Storm Boy: 'Does this country belong to him?'
Mike (Greg Rowe) and his father (Peter Cummins) go to warn Fingerbone Bill (David Gulpilil) that trouble is brewing. Bill is not supposed to be living on a state reserve, and the ranger wants to talk to him. Summary by Paul Byrnes
An unusually frank subtext of land rights. The initial sense of unease between the father and Bill is also very expressive of larger themes that the boy does not understand.
Storm Boy synopsis
A 10-year-old boy (Greg Rowe), living with his father in the wild Coorong wetlands of South Australia, rescues a baby pelican orphaned by hunters. With the help of an Aboriginal man, Fingerbone Bill (David Gulpilil), the boy and the bird become inseparable, until the outside world encroaches.
Storm Boy Curator's notes
Storm Boy, based on a novel by Colin Thiele, is one of the most cherished of Australian classic films. It has a deep emotional clarity that appeals to children and adults alike, making it timeless. The landscape of the Coorong wetlands, bleak and beautiful and windswept, becomes a refuge for the broken, the loveless and the outcast – an alternate Garden of Eden, in which a different version of Australia might seem possible – a kind of hermit’s utopia.
The film is clearly about much more than the boy’s love of the pelican, which he calls Mr Percival. It touches on race relations, ecology, the breakdown of families, white and black law and questions of prior ownership, but the themes are seamlessly woven into the story. Much of the power comes from the elemental beauty of Geoff Burton’s camerawork (his work on Sunday Too Far Away, with a different colour palette, has a similar expressiveness), and from director Henri Safran’s sensitive handling of the performances. The film was made for $260,000 and was a success at the box office, both in Australia and overseas, where it sold to more than 100 countries.
Notes by Paul Byrnes
This clip shows the national park ranger with 'Storm Boy’ (Greg Rowe), who has deliberately led him on a fruitless search of the wetlands for 'Fingerbone’ Bill. After the ranger leaves, Storm Boy and his father, 'Hideaway’ Tom Kingsley, go to Fingerbone Bill’s camp to warn him that the ranger is looking for him and might force him to move on. In the exchange that follows, the two men allude to land rights and the clash of white laws and black culture. Storm Boy, meanwhile, is eager to see that his father and Fingerbone Bill, both pivotal figures in his life, get on.
Educational value points
- The clip shows scenes from the feature film Storm Boy. Released in 1976, the film was an immediate commercial success in Australia and overseas. Based on a popular children’s book by Australian author Colin Thiele, it uses the overlapping themes of alienation, marginalisation and loss that connect Storm Boy, his father Hideaway Tom, Fingerbone Bill and the pelicans to tackle issues such as black and white relations, family and environmentalism.
- The film was made at a time when Indigenous Australians had started to campaign for land rights on the basis of a centuries-old bond with the land and a continuing obligation and right to protect, use and manage that land and when Tom tells Fingerbone Bill that it is illegal for him to camp in a national park, Bill dismisses this as 'white fella’s law’. It is now recognised that this ongoing connection to the land is critical to the survival of Indigenous cultures.
- The use of national parks by Indigenous Australians is a significant issue in the clip. Since the time the film was made, a number of national parks have been handed back to traditional owners, who have then entered into joint management partnerships with various government park authorities. These arrangements allow Indigenous Australians hunting and gathering rights and the use of the land for cultural activities, such as ceremonies and maintenance of sacred sites.
- The exteriors of Storm Boy were shot in the Coorong wetlands, south-east of Adelaide in South Australia. The wetlands cover 140,500 hectares and consist of a long, shallow lagoon more than 100 km in length that is separated from the Southern Ocean by a narrow sand dune peninsula. It is one of Australia’s most important wetlands, providing a habitat for many animals and a refuge for waterbirds.
- The Coorong wetlands are an example of wilderness, defined by the Australian Heritage Commission as 'large areas in which ecological processes continue with minimal change caused by modern development’. The Commission believes that in many places Indigenous custodianship has contributed to the creation of wilderness.
- The clip shows actor David Gulpilil in the role of Fingerbone Bill. Storm Boy was one of the first Australian films to cast an Indigenous Australian as a central character and in a positive role. Until the 1970s the few roles for Indigenous actors tended to be marginal and to reproduce negative stereotypes or clichéd representations of a people frozen in time and unable to cope with the modern world.
- The scene of the meeting between Storm Boy and the two figures who are pivotal in his life, his father Hideaway Tom and Fingerbone Bill, shows two adult men negotiating a relationship that finds common ground in their shared affection for Storm Boy. Their wariness of each other is evident in their gruff exchange and Tom’s awkwardness, especially in Bill’s space but Tom’s gift of a fish and Bill’s obvious fondness for Storm Boy overcome their initial distrust.
- The bond between Storm Boy and Fingerbone Bill offers an alternative model for black and white relations based on cooperation and respect rather than distrust. Through Fingerbone Bill, Storm Boy learns about the land, the sea and Indigenous people and develops an understanding of, and empathy with, his natural environment, The fact that Storm Boy likes 'blackfella tucker’ and his use of the idioms of Indigenous speech is indicative of his ease with, and absorption of, Indigenous culture.
Education notes provided by The Learning Federation and Education Services Australia
We see Mike and the Ranger in a boat.
Ranger Well, where to now?
Mike shrugs his shoulders.
Ranger Do you mean to tell me you’ve lost your way? Never. You know the Coorong better than anyone. You don’t want to get your friend into trouble, eh? If you should run into him before I do, you tell him what I said – no more shooting.
Mike is left standing on a pier with Mr Percival as the Ranger drives off in his boat. Mike’s father is in another boat working on its engine.
Mike’s father Have to learn to keep your mouth shut, won’t you?
Mike nods at his father.
At his camp, Fingerbone Bill stabs a wooden stake into the ground. He looks up and sees Mike and his father walking towards him from the beach. Mike runs towards Bill holding a sack.
Mike’s father I’ve just come to tell you there’s trouble brewing. The Ranger wants to see you about the gun. There’s a law against people shacking in the sanctuary. He might tell you to move on.
Bill This country belong to him?
Mike’s father Maybe not. The law says you can’t stay.
Bill White fellas’ law.
Bill is sitting down on the sand and continues to carve a spear out of a wooden stick. He gestures to Mike and his father to sit down.
Mike You could move in with us. Couldn’t he dad?
Bill I like it here.
Mike Brought you something.
Mike hands the sack over to Bill and he opens it to find a fish.
Mike Proper big one, eh?
Mike Dad catched it.
Mike’s father Caught!
Mike’s father No need to make a song and dance about it, son.
Bill Proper number one tucker this.
Mike’s father Got him by the river mouth.
Bill Why don’t you stay, help me eat it?
Mike He cooks good, dad.
Bill Storm Boy like blackfella tucker.
Mike’s father Storm Boy. Is that you, is it?