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December 13th 2008 print

Bill Muehlenberg

Hollywood, ‘Australia’, and Historical Revisionism

That filmmakers take a bit of artistic license with their products is nothing new. It happens quite often. Indeed, films purporting to deal with historical events can often be radically skewed because of the filmmaker’s political and ideological stance.

That filmmakers take a bit of artistic license with their products is nothing new. It happens quite often. Indeed, films purporting to deal with historical events can often be radically skewed because of the filmmaker’s political and ideological stance.

Oliver Stone comes to mind as but one example of those who are quite happy to rewrite history – all in the name of art – in order to push a political agenda. And the political agenda of Hollywood – and most other Western filmmakers – is mainly that of the left.

Australians are not exempt from this. Consider the issue of Australia’s pre-European inhabitants. If a historian were to write a book about our indigenous population, and seek to argue that the Europeans only always treated them with the best of care, and all white policies toward them were pure, just and spotless, critics would be quite right to blast the book.

I would think in the same way if a historian were to write a book and argue that Europeans in Australia only always treated Aboriginals horribly and terribly, and their polices were consistently and uniformly evil and nefarious, criticism could also be made of this take on Australian history.

The truth is, as even a number of Aboriginal leaders have proclaimed, white policy was a mixed bag. Some Aboriginals were treated appallingly, others were treated well. For example, as to the so-called Stolen Generations, some aboriginal children were indeed stolen, and/or treated badly. But also, some Aboriginal children were rescued, and/or treated well.

So taking a one-eyed look at white treatment of Aboriginals – whether positive or negative – is not doing justice to the historical record. As with most of life, there is a blend of good and bad. Much of Western treatment of Aboriginals was harmful, oppressive and mischievous. But much treatment was also well-intentioned, benevolent and beneficial.

Which of course brings me to the recent Baz Luhrmann blockbuster, Australia. I must make a confession here. I went to see it last night – but I did so under duress. To be honest, I would rather have spent the $16.50 on something else. But the interests of matrimonial harmony had to be taken into account. (Indeed, I must say it was a rather magnanimous gesture on my part. Just hours earlier a box of books from amazon.com had arrived, and I was relishing the thought of a night of glorious reading. So a tremendous act of heroic self-sacrifice was undertaken here!)

Thus I sat through the film in a relatively empty theatre. I am no film critic, so I cannot make too many cinematic comments here. Obviously Australia is a very beautiful country, so any film that utilises breathtaking cinematography will have some major highlights indeed.

The film itself seemed to be a bit of a mixed bag. It was certainly cliché ridden. Hugh Jackman often sounded like a recent version of Crocodile Dundee. Indeed, it seemed to me that the entire film was one big cliché – but more on that in a moment.

After the film I mentioned to my fellow movie goers that it was certainly one big exercise in Political Correctness. One protested that I was viewing the film far too politically. To which I replied, “It seems that it was Luhrmann himself who was intent on being as political as possible with this film”.

Indeed, from the opening text statement to the closing text statement – both about Stolen Generations – it was clear that Luhrmann had a political axe to grind, as well as the intention of making an enjoyable film. And there was plenty of action, drama, romance and adventure; as such it was not a bad film.

But the stifling PC was all a bit much. As I mentioned, the entire film was a lengthy cliché, or set of clichés. Thus we had the myth of the Noble Savage. And the myth of rapacious White Men. And the customary Christian bashing.

As with other films, such as the 1990 Dancing With Wolves, the film more or less tried to make the case that indigenous peoples are pure, innocent, and always good, while the White Fellas are for the most part evil and devilish. Sure, the hero and heroine (Jackman and Kidman) were good guys, but only because they sided with the indigenous folks over against all the other bad whites.

The purpose of all such historical revisionism is to make Westerners feel guilty about just about everything, and to hold up some sort of pristine and uncorrupted Noble Savage as the true good guys of history. But as I say, history is always a mixed bag. There have been some very good Aboriginals, and there have been some very bad Aboriginals. There have been some very good Whitees, and there have been some very bad Whitees.

But films like this tend to be impatient with, and unappreciative of, the complexities and nuances of life. Instead, we have the typical black and white, good versus evil, approach, and often it is Western civilisation that is seen as the corrupting, baleful and malicious main character in the story.

I am not the only one who has seen the film in this light. Andrew Bolt has recently written several opinion pieces about this film, of which I offer a few excerpts. He complains, for example, about the many historical inaccuracies and misleading claims of fact:

“Typically, the racism Luhrmann attacks is a racism of cliches, and is illustrated with yet more cliches, each more fact-free than the last. So Drover [Jackman] complains, for instance, that he lost his first wife to TB because hospitals didn’t treat Aborigines – when in fact Darwin hospital did treat them, even if three small nurse-run private bush hospitals had not. Missions also treated Aborigines, and one pregnant nurse, a Mrs Taylor, even died of illness while working with tribes in Groote Eylandt in 1934. But Luhrmann shows no such sympathetic officials. Instead, almost every white character from the NT administrator’s wife down, other than our two heroes, is portrayed as a racist.”

“A recurring injustice Luhrmann keeps harping on is that ‘boongs’ were banned from pubs. In one of Jackman’s most emotional scenes, Drover finally forces a bartender to give his Aboriginal friend a drink – his biggest victory against racism. Nowhere is it acknowledged – as anyone can read in the reports then of the Northern Territory administrator – that serving Aborigines was forbidden because the booze and opium were devastating a people only just learning to deal with white society and Asian traders. Luhrmann, in particular, should know this ban was driven not by racism but deep concern for Aboriginal welfare. After all, Australia stars the great Aboriginal actor David Gulpilil, whose career and marriage have almost been ruined by his own drinking. And alcohol is now once again banned in many Aboriginal communities in the NT, and not because we’re racist. ”

 The film makes much of a half-caste boy who is portrayed as a prime example of Stolen Generations: “But now note a few historical truths that Luhrmann overwrites to tell his story of white infamy. First, a Federal Court test case found no evidence children in the NT were ever stolen just because they were black, and no one has yet identified 10 anywhere who were stolen because they were Aboriginal and not because they needed help. Indeed, Colin Macleod, a NT patrol officer and later Victorian magistrate, wrote in his memoirs that the children sent to Garden Point were half-castes who’d often been rejected by full-bloods, and needed protection from ‘real danger and abject misery’. For instance, he wrote, ‘Brother Pye of the Catholic mission at Garden Point once saw a six-year-old part-coloured boy speared by a full-blooded Aboriginal, almost as a joke, just because the boy was a “yella-fella” . . . ‘Half-caste kids would now and again turn up at missions with spear marks and signs of horrific beatings. Babies were occasionally abandoned and young children left to fend for themselves’."

Concludes Bolt, “This is the real history of Australia – there’s racism, yes, but more commonly there are people struggling, however imperfectly, to do their best, some bringing care and protection to Aborigines at great personal sacrifice. That’s the real Australia, and how sad that Luhrmann has sold the world his Australia instead – a ghastly cliche of the demons we never were.”

But if you can filter out all the politics and Political Correctness, the film makes for a few hours of mindless entertainment. It is not a bad film, and can be enjoyed on various levels. But if one is concerned about history, about truth, and about accuracy, then this film may not make for very much enjoyable viewing.