There were two sources for this interest with Australia, two TV experiences. One was an interview on Swedish television with a Swedish family from Hässelby (a suburb to Stockholm) which had sold everything they had and moved to Coober Pedy in South Australia to begin a new life, looking for opals. Watching that as an impressionable boy of maybe ten, I felt strongly that this must be what I too will do when I grow up. (I did not; I have not even visited Coober Pedy on either of my visits to Australia. But it is a peculiar place.)
The other experience was an Australian TV-series called Five Mile Creek (1983-1985) that was set during the gold rush in Victoria in the 1860s, and this series, of which I watched all episodes, made a strong impression on me. While other Swedes watched (re-runs of) the American Western series like Bonanza (1959-1973) or The Little House on the Prairie (1974-1983) or How the West Was Won aka The Macahans (1976-1979), Five Mile Creek was how I got my idea of frontier lives and stagecoach rides. I still have vivid memories of it, although do not remember that Nicole Kidman acted in it.
There was another Australian TV-series at the time, also set in the past, All the Rivers Run (1983) but I was not old enough to watch that, or maybe I was old enough but somehow just did not do so. Either way, I was aware of it, and had caught glimpses of it. Those glimpses were enough to make a big impression too, and making me eager to one day watch the whole thing. It is slightly bizarre that it took me until Christmas of 2019 before I did so. It was exactly as I had expected it to be, during those 35 years of imagining it. I had put a small part of my childhood on hold for decades and now I finally completed it.
On both Five Mile Creek and All the River Runs, George Miller was setting director, and I even think they begin with the same opening shot of a ship in a storm outside the coast. It is however not the same George Miller that made the Mad Max films. This Miller mainly did TV-series but also one famous film: the mountain horseback riding classic The Man from Snowy River (1982), based on a poem by "Banjo" Paterson.
It is rare that Australian films travel abroad, and when they do it is often some kind of international production like Mad Max: Fury Road (George Miller 2015) or The Water Diviner (Russell Crowe 2014) or something by Baz Luhrmann. And Australia's home-grown cinema has usually struggled and has often been underwhelming. But there are plenty of good things there, much of which is unnecessarily unknown.
Before the early 1970s, when what is often called the Australian New Wave got started (I am not convinced it is a relevant term), most of the landmarks of Australian cinema were made by visiting European directors. Harry Watt made the cattle epic The Overlanders (1946); Michael Powell made two fine films, They're a Weird Mob (1966, with Emeric Pressburger) and Age of Consent (1969); Fred Zinnemann made the wonderful The Sundowners (1960) and later Nicolas Roeg made a great one, Walkabout (1971). Even Lasse Hallström flew down to make ABBA: The Movie (1977), which is quite lovely, although I would not call that an Australian film.
There had been homegrown talents such as Charles Chauvel, who, for example, made In the Wake of the Bounty (1933) where Errol Flynn played Fletcher Christian, Forty Thousand Horsemen (1940) and Jedda (1955), which was the first Australian feature film that was in colour, and the first Australian film to be in competition for a Palme d'Or in Cannes, and it also had Aboriginal characters, played by Aboriginals, in the leads. This too was new. Two other Australian filmmakers were Raymond Langford, in the silent era, and later Ken G. Hall. Hall made around 18 films in the 1930s and 1940s and was the first Australian filmmaker to win an Academy Award. That was for the documentary Kokoda Front Line! (1942), about a key battle between Australians and Japanese soldiers in New Guinea. Hall was producer and director and the camerawork was by newsreel photographer Damien Parer. It is a film to make sure the Australians at home, far from the front, do not forget the important fighting the Australian soldiers do in the mud and rain of the jungles. It is short on artistic merit but as a propaganda film in the midst of war I can imagine it being effective.
But these films, and many others, are almost without exception unknown or unseen outside Australia, even though many of them, especially Hall's films, were great successes at home. It remained the case that it was the foreigners who made the few Australian films that travelled abroad. It was a combination of political and creative changes in the late 1960s and early 1970s that changed things dramatically. Partly because the Labor government under Gough Whitlam (1972-1975) was particularly keen on supporting cinema, but the previous government had done so too. These changes (financial support, schools, institutions, infrastructure) led to a number of homegrown filmmakers suddenly appearing and they would make Australian cinema something to be reckoned with, regularly and globally. If we discount Wake in Fright (Ted Kotcheff 1971) and Walkabout, for being international productions made my foreign directors, in the same year (1971) there was the low budget film Stork, directed by local Tim Burstall and written by local David Williamson. The latter was a significant creative force in the renaissance, having written for example Don's Party (Bruce Beresford 1976), Gallipoli (Peter Weir 1981) and the superb The Year of Living Dangerously (Peter Weir 1983). Bruce Beresford's first film The Adventures of Barry McKenzie (1972) was another key film, and, like Burstall's early film(s), a crude and vulgar affair, what is known in Australia as "ocker" comedies. Another eccentricity is Weir's The Cars That Ate Paris (1974), a truly bonkers film. He followed it with the magnificent Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975).
But there were too many good and/or fascinating films made then to name them all here. That was part of the change. While very few Australian fiction feature films were made in the 1950s and 1960s (some years only one, other years none), the 1970s saw a dramatic increase where some 30 to 40 films could be made in one year alone.
I want to write more about Australian cinema, and I want to watch more of it too, including such TV-series as Whiplash (1960-1961) and Homicide (1964-1977). This is one of the things I will focus on in 2020, and possibly beyond. For now though I want to focus on something else…
There is one episode of All the Rivers Run where the heroine Philadelphia Gordon, affectionately played by Sigrid Thornton, and her partners on the paddle steamer Philadelphia are caught on a sandbank because a dry spell has depleted the river and made it too shallow for boats and ships. For months they are stranded in a dry, barren landscape, making brief visits to the house of two settlers, man and wife, who has seen their crops, animals, and two children die of starvation and dehydration. The episode has an almost post-apocalyptic feeling, with the empty eyes if the grieving wife taking on a depth and horror that the rest of the episodes do not come close to reaching.
Seeing that episode now, while following the raging bushfires that are destroying large parts of New South Wales and Victoria, gave it an extra level of resonance. The news are full of not post-apocalyptic but present-apocalyptic images, of forests, towns and farms turned into ashes.
The rivers on which All the Rivers Run take place, Campaspe and Murray, are even more depleted and un-useable today, thanks to us humans. We build dams, we water golf courses and we pollute the environment with coal and other greenhouse gases, and thereby destroy the earth. Global warming is our slow-moving apocalypse, that it may or may not be possible to stop or reverse. Doing so will take a lot more from us than it seems we are currently capable of, but if we do not want to end up like the wife and her dead children, we have to wise up. Australia might be the country on fire right now, but it will get worse and it will get more common and it will happen in many other countries.
back when all the rivers did run