The Overlanders is the first of five films made by Ealing Studios in Australia between the mid-1940s and the late 1950s. It provides a fascinating insight into the shifting policies, ideologies and practices of nationalistic filmmaking in this period (for both Britain and Australia). Shot between April and September 1945, it was released into the emerging era of the Cold War and reflects the leftist allegiances of many of the key figures that made it. Chief among these was director Harry Watt, well-known for making socially engaged documentaries and for his involvement
in various leftist causes (including actively supporting Indonesian independence in the making of Indonesia Calling [1946] with Joris Ivens after the completion of The Overlanders).

Watt arrived in Australia in early 1944 to seek an appropriate subject for a film that would highlight Australia’s contribution to the war effort beyond its military engagements. The subsequent film, following an epic cattle drive from the north of Western Australia to the Queensland coast in 1942 to avoid the Japanese army, is a curious mix of documentary and fiction, work and dramatic action, immediacy and reflection, embodied location and the indigenised tropes of the American Western. The film is also remarkable for its vision of the landscape, its intermittent arguments about the rightful role of the nation-state in the development of national identity and resources, and its brief, muted perspective on of the sad fate of the Aboriginal people in then contemporary Australia.

One particular “moment” foregrounds and exemplifies these specific issues and ideas. Like many comparative moments in the film, it provides an interesting variation on specific conventions of the Western. For example, earlier in the film we are introduced to what the central character calls “wild blacks” as they gather on the hills surrounding the valley through which the group is travelling. Although our sense of genre asks us to register their presence as a threat – further suggested by some anachronistic smoke signals – the scene works to undercut and defuse any such expectations, with one of the Aboriginal figures even waving at the drovers as they pass by.

The later “moment” under discussion, appearing about two-thirds of the way into the film, is comprised of two matching scenes that compare and contrast ideas and histories of land ownership. In the first, several of the characters are gathered around a campfire at night, an image and grouping very familiar from its American generic counterpart. Like many of these scenes, this moment highlights the tension between several of the characters, particularly in relation to their ideas of nationhood, community, and public and private ownership of the land. It commences with a discussion between an airman (who is a stockbroker in civilian life) and one of the drovers (Corky), a figure who has drawn-up a prospectus for the “Northern Territory Exploitation Company”. As the campfire flickers and the faces of the characters are etched by the chiaroscuro lighting, Chips Rafferty’s Dan McApline laconically skewers the intentions and implications of such activities: “There’s just one thing wrong Corky – the word exploit. We’ve exploited our South for one hundred years and torn the heart out of it. The Territory’s much too valuable to be messed about by get rich schemes like yours… It’s a national job, Corky, too big for little people like you.” McAlpine expresses both a fear of the land’s ecological degradation and its private exploitation. This is a view that of course holds much resonance for contemporary Australia and the odorous rhetoric of the “mining boom”. This moment also clearly connects to and even pre-empts the broader project of nation-building and the nationalisation of industry that were central to the post-war era, including the state-based development of filmmaking and film culture in Australia. Watt himself became a key advocate for the development of state-based filmmaking and such grass-roots community developments as the film society movement. The gentle force of this scene is also reinforced by its unfussy presentation and the naturalistic, laidback delivery of Rafferty. His tearing-up and burning of the prospectus is an eloquent, if blunt, rejection of all that it stands for.

This scene is then immediately paired with one featuring the film’s young “romantic” couple on horseback, who comment on the song of the Aboriginal drover, Jacky, that seemingly soothes the restless cattle. As Sinbad asks, “I wonder what Jacky’s singing about?” Mary blithely, circumspectly replies: “About the time his people owned this land, probably. When they were happy.” The scene then continues into the first real development of a romantic bond between the two and a subsequent stampede of the cattle (possibly inspired by Jacky’s lament). But this brief exchange is remarkable for the clarity of its perspective and the nonchalant way in which it is presented (and never questioned). It provides a fitting and troubling answer to the previous exchange, and the rival ideas of nationalism and ownership that it presents. But it does also further prioritise an organic and embodied relationship or belonging to the land, one that McApline also sees within the salt-of-the-earth Parsons family who have accompanied him on the cattle drive.

The Overlanders is an episodic and, at times, consciously anti-dramatic film. The knowledge of it’s partial remaking as Baz Luhrmann’s histrionic and ludicrously comic book Australia (2008) merely highlights and underlines The Overlanders’ remarkable qualities as a gently profound fusion of individualism and community, fiction and documentary, linearity and circularity, progress and a more circumspect, troubled history.

About The Author

Adrian Danks is Director of Higher Degree Research in the School of Media and Communication, RMIT University. He is also co-curator of the Melbourne Cinémathèque and was an editor of Senses of Cinema from 2000 to 2014. He has published hundreds of articles on various aspects of cinema and is the editor of A Companion to Robert Altman (Wiley-Blackwell, 2015).