The Last Wave

(Peter Weir, Australia, 1977)


In the light of Tzvetan Todorov’s distinction (in his great 1970 book The Fantastic) between the categories of the uncanny and the marvellous, it can be said that Peter Weir’s The Last Wave deals almost exclusively with the marvellous, in the form of the Aboriginal mythology of the Dreamtime (or Dreaming). Rational explanations of the unusual weather in the film – the position of the planets, air pollution, and so on – are peripheral, and carry little weight.


David Burton (Richard Chamberlain) is a lawyer, a member of that profession which epitomises rationality. Step by step, he comes to realise that every event in the external world, and every message in the internal world of his psyche, announces a coming Apocalypse in the universal cycle of destruction and rebirth – as well as his predestined part in it. (Mainstream narratives love to place a “chosen individual” at the centre of cosmic happenings!) Situations and experiences, at first random and unconnected (as they are usually taken to be in life), become charged with pan-determinism: everything has a specific meaning, and occurs in relation to a definite order and purpose.


David, in retrieving and deciphering the dreams of his child­hood (which include a premonition of his mother’s death), learns that he is, and always has been, the medium through which the spirit Mulkurul speaks – bringing news of the Apocalypse, and breaking the sacred rituals of Dreamtime law to bring it about. When the tribal leader Charlie (Nandjiwarra Amagula) chants before him, “Who are you?”, he knows he can no longer answer with his family name; that identity has been left behind. He tells his uncomprehending father, whose religion (like the white man’s law) serves to pacify and explain away mystery: “I’ve lost the world I thought I had”.


The main figure in this drama of the marvellous is nature. With the natural elements no longer conforming to a predictable pattern, it becomes clear how awesome and beyond our control they really are. The film has many images which ironically point out the ways in which people like to think they impose an order upon nature, and turn it to their service, such as the harnessing of water through drinking taps and sprinklers. Equally, people believe they can keep nature away when it is an annoyance, with umbrellas and windscreen wipers. But nothing, finally, will hold back the last wave, which is utterly indifferent to the insignificant societies of humans.


The Last Wave is constructed around a stark series of semantic oppositions. In each case there is, on one side, the superficial and reassuring everyday, social world; and, on the other, a richer level of experience that has been repressed. Most importantly, mundane waking life is set against the Dreamtime. Our society has rationalised dreams, given them interpretations, attempted to master the Self. But David learns that ultimately his Self is insignificant. The things he will do, even down to beating Chris (Gulpilil) to death with a sacred stone, have already been mapped out and telegraphed to him in his dreams.


Civilisation can attempt to repress the marvellous, but can never make it disappear; as David tells his father, “Our dreams come back, and we don’t know what they mean”. This is conveyed powerfully in another comparison, one of a physical, concrete order. Below the city streets, where we don’t have to be reminded of their existence, run the sewers. It is here that the indigenous people can hide their tribal identity, and the sacred place whose walls foretell in drawings the cycle of the last wave. They can be sure that no white person would ever dirty themselves enough to stum­ble upon them. This is what gives so much power to the final scenes where David, having lost all traces of his civilised identity, tries to crawl his way out of the sewer, but finds the steel door locked; he wades through the sewer again until he finds a passage onto the beach, where he sees the wave.


David’s visions are subtly introduced: as he sits in his car, the rain teeming on the windscreen slowly blurs his field of vision. One image of the ordinary present (people crossing the street) can thus be replaced by another (bodies floating in the aftermath of the great wave). The film’s dramatic, final shot signifies David’s approaching death simply and effectively, by showing him closing his eyes.


Two laws are contrasted in The Last Wave: Aboriginal against civilised law. The former is strictly bound by ritual and a secret set of rules that have been handed down unchanged from the forefathers. As Chris tells David, “It is more important than man”. Civilised law is based on liberal ethics. David’s colleague accuses him of “middle-class paternalism” towards the indigenous people. Aspiring to knowledge, objectivity and truth, the proceedings in the courtroom never touch the reality of why these Aborigines killed one of their own, preferring to acknowledge it as a drunken brawl. The two laws have no common ground, conveyed in the image of hands – one white, one black – on the Bible, as oaths are taken. The words, “So help me, God”, that the Aborigines are made to recite are, of course, irrelevant to them, reiterating the spiritual gap between the two cultures.


Another key motif in The Last Wave is the contrast between adult and child. It is a theme not often dealt with in Australian cinema, where children are either on the brink of entering the adult world (Libido [1973]; The Night the Prowler [1978]), or are altogether absent (significantly, Marcia [Briony Behets] in Long Weekend [1979] has had an abortion). In The Last Wave, Weir grants children more importance. At the beginning, children in a schoolyard play joyfully in the rain, while their teacher tries to herd them inside; later, David’s two children are delighted at the sight of water from an overflowing bathtub making its way down the stairs. Often during the film, David gazes at his daughter sleeping, as if she holds the key to the secret in which he is enmeshed.


The suggestion is that children are closer to the marvellous, and have a potentially keener perception of it – that is, before the adult world socialises it out of them forever. (There are echoes of Nicolas Roeg’s classic Walkabout [1971] here.) Weir demonstrates this theme in a scene where David’s daughter has a vivid dream; perhaps she, too, is connected with the supernatural. But the content of the dream is described by the child in Christian terms – which, we have seen, serve to explain away mystery – and ends with a pious, reassuring lesson: “I love Jesus, mummy”.


The child has lost contact with the violence, the terror – and the beauty – of nature and its marvellous design.


Postscript 2020: This review is drawn from the first substantial film essay I was ever commissioned to write, at age 19; like most teenage writings, it has a touch of naïveté. Seven years later, to my surprise, this section of the essay became a prime exhibit in the first, booklet version of Dugald Williamson’s roughly “Foucauldian” Authorship and Criticism in 1986 (a longer book-length version, with some quite different material, appeared in 1989 from the same Sydney publisher, Local Consumption). Williamson charges that, in the style of criticism I practice here (and that I guess I have practiced a few times since!), “interest in generic categories is subsumed in the notion that these categories just happen to be true to the way the world is (in this case, allowing us to discover some essence of cultural relations and existential identity), a truth which is thought to be guaranteed simply by ‘having an experience’ of the film” (p. 45). As an example of “interpretive commentary” (which also implies the presence of a directorial author as its cohering, expressive centre), my text strikes Williamson as an act of “paraphrase”, deploying well-worn, socially pre-existing techniques of “repetition and amplification”, that is unable to penetrate to the level of “any reflection on the conditions and techniques of textual representation”. Williamson also takes the opportunity to refer to a later text, the “Critical Statement” project of 1984/1985, and its polemical call to get back to “the film itself”. He writes: “If one asks what is ‘the film itself’, the answer must include the ensemble of representational techniques and the discourses which they articulate and which may be problematic, as in the case of the humanist, romantic and residually racist elements of The Last Wave” (p. 51). Williamson’s entire discussion of Weir in relation to constructions of authorship and modes of criticism (pp. 34-54) is well worth consulting.

MORE Weir: The Truman Show, Picnic at Hanging Rock, Fearless

© Adrian Martin 1979

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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