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History in the Movies, “Australia”

History in the Movies, “Australia”

Cathy Schultz, Ph.D., a history professor at the University of St. Francis in Illinois; she writes a syndicated column on historical films.

This weekend, I recommend a trip to see “Australia.” The film, that is. Baz Luhrmann’s ambitious new movie combines the quirky charm of his Oscar-nominated “Moulin Rouge,” with the epic sweep of a “Gone with the Wind.” Throw in a love story, some gorgeous visuals, and Hugh Jackman in all of his “Sexiest Man Alive” glory. What’s not to love?

The movie also introduces us to a compelling slice of Australian history, circa 1940; one which resonates — rather surprisingly — with themes from our own national story: There are cattle drives through the outback; tension between greedy land barons and simple ranchers; an unprovoked air attack by the Japanese; and a powerful subplot about the racism encountered by a mixed-race boy.

But how much of it is real? Here’s an Aussie history guide to help answer your questions.

Q. Hugh Jackman’s character is called the “Drover.” What’s a drover anyway?

A. It’s an Australian term for someone who drives cattle (or sheep, for that matter). In a Hollywood Western, his character would just be called ‘the Cowboy.”

Q. Nicole Kidman’s character runs a ranch called Faraway Downs. Did it actually exist?

A. No, it’s fictional. But it looks like a typical ranch (or “station,” as they’re called) in Australia’s Northern Territories. Land holdings in that vast and isolated region run huge. Some stations encompass literally millions of acres, and number their cattle in the tens of thousands.

Q. The film shows the Australian government taking Aboriginal children from their parents. Is that true?

A. Unfortunately, yes. For a hundred years, beginning in the 1860s, Australian policy encouraged a forced removal of “half-caste” (mixed-race) children from their Aboriginal mothers. Brought to live in missions, and encouraged to assimilate to white society, they became known as the Stolen Generations. Many never saw their families again.

When it began, some argued that the policy protected the children from neglect or abandonment. But prejudice lay at its heart. In the film, an older white man tells Lady Ashley (Nicole Kidman) that the children were removed from their families because “we want to breed the black out of them.” And he reassures her not to worry, since “aboriginal mothers soon forget their offspring.”

Q. When did the Australian government finally end the policy?

A. Amazingly, not until the 1960s. And it wasn’t until this year that Australia officially acknowledged the cruelty of the policy. Prime Minister Kevin Rudd spoke before Parliament in February of 2008, and issued a formal apology to the Aborigines on behalf of the nation. “For the pain, suffering and hurt of these Stolen Generations, their descendants and for their families left behind,” he said in a moving statement. “We say, we are sorry.”

Q. Little Nullah hopes to go ‘walkabout’ with his black grandfather. What does this mean?

A. To non-Aussies, it seems to simply mean a long walk. But for an Aborigine, the walkabout was a coming-of-age journey through the Australian wilderness, a chance to follow in the footsteps of their ancient ancestors.

Q. Ancient, huh? Just how far back do the Aborigines go in Australia?

A. Scholars estimate that Aborigines have been in Australia for about 40,000 years. Which is about 39,800 years longer than whites.

Q. How soon after Pearl Harbor did the Japanese bomb the Australian city of Darwin?

A. The Darwin air raids took place in February of 1942, and the Australians were caught just as flat-footed as the Americans had been two months earlier at Pearl Harbor. The Japanese unleashed more firepower against Darwin than they had in Hawaii, and destroyed ships and planes belonging to both Australia and the United States.

After the Darwin attack, many feared that the Japanese were on the verge of an invasion, for which Australia was woefully unprepared. The Australian military was mostly deployed overseas in early 1942, serving with British forces in Europe or North Africa. The Australian government quickly scrambled to get its forces back home, and fortunately, by early 1943, the threat of Japanese invasion had passed.

Q. Were the mission children actually stuck on an island in Darwin’s harbor when the Japanese attached?

A. No, this part is exaggerated. But there’s a kernel of truth to the story. One of the first Australians to spot the incoming Japanese planes was a priest, stationed on a lonely island off Darwin’s shore. “An unusually large air formation bearing down on us from the northwest,” he radioed into Darwin’s radio operators on the morning of the attack. The operators shrugged off the warning. Twenty minutes later, the town was attacked.

Q. How can I find more information about Australia?

A. There are some good books out there, but what Australia hopes is that people bypass the reading, and instead decide to come Down Under to visit. The country helped fund the film, believing it could spark a tourism boom. It might work. Though in these penny-pinching times, Australia might have to offer some extra inducements to tourists.

However, some personal time with Australia’s very own “Sexiest Man Alive” might do the trick.

You can reach Cathy Schultz at cschultz@stfrancis.edu

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