David Burton (Richard Chamberlain) is a corporate tax lawyer living in middle-class comfort in Sydney, Australia with his wife and two young daughters. His life is turned upside-down when he agrees to defend a group of young aboriginal men who have been accused of murder. He quickly becomes convinced that the motive is ‘tribal’ and wants to use this as the basis of his defence case; it would lead to a more lenient sentence under Australian law. However, the aborigines refuse to cooperate, preferring long prison terms to revealing their secrets. David becomes friendly with Chris (David Gulpilil), the most forthcoming of the group, who introduces him to Charlie (Nadjiwarra Amagula), an old man who seems to have supernatural powers. David, who is troubled by recurring dreams, discovers that he may be a ‘mulkurul’, the name given by aborigines to the descendants of South American settlers, who share their mystical abilities. The trial is a disaster for David, and his wife leaves with their children for her mother’s home as his behaviour becomes increasingly unpredictable. Led by Chris, David finds a sacred mulkurul site in the Sydney sewers and is finally confronted by an apocalyptic vision.
Peter Weir emerged in the 1970s as one of the leading figures in the new Australian cinema. Although filmmaking in Australia can be traced right back to the late nineteenth century, and Australia can lay claim to having made the first feature length narrative film (The Story of the Kelly Gang) in 1906, it was only in the 1970s that it burst on to the world stage with a distinctive voice of its own, shaking off years of economic instability and cinematic domination by the United States and Great Britain. This transformation was largely as the result of deliberate intervention by government at both national and regional level. Characteristically, the funding for The Last Wave was substantially bolstered by support from the Australian Film Commission and the South Australian Film Corporation. Successive governments during the 1970s invested heavily in Australian films, so that between 1970 and 1974 the Australian Film Development Corporation was responsible for the financing of more than 50 feature films (Shirley and Adams 1989: 221). The motivations were both economic and cultural, pragmatically combining a desire for international financial success with an aspiration to lift up and project Australian national culture.
The cinema which emerged in the 1970s developed a repertoire of genres, some of which were Australian hybrids of American originals, while others seemed more purely Australian in character. A brief look at the content and structure of a number of recent academic studies of Australian cinema tends to confirm this, with Jonathan Rayner’s Contemporary Australian Cinema divided into chapters on ‘Australian Gothic’, ‘The period film’ and ‘The male ensemble film’. Moran Vieth’s Film in Australia lists 13 separate genres which include Hollywood staples such as the Musical or the Teenpic, as well as others like the Adventure Film which have a decidedly different connotation within the Australian production context.
In addition, key thematic groupings tend to emerge. There are films such as Breaker Morant (Beresford, 1980) and Gallipoli (Weir, 1981) which deal explicitly with the impact of British colonial rule. Another group of films focus on the feelings of disquiet apparently experienced by descendants of the original white European settlers as they contend with the ‘otherness’ of their new homeland. Films in this category include Weir’s own Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975) and the same thematic undercurrent is even manifest in the sense of anxiety underlying the fantasy world of George Miller’s Mad Max trilogy. A further extension of this theme can be found in films which deal more directly with the relationship between those Australians of European descent and the indigenous aboriginal population, as evidenced by Fred Schepisi’s powerful The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith (1978).
Peter Weir’s work of the 1970s and early 1980s intersects with a number of these themes and genres. His debut as feature director, The Cars That Ate Paris (1974), takes fears over the possible moral inadequacies of Australia’s majority population and turns it into a grotesque horror comic. If Picnic at Hanging Rock deals with not dissimilar feelings in a totally different way, then it also belongs to the genre of Australian Gothic, as well as to the Period Film. Gallipoli is both a Period Film and a not always subtle attack on the alleged maltreatment of Australian troops at the hands of British commanders during the First World War, which attracted controversy for its historical inaccuracies. Interestingly, as Serena Formica’s monograph on Weir suggests, these themes have continued into his American films. Work as diverse as Witness (1985), Dead Poets Society (1989), Green Card (1990) and The Truman Show (1998) all concern themselves with individuals who are alienated from their social setting in one form or another, and although they tend more to melodrama than the Gothic there is still a focus on the search for identity, with often tragic repercussions. Whilst Formica’s study asserts that while Weir had to ‘adapt his way of working’ to find success in Hollywood, there is nonetheless ‘a common thematic element’ in his work which centres on the ‘struggle of the individual against the social environment in which he lives’ (Formica 2012: 164–7).
If The Last Wave does not directly address the theme of Australia’s relationship with Britain, it does embody both the tensions between the majority population and indigenous Australians, and the sense of displacement experienced by the descendants of European settlers. It also incorporates the Australian Gothic style established by films like Picnic at Hanging Rock; the film plays out, at least in part, as an atmospheric suspense film and was marketed along these lines. Further generic elements are apparent in the elements of courtroom melodrama and murder mystery which provide the film with a recognisable narrative structure. The feeling that Australia is a ‘strange’ place is evoked in one the first scenes where we witness bizarre weather as a rural school is beset by a sudden storm arriving out of a clear blue sky and pelting the children with fist-sized hailstones. In the city, David drives home in a monsoon and arrives to find that it is ‘raining’ inside his own house. He is plagued by nightmares which are made more disturbing in the film’s diegesis by the fact that they are not always signalled as dreams until he eventually wakes. Rainstorms punctuate the film and take on biblical dimensions as frogs drop from the sky and the rain turns black. Later David dreams of an apocalypse in which the city has been drowned by a massive wave. The aborigines, Chris and Charlie, are explicitly linked to this ‘strangeness’ as they appear in David’s dreams, or suddenly materialise in the street outside of his house. As they explain to him, the reality he perceives is only one level of experience; beyond it lies the ‘dreamtime’, an alternative dimension which is trying to speak to him through his dreams.
Assailed by these unsettling developments, David becomes increasingly sensitive to the inadequacies in his own value system. As a work colleague points out to him, he is just another white middle-class liberal who makes a living helping rich people avoid paying tax. His home life is certainly comfortable but oddly bland, a world of tennis and dinner parties. Its values are easily undermined as David becomes obsessed by the idea that he may have a form of aboriginal ancestry of his own as he is descended from South American settlers who had lived in close harmony with the aborigines. This seems to give him access to ‘powers’ which other Australians do not possess but which the aborigines immediately recognise in him. When his wife leaves, taking the children, she tells him that she doesn’t know who he is any more. At one point, he tells Charlie that he believes he is no longer a man but a spirit. As McFarlane and Mayer suggest, Weir’s work is often marked by a fascination with ‘such polarities as guilt and innocence, innocence and corruption, the ordinary and the bizarre’, expressing this through imagery as much as plotting (McFarlane and Mayer 1992: 224). Here, in the final third of the film, the focus of the narrative moves decisively away from the murder mystery towards David’s own quest to find out more about his own identity, with the prospect that he may be able to connect to a more ancient and meaningful value system. This proves more enticing than the comforts of conventional domesticity and work.
One of the more contentious aspects of the renaissance in Australian cinema in the 1970s was the image it often presented of aboriginal culture. The dangers of slipping into a romanticised view, built on feelings of collective guilt, have been well documented. The film is certainly open to this critique. One scene shows a conversation between David and his step-father, who is a Christian priest. David accuses him of having always tried to explain away the mystery of human experience. He says, ‘We have lost our dreams. They come back and we don’t know what they mean.’ This is in stark contrast to the representation of the aborigines David has met, who are clearly in touch with this other, higher dimension of life.
In an interview with Peter Weir released on the Criterion DVD edition of The Last Wave, the director is keen to emphasise that the film is his own story, told from a Western point of view. He talks eloquently about how David’s life in the film was a reflection of his own upbringing, and of his own growing awareness of living in a land that was in some fundamental sense not his own, but that belonged to others who had been there for much longer. This led in turn to two of the film’s key visual metaphors: the repeated images of water washing away at contemporary Australia; and the placing of the aboriginal shrines in the tunnel network of sewers under Sydney. Aboriginal culture becomes a secret, hidden world sitting next to, or underneath, the culture built by the descendants of the European settlers. This provides a way of reading the film which avoids anthropological stereotypes of indigenous people; the film is not really about them at all but instead expresses the anxieties of the urban majority, whose outward confidence and economic prosperity is depicted here as curiously fragile.
This is given its fullest expression in the film’s final sequences when David abandons his house and follows Chris into the labyrinth under Sydney, discovering a subterranean world of paintings, icons and sculptures. Here he finds his own death mask, symbolising the demise of his old identity; meanwhile, Chris heads back into the dreamtime. For a moment David finds he cannot return to the world above, but eventually he makes his way through the tunnels emerging into a timeless landscape of the beach and sea. His final vision, and that of the film, is of a vast primeval wave heading in the direction of modern Australia to sweep it away.
Cast and Crew:
[Country: Australia. Production Company: Australian Film Commission, Ayer Productions, Derek Power. Director: Peter Weir. Producers: Hal McElroy and James McElroy. Screenwriters: Peter Weir, Tony Morphett and Petru Popescu. Cinematographer: Russell Boyd. Music: Charles Wain. Editor: Max Lemon. Production Designer: Goran Warff. Cast: Richard Chamberlain (David Burton), Olivia Hamnett (Annie Burton), David Gulpilil (Chris Lee), Nandjiwarra Amagula (Charlie), Frederick Parslow (Reverend Burton).]
Michael Bliss, Dreams within a Dream: The Films of Peter Weir, Carbondale, Southern Illinois University Press, 2000.
Serena Formica, Peter Weir: A Creative Journey from Australia to Hollywood, Bristol and Chicago, Intellect, 2012.
Brian McFarlane and Geoff Mayer, New Australian Cinema: Sources and Parallels in American and British Film, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1992.
Albert Moran and Errol Vieth, Film in Australia: An Introduction, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2006.
Jonathan Rayner, Contemporary Australian Cinema, Manchester and New York, Manchester University Press, 2000.
Graham Shirley and Brian Adams, Australian Cinema: The First Eighty Years, Sydney, Currency Press, 1989.
The Routledge Encyclopedia of Films, Edited by Sarah Barrow, Sabine Haenni and John White, first published in 2015.