The Proposition: Bringing the revisionist Western to the Australian outback

Will Self saddles up to explore Australia's bleeding heart of darkness
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The Independent Culture

John Hillcoat, the director of The Proposition, a star-studded and uncompromisingly violent outlaw film set in the Australian outback has had this to say: "It's something I've been obsessed with for a long time, ever since my days at film school. I've always been interested in the Western as a genre and wanted to explore that and stretch it into another context, setting it in an Australian landscape."

As just such a stretching transposition of the Western genre, The Proposition is peerless: beautifully shot by Benoit Delhomme, this is the first film I've seen in many years which does real justice to the savage light quality and the particular tyranny of distance implicit in the Australian outback. Add to this a fine, ensemble cast, headed up by Guy Pearce, Ray Winstone, Danny Huston and Emily Watson; and a doomy, mythic, script (and doomy, mythic soundtrack) by Nick Cave, and you have a very successful recipe for a film which both inhabits and transcends its chosen genre.

Watching The Proposition, it's difficult not to see it as a "revisionist" Western, doing the equivalent thing for the Australian canon, which Peckinpah, and then Arthur Penn and Clint Eastwood, did for the American. Here is a depiction of outlaws - in this case bushrangers - that doesn't shrink away from the moral ambiguities of their position, which allows them to be as much freedom fighters as terrorists. Here is an evocation of the frontier life, which shows its offal, its brutality, its exploitation of man and beast. Here is a nuanced portrait of the imposition of High Victorian mores - personified by the stays and corsets of Emily Watson's Martha Stanley - on a land which far from being a terra nullis, is in deeply scored with 40,000 years of its indigenes' culture.

But if The Proposition is a revisionist Australian Western, where are the Australian Westerns it's revising? Where are the Aussie equivalents of Rio Bravo, Fort Apache and Gunfight at the OK Corral? Where are the sanitised versions of Australian outback history that need to be replaced? There are a few, insipid Ealing-produced films of the 1940s and 1950s which attempt to mythologise the white settlers' battles with the land - Bitter Springs and The Overlanders spring to mind - but they lack two, key ingredients which would make them westerns: the outlaw, and the native.

It isn't until we reach the 1970s that Australian cinema seems to come alive at all to the potentiality of its own harsh environment, and its own still harsher interracial reality. I say "seems" because a curious fact about the Australian cinema - and world cinema for that matter - is that arguably the first, secular feature film ever made was an Australian western. Stranger still - and I don't know if Hillcoat is aware of this - it was shot, in 1904, in the small town of Winton, Northern Queensland. The same town where The Proposition was filmed 101 years later.

The film was called Bushranging in North Queensland, and it was made by one Major Joseph Perry, whose Biorama Company was wholly funded by the Salvation Army. We know very little more about this film, because just as with whole slew of so-called "bushranger films" made between 1904 and 1911, there are only a few minutes of stock still extant. Still, it's safe to assume, given that the Salvation Army found itself in the vanguard of feature film production in order to draw potential converts to its revivalist meetings, that Bushranging in Northern Queensland had a distinctly Manichean approach to its subject matter.

The same cannot be said for others of the bushranger films: the outlaws they portrayed - such as Ned Kelly and Captain Thunderbolt - were folk heroes, and the conflicts between ordinary settlers and the hated "squatocracy" were still alive enough in the Australia of the 1900s, for the entire genre to be banned by several Australian states, led by the most populous, Victoria, in 1911. Apart from a few outlaw, outlaw pictures, the baleful effects of the wowsers, meant that there were fewer Bushranger films made between 1911 and 2003 than in the preceding seven years.

It may be a mistake to overstate the significance of the ban; were it not to have been enacted it seems quite conceivable that self-censorship alone would have prevented the growth of an Australian western genre. Not only was there a plangent puritanism about Australian public morality during this period, there were also two, big, coextensive, no-talk zones in Australia's discourse with itself: the outback and the aboriginals who lived there.

In the US, the Western thrived - I would argue - because the nation's mythic understanding of itself was founded on the ever-westward expansion of white civilization. Once this reached the Pacific, the era of expansion - with its anarchists armed with six-shooters - could be bagged, tagged and mythologised. That this coincided with the rise of Hollywood was serendipitous as much as coincidental. Many of the evils perpetrated on the Native Americans were the same as those inflicted on the Native Australians - with this difference: the Australian frontier was circular, not linear, and it was "settled" - if at all - much later.

The last Australian aboriginals never to have seen a white face emerged out of the desert in the late 1960s, just in time to be accorded Australian citizenship (this was denied to Aboriginals prior to 1968). The remnants of the once populous aboriginal communities of the south-eastern seaboard, were driven by the whites into the interior: an interior which they themselves were unable even to cross successfully until the very end of the 19th century. Australia is a continent so large that whole tracts of it don't even receive white radio signals - let alone see white faces. The desert interior remains, even for the modern Australian psyche, a curious heart of darkness, for to illuminate it is to acknowledge that it still bleeds. As one friend who's worked with outback aboriginals puts it: "It's the only place I've ever been where you can see fourth-world diseases in the developed world."

Unsurprisingly, some of the first film-makers to attempt to deal with the other side of this circumferential frontier were not white Australians but foreigners. One thinks immediately of Nicholas Roeg's Walkabout. It wasn't until 1978, and Fred Schepisi's The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith, that white Australia was prepared to look at the damper on the end of its campfire toasting fork. Even so, when white Australians themselves come to examine their internal frontier, they're inclined to transpose it on to the future - the Mad Max films; or camp it up - Priscilla, Queen of the Desert; or in Peter Weir's case - Picnic at Hanging Rock, The Last Wave - tinge it with the supernatural. In the bushranger/western genre, only the Ned Kelly saga has been revisited again and again, and in the process worn quite thin by repetition.

Which brings us back to The Proposition: a film made by a white Australian director, in the Western genre, which doesn't shy from the dark side of his nation's history - but rather, is wholly immersed in it. It would seem that in 2006, Australian cinema has finished it's own century-long haul around its internal frontier, and ended up right back in Winton, North Queensland. For that's exactly what The Proposition is: a proposition about what an Australian Western might be, rather than a revision of something that really never was.