Frontier Westerns and First Nations Filmmakers
Dr John Milner writes about how First Nations filmmakers and stories have evolved the Western genre in Australian cinema.
WARNING: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander viewers are advised that the following article may contain images and/or audio of deceased persons.
Conquering the landscape
An enduring film genre with worldwide popularity, Westerns mix history and archetype and can be characterised by their timeless pleasures – mythic heroes wandering the landscape, action set pieces on horseback and universal themes such as good triumphing over evil.
While the genre initially developed in the US in the late 19th century, Australian cinema quickly appropriated many Western film traits. Instead of cowboys clashing with Native Americans in the Wild West, our movies were filled with First Nations Australians, farmers, drovers, and stoic women and stockmen battling it out on a rugged landscape dotted with kangaroos (see The Story of the Kelly Gang, 1906 and The Man from Snowy River, 1982).
While many traditional Australian Westerns feature First Nations peoples, the films typically convey the perspective of the settler (The Overlanders, 1946). Many such films express concern for taming the bush and outback, all in the name of 'civilisation'. And in some films this conquering of the landscape comes at a cost, namely confiscating the territorial rights of the land's original inhabitants. Bitter Springs (1956), for example, centres on a farming family who go to war with First Nations Australians over the precious commodity of water.
More recently, we can see the emergence of a new cycle of so-called Frontier Westerns that demonstrate a determination of First Nations (and non-First Nations) filmmakers to produce more nuanced and diverse stories that question typical settler mythology. Several notable examples features in the NFSA's Australians & Hollywood exhibition in Canberra.
Ivan Sen's brilliant film Mystery Road (2013), sequel Goldstone (2016) and spin-off television series (Mystery Road, 2018 and 2020, and Mystery Road: Origin, 2022) transport conventions of American Westerns, neo-Westerns and Australian bushranger films into a contemporary setting, focusing on the outback to explore issues around race relations and violence against First Nations women:
The clip above from Mystery Road (2013) features First Nations detective Jay Swan (Aaron Pedersen), a stoic and reserved figure somewhat reminiscent of the classic Western hero. Jay is on a mission to solve the case of a murdered First Nations girl found in a culvert under a highway. While investigating the crime scene, he approaches a nearby homestead and questions the coarsely presented, raspy-voiced farmer (Sam Bailey, played by David Field). There ensues an unsavoury exchange that illuminates Bailey's deep-seated racism. Jay responds to the taunts with a mocking comment about the farmer's futile attempts to cultivate the dust and dirt of the outback.
Another prominent Frontier Western featuring in Australians & Hollywood is Sweet Country, directed by the Arrernte man Warwick Thornton in 2017, which gained international attention for its brutally powerful depiction of the Australian frontier.
As seen in the clip below, the film begins with a close-up establishing shot of a billy of tea simmering away, rather than the opening wide shot of epic outback vistas typical of Australian Westerns. We hear a racial altercation which increases in cruelty as the billy comes to the boil.
The sequence combines a clever use of sound (but significantly with no score) and minimal imagery and is a good metaphor for the tone of the film to come. Sweet Country skilfully presents the injustices of, and simmering fury about, the power structures of colonial Australia – structures that continue to affect the present-day circumstances of First Nations peoples:
Other examples of recent Frontier Westerns include: The Furnace (Roderick MacKay, 2020), an ambitious, ethnically diverse and visually dramatic film about an Afghan camel driver and a gold thief; Jennifer Kent's The Nightingale (2018), a carefully researched feminist revenge Western which centres on a young Irish convict, Clare (Aisling Franciosi), in remote Tasmania who forms an uneasy alliance with Billy (Baykali Ganambarr), a First Nations tracker; High Ground (Stephen Johnson, 2020), which tells the story of Gutjuk (Jacob Junior Nayinggul), who teams up with a First World War veteran sniper (Simon Baker) to locate his escapee uncle (Sean Mununggurr) in Arnhem Land and save his family; and The Drover's Wife: The Legend of Molly Johnson (Leah Purcell, 2021), a reworking of a Henry Lawson short story from 1892, in which a lonely bushwoman (Purcell) on a remote homestead in the Snowy Mountains tries to run the family farm and raise her children while her husband is away.
If we backtrack a little further, we can find an important precursor to the contemporary Frontier Western in Rolf de Heer’s The Tracker (2002). This stark moral tale uses archetypal Western figures set against a mythic backdrop while representing a history of massacres, colonial atrocities and dispossession.
Historical revisionism also features in The Proposition (John Hillcoat, 2005). Set in 1880s Queensland, the film revolves around the violent demise of the Burns Gang (a family of Irish bushrangers). However, the film also demonstrates moral ambiguity between the characters and a complex exploration of racial confrontation – for example, between the Irish and the English, and between the First Nations characters and the colonisers.
Baz Luhrmann's 2008 epic blockbuster Western, Australia, follows the adventures of an Englishwoman (Nicole Kidman) who attempts to save her husband's land in the Northern Territory with the help of a drover (Hugh Jackman). This film mythologises the frontier in the manner of many classic American Westerns (such as those of director John Ford). Still, as seen in the clip below, it foregrounds First Nations characters and intertwines a story about the Stolen Generations:
FIRST NATIONS Perspectives
What seems to be at the heart of most Westerns is the making sense of imperial colonial relations. Traditional Hollywood Westerns tended to glorify the defeat of their First Nations peoples, whereas Australian Westerns were generally less triumphalist. Even so, many Australian Westerns reduced First Nations peoples to a collective enemy, represented them through spurious stereotyping or subjugated them into a system of assimilation.
Recent Frontier Westerns can be clearly differentiated through their central focus on First Nations perspectives. They also tend to respond to landmark socio-political or legal events that have profoundly changed perceptions of the history of Australian colonisation. Take, for example, the Mabo decision, which overruled the nation's founding legal doctrine of terra nullius (or land deemed to belong to no one) – a concept central to legitimising the settlers' conquest of land in so many Western films.
A crucial factor in bringing First Nations perspectives to the screen has been the increase in First Nations filmmakers, like Ivan Sen, Rachel Perkins, Warwick Thornton and Leah Purcell, and content creators telling their stories on screens large and small. Follow the More to Explore links below to learn more about the history of First Nations filmmaking in Australia and to see examples of the early short films of Sen and Thornton, funded by the Indigenous Branch of the Australian Film Commission (now the First Nations Department of Screen Australia).
Dr John Milner completed his PhD at the ANU School of Literature, Languages and Linguistics in 2017 and has published widely on the aesthetics of film, music and art. His work is used in various institutions across Australia and abroad, including as a teaching resource.
Work by Ivan Sen, Warwick Thornton and other First Nations filmmakers features in the Australians & Hollywood exhibition at the NFSA in Canberra.
Subscribe to our newsletters for the latest NFSA news and events.
Main image: Natassia Gorey Furber and Hamilton Morris in Sweet Country (2013). Courtesy: Bunya Productions