I am taking a class to Australia next month to study "Australian National Identity." As preparation, as well as a fun outing before finals begin, we went to see Baz Luhrmann's new film, "Australia." I had low expectations. I figured that the director would make a good-looking film with Australia's top good-looking stars. He sure delivered. The landscape was fantastic, the big scenes wonderfully done, and it would be hard to top Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman for cheesecake.
The story is a classic Western. The haughty woman must team up with the hard-bitten working man to drive them "fat cheeky bulls" across rough terrain to get to market on time. Facing them is the villainous monopolist and war profiteer who fights dirty. The ragtag fellowship of the cow overcomes great odds, with the help of a mysterious native companion. Virtue and love triumph. The film faithfully follows the conventions of a classic genre, and refers throughout to other great movies, notably "The Wizard of Oz" (which film itself appears as a character) and "Gone With the Wind." Cheesy, but very well done cheese.
And then there is a second half-film after the Western plot is done; the small matter of World War II. This is where I feared the movie would turn into "Pearl Harbor." The war plot does make the film longer than normal, but lets the director wrap up the romance better.
Australian history is much like American history, a bit later. Thus you can have a realistic cattle drive in the 1930s. The racial discrimination against "blackfellas" was common to both countries in that era, but the Australian blackfellas are the indigenous people, playing out settler/native struggles that were more prominent in the U.S. a century earlier.
What makes "Australia" different from a Western, or even a war movie, that could have been made in the U.S. in the 1930s or '40s, is the subplot about the removal of half-caste children. Luhrmann has his leading man and woman unite over a "creamy" boy, excellently played by Brandon Walters. The Australian government removed mixed-race children from their aboriginal mothers to be trained in boarding schools. This policy was the main theme of "Rabbit-Proof Fence." The shame of the "stolen generations" has been a major cause of Australian liberals, leading to a formal apology by Prime Minister Kevin Rudd earlier this year. The entire subject is being hotly contested among Australian scholars between "black armband" liberals and "white blindfold" conservatives.
Richard Flanigan, one of the co-writers of the movie, said that they had to dare themselves to make a big movie, a national epic that they could have the audacity to call "Australia." They did so because they were impressed that American filmmakers have the nerve to think that our stories have universal significance. "Australia" aims to be the Australian "Gone With the Wind," done knowingly but, ultimately, for real.