The Naked Country

(aka Morris West's Naked Country, Tim Burstall, Australia, 1984)


Based on a novel about the relations between whites and Aborigines written in the1950s, The Naked Country (like Bruce Beresford's The Fringe Dwellers, 1986) takes us back to social attitudes circulating at the time of Charles Chauvel's Jedda, (1955). But whereas Beresford's film takes the path of naturalistic "social realism", Tim Burstall and his collaborators continue Chauvel's exploration in a direct and daring way. For this is a full-blooded melodrama painting, in broad strokes, the conflicts and contradictions of white rule; not "quality" melodrama (like Sophie's Choice , 1982) but "trashy" soap opera which affronts (as Chauvel did) genteel bourgeois aesthetic and moral standards with its "transgressive" sexual couplings and ethically complex system of eye-for-eye killings.

Burstall establishes with characteristic economy the virtually iconic characters and their social interrelations. In the first scene, land-owning farmer Lance (John Stanton) confronts proud young Mundara (Tommy Lewis), who speaks for the Aborigines' sacred ownership of their land. Scenes then introduce Lance's politically troubled, emotionally dissatisfied wife Mary (Rebecca Gilling) and the equally ill at ease Neil (Ivar Kants), who has a drinking problem and a sympathetic understanding of black law. The "semantic diagram" of the film is in fact far from being either artistically crude or mindlessly racist, as a number of commentators have imputed. As well as characters initially embodying the extremes of white and black values, there are key in-between figures (like Neil and the blacks living in and helping the white community) who at the same time bridge these extremes, and indicate the ironic limitations of racial "assimilation" (as when a black "maid" suggests that all Mary needs to be happy is a "piccaninny").

Most importantly, all the characters are subjected, in the course of the narrative, to an elegant process of contrast and comparison typical of the melodramatic form, bringing out the various affinities and differences between the white and black social systems. For instance, Mundara's violation of tribal law in "demanding" Menyan (Neela Day), the woman he loves, is rhymed with Mary and Neil's "cross-class" affair. Mundara is likened to Neil in that both are rebellious, somewhat hot-headed, restless in their prescribed social place. But where Neil is weak and pathetic, Mundara is strong and noble. Lance's more profound symbolic kinship is ultimately to his sworn enemy Lance. Both are described as "determined characters", and Mundara's rhetorical condemnation of Lance in the first scene – that he could not last three days living off the land alone as blacks do – is pointedly disproved by the main stretch of the film's action, with an "exiled" Lance surviving numerous spear attacks and eating nutritious bugs. The final, sublimely homoerotic rapprochement of Lance and Mundara, with the latter (half-killed by his elders) pleading "kill me, please, boss Dillon" is as complex a swirl of personal and political determinations as occurs at the end of other profoundly expressive "trash" masterpieces like Richard Fleischer's Mandingo (1975) and King Vidor's Duel in the Sun (1946). The final shots of Lance, now symbolically part-black as be buries Mundara and proudly swings his tribal implement, are particularly moving.

The critical reception of the film has been predictably insensitive to the conventions and possibilities of its melodramatic form. In the Cinema Papers review (tellingly titled "Where No Culture Flies"), John Baxter "suspects" (or perhaps wishes) that the film's makers have their "tongues ... firmly in cheek", and derides the material as "ripe" and "tropical-weight nonsense". But The Naked Country is a fine and intelligent film deserving of a much higher critical evaluation.

MORE Burstall: Attack Force Z, Duet for Four

© Adrian Martin 1991

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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