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March 22nd 2009 print

Laurie Hergenhan

Australia: Echoes of Xavier Herbert

Critics have related Australia to past movies, Australian and American, as an epic re-interpreting a national past. However, the striking similarities of the movie’s screenplay with two classics of Australian fiction, Xavier Herbert’s Capricornia (1938) and Poor Fellow My Country (1975) have so far been unremarked. Poor Fellow especially is a hidden presence in the movie. Echoes of Herbert’s works throw aspects of Australia into relief, sharpening an understanding of its version of the past and intimations of the future.

In Herbert’s classic novel of Australia’s top end, Capricornia, tropical nature mocks the pretensions of superior whites. Here human life and society, with its racial and other conflicts, are disorderly, often violent, and unpredictable. While this general background, common to both of Herbert’s novels, resembles that of the movie’s frontier society and its harsh if beautiful natural setting, there are individual similarities with Capricornia.

In the movie, in gratitude for his work in driving her cattle overland to Darwin, Lady Sarah Ashley gives to Drover her pure-bred horse, imported from Britain and called “Capricornia”. This naming seems to be a reference not to the novel but to the region. Its incongruity would have been scorned by Herbert as indicating imperialistic condescension, but Australia is suggesting, heavy-handedly, a future blending of cultures; it is said that the horse will inter-breed with bush brumbies. This may be meant as an echo of the eventual bonding of the two main characters, whose “offspring” will be an adopted boy, the part-Aboriginal Nullah (Lady Ashley cannot have children).

The ending of Capricornia echoes a motif from the movie. In the latter the Aboriginal mother of Nullah is drowned while they are hiding in a water tank from the authorities who have come to take him away. At the end of Capricornia the bones of a fugitive young woman and her unborn baby are discovered in an empty tank after her lover has forgotten to rescue her from this hiding place which becomes her prison. The comparison points up the contrasting tones of movie and novel: one is tragic, though there is hopeful reconciliation ahead; the other is a black conclusion, showing the savagery of social circumstances.

The plot of Australia is set in motion by the arrival of Lady Sarah in the Northern Territory to search for her missing husband. She travels to his property only to find that he has been murdered. The main part of the movie shows her falling in love with the Drover, as they and helpers drive a herd of cattle on an epic journey to Darwin. The device, familiar in Australian literature, of introducing a British aristocrat, usually a man but sometimes a woman, into the uncouth outback is used here to show Lady Sarah adapting to her strangely new environment. She comes to accept and love it, after initially recoiling from it as alien, as when on her arrival her “smalls” from her mountainous luggage are scattered by frontier roughs over a Darwin street, and when formally dressed, or “insulated”, she is driven through an empty, arid landscape. An Australian, or American, audience is meant to enjoy her discomfiture, the shock to her aristocratic expectations and posh ways being followed by her acceptance of the new world.

A parallel with Lady Sarah is Lady Lydia Lyndbrooke-Esk in Poor Fellow, a fascist British aristocrat, who enters and disappears from the novel in Book I. She is the fiancée of Lord Vaisey. This is a thinly disguised reference to Lord Vestey, one of Australia’s richest absentee landlords or cattle barons. (At Vestey’s Wave Hill station in the 1970s a walk-off by Aboriginal stockmen resulted in more pay for Aboriginal workers.) Lydia meets the novel’s idealistic protagonist, Jeremy Delacy, at some picnic races. He sets out to induct her into an understanding of the mysteries of the land and Aboriginal dreamtime. Instead she is threatened, finding them alien. Feeling rejected by the country, she in turn rejects and leaves it.

If not the central character of Australia, Nullah is the character whom audiences find most sympathetic. He contributes to the theme of reconciliation when Lady Sarah (“Mrs Boss”) adopts him after his rescue by Drover from captivity as a stolen child. His counterpart in Poor Fellow is another child of mixed race called Prindy, the most sympathetic character of that novel. He is the “golden boy”, literally in terms of colour and symbolically in terms of promise, of the blending of races. Exceptionally gifted, he relates not only to black and white cultures but also to others. As well, like Nullah he possesses though his black inheritance magical gifts which deeply bind him to the land. He becomes the apprentice of a shaman (as does Nullah to his black grandfather, King George), a mysterious character called the Pookarakka who haunts the novel. He is, however, an ambivalent figure, not a benign and guiding spirit like King George (also the name of a minor character in the novel). The Pookarakka has been poisoned by settlers and imprisoned by white authorities. As a result he is somewhat unhinged. Hostile, if outwardly subservient, to whites, he proves in the end to be an unyielding enforcer of black law.

Prindy threads his way throughout Poor Fellow, often on the run, pursued by authority figures, especially the police, yet always managing to escape. But he ends tragically, speared by the Pookarakka, along with his white grandfather and child-wife, when these latter two intrude on his initiation ceremony. In this savage ending Herbert expressed his despair of reconciliation. By contrast, at the end of the movie, Nullah goes off happily with King George, who offers to show him “my country, our country”. This is a hopeful ending in contrast to the elegiac title, Poor Fellow My Country. Moreover, in the movie, the threatened murder of Nullah by Fletcher has been thwarted by the ever-protective King George, who spears the would-be murderer.

The bombing of Darwin is the climax of the movie in terms of spectacle and plot resolution. The movie and the novel are set in the same historical period, the years leading up to the bombing. Any military resistance, ruled out historically speaking by the surprise air attack of the Japanese, is displaced onto Drover’s heroic rescue of Nullah and other stolen children from an offshore island occupied by the Japanese (a departure from historical reality). In contrast Poor Fellow presents the bombing as “a day of [national] shame”, the mass exodus of retreating civilians (who “cut and run” in John Howard’s much quoted words), showing yet another failure of a test of genuine nationhood, a political theme stressed throughout on many levels in the criticism of the legacy of a dependent colonial past.

Fletcher is the villain of the movie. He has killed Lady Sarah’s husband and stolen his cattle, acting in the interests of neighbouring pastoralist “King” Carney. Fletcher has referred, only in passing, to his pent-up frustration and jealousy over managing for little recompense, as his father had done before him, the property of Faraway Downs for an English absentee landlord, instead of possessing an inheritance of his own. After the bombing the survival and prospects (of adoption) of Nullah, despite his “illegitimacy”, provide a final twist to Fletcher’s angry frustration. He tries to kill his disowned son but is himself speared in retribution by King George in a reversal of the usual racist dispensation of social justice by whites only. (In Poor Fellow Prindy is speared during a transgression of black law.) The movie under-plays Carney’s motive for his destructiveness and in doing so passes over any political critique of colonialism. In contrast the criticism of the legacy of subservience is stressed throughout Poor Fellow on many levels.

Both the movie and Herbert’s fictions appeal to nationalism by making the land an attractive, scenic feature, celebrating its size and the beauty of its landscape. Whereas the movie does so through advantages of its genre, brilliantly using wide-angled and sweeping, distanced shots, Poor Fellow shows the land, its flora and fauna, through a variety of close-up, descriptive details observed during many journeys of the characters. In keeping with its polemical nature, however, the novel also shows white exploitation of the country, land degradation and pollution, as in mining, stressing what is being spoiled and presenting a contrasting picture to the Aborigines’ integration with the land.

Both the movie and the novel aim to convey this integration through Aboriginal dreamtime myths and motifs. In Australia these take the form of “singing up” the land or suggesting a mystical affinity beyond the understanding of whites. In a striking similarity one of the introductory scenes of Australia glimpses Nullah “singing up” a fish from a waterhole. This echoes the striking scene at the beginning of Poor Fellow where Prindy does the very same thing. It is vividly and lyrically dramatised in an extended passage, in some of Herbert’s best writing. In the movie King George makes the epic overland cattle drive possible through his magic and special knowledge of the country. Poor Fellow on the other hand shows whites shut out from understanding the land through ignorance and lack of interest. The novel provides detailed explication of Aboriginal sacred places, such as cave paintings, and myths of belonging, especially of the Rainbow Serpent and Koonapippi, using the advantage of suggestive verbal description. Australia daringly uses artistic licence, once more introducing an optimistic note by straining to bridge the gap in racial understanding: Nullah, in talking with Lady Sarah, finds an unlikely parallel to dreamtime stories of longing and belonging in “Over the Rainbow” from The Wizard of Oz. Herbert would have regarded such a popularising device as demeaning and as distorting Aboriginal beliefs, catering to white ignorance and condescension rather than stimulating understanding.

Both Australia and Poor Fellow are controversial works influenced by the differing times which shaped them. Herbert’s novel is that of an old man who lost faith in racial reconciliation and in the building of a just and independent civil society in Australia. He sees Australia as having squandered its opportunities because it has never succeeded in breaking free of colonialism. The novel was published shortly before the Whitlam dismissal when a general sense of hopefulness gave way to disappointment. The novel’s dark vision is, however, finally Herbert’s own. Australia, on the other hand, aims at a mass audience, and seeks to provide an encouraging picture in which past wrongs are gradually righted. It draws upon positive signs and hopes that reconciliation is becoming a reality as Australian society changes. While its hopefulness may seem forced to some viewers, it offsets Herbert’s dark pessimism. Comparisons across the two genres of movie and fiction highlight some recurrent motifs that have been used in creative works to construct differing visions of Australia’s past and future.

Laurie Hergenhan, Emeritus Professor of English, University of Queensland, co-edited Letters of Xavier Herbert (UQP).