this landscape again, with this horror, stripping him ultimately even of the power of speech. In the final scenes of the film, he is literally like a wounded animal, half his face blown away, teeth protruding from the open wound, a wild-eyed inhuman monster. He becomes identified with the horror figured in the landscape itself (which resonates uncomfortably with the notion of Aboriginal culture as being ‘at one with the land’; given the horror with which the landscape is so often imbued, such an identification may be less positive than it at first appears).
As the scene at the beginning of Red Hill makes clear, one of the central pillars of the White Australian creation myth is that, prior to the arrival of white settlers, Australia was a poisonous and uninhabitable wasteland. Indeed, films as diverse as John Cornell’s “Crocodile” Dundee II (1988) and Jonathan auf der Heide’s Van Diemen’s Land (2009) stress the fact that Australia will invariably kill those who lack the strength of character required to either dominate it or merge with it. Keneally’s novel is deeply problematic because, while the book attempts to understand the rage of Australia’s Indigenous population, it expresses that rage using the same language and concepts that are routinely deployed by racists. Thus, rather than challenging racism, Keneally is actively reinforcing the very attitudes he claims to deplore. Upon reading The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, your average Australian racist would simply nod along sagely because once you scratch the surface of these black bastards you find something that really is little more than an animal and those kinds of animals need to be locked away for the sake of White Australians everywhere.
The links between The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith and Red Hill are quite explicit. Aside from sharing an actor with Schepisi’s film, Red Hill also features an angry and disfigured Indigenous Australian who lacks the power of speech. The decision to deprive Jimmy Conway of the power of speech is an interesting one as Keneally has since distanced himself from Jimmie Blacksmith on the grounds that he now believes that it was wrong of him to put words into the mouth of an Indigenous Australian. Clearly mindful of this problem, Red Hill’s writer/director Patrick Hudson decided to put barely any words at all into the mouth of his non-white character. However, by depriving Conway of the power of speech, Hudson has evaded one racial problem only to blunder into a different and altogether more serious one namely that while Red Hill professes to be about the historical mistreatment of Indigenous Australians it is actually all about the moral righteousness of those White Australians who happen to give a shit about their country’s racial history.
Nicholas Stoller’s Get Him To The Greek (2010) is a comedy that features a rock star whose career begins to implode when he decides to record a song entitled “African Child”. Described by critics as ‘the worst thing to happen to black culture since the Rodney King beatings’, “African Child” makes the same mistake as Red Hill by transforming a song about the plight of non-white people into a celebration of how awesome white people can be. This takes us right back to where we started, namely the problem of white people framing historical narratives to make themselves look good.
The problem with films like Red Hill, The Proposition, The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith and The Tracker is that while they attempt to address important social problems they do so in a manner that maintains the exclusion of non-white people from positions of control over historical narratives. Red Hill is definitely a Revisionist Western in that it challenges the chief of police’s suggestion that all paths lead to him but the new historical narrative offered by the film is just as white-centric only now the white people are defending the non-whites rather than simply oppressing them. Both sets of narratives exclude Indigenous Australians because they treat them as mere set dressing for the story of White Australia’s triumph over adversity. This is not to say that Red Hill is either racist or reactionary, it is just to say that it is not nearly as helpful, or as thoughtful, or as progressive as it seems to think it is.
Well-intentioned films like Red Hill would not pose a problem if cinemas were littered with Revisionist Westerns written and directed by Indigenous Australians. Indeed, it is only right that a new generation of White Australian filmmakers should seek to distance themselves from the racism of past generations by producing films that attack that racism. The problem is that while these films serve an important purpose the purpose they serve is to communicate White Australia’s perception of White Australia’s racism and this is very different to a film that communicates Indigenous Australia’s perception of White Australia. The danger of films like Red Hill and The Tracker is that they occupy all the spaces that should be occupied by a variety of different viewpoints. I adore meat-pie westerns and would happily watch dozens of them but I realise that I am in a minority and so it seems to me that films like Red Hill and The Tracker might actually make it harder for Indigenous Australian films to be made because, at the end of the day, how many Australian Westerns about racism are people really going to watch? I understand that non-racist White Australians need to have their say but they also need to recognise the fact that their control of Australia’s historical narratives disenfranchises Indigenous Australians just as much as films in which heroic white settlers battle the hostile Australian environment. Empathy is a wonderful thing but it simply cannot atone for centuries of racism, oppression and mistreatment.