Fear and Longing in the Outback: Peter Weir’s Nostalgic Australian Cinema

Picnic At Hanging Rock Girls

In celebration of one of the most prominent directors of Australian New Wave, we dissect two of Peter Weir’s iconic films, determining their value as both Australian classic and cinema of the world.

Peter Weir has turned 73. Renowned for his international productions like Dead Poets Society (1989) and The Truman Show (1998), his home-grown claim to fame is perhaps even more striking. As a leading figure in the Australian New Wave cinema movement of the 1970s and 1980s, much of the film industry – local and worldwide – remains influenced by his work.

Weir’s filmography spans a variety of genres, wherein he mainly focuses on character development and cinematic atmosphere to build the world of his narratives. His early work is preoccupied with conceptions of Australiana, but its niche quality is often balanced out by his approach to tropes and characterization. There is a reason for the seminal quality of films like Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975) and Gallipoli (1981). These movies presented anxieties of Australian identity while simultaneously creating universality.

Location and a sense of place and history are vastly important to many of Weir’s Australian films. Even more thematically nebulous narratives like Picnic at Hanging Rock are infused with both reverence and criticism of Australian culture and its place in the world arena, particularly during tumultuous times in the country’s history.

But First, Some Context

The Australian New Wave essentially popularized local cinema for worldwide consumption. Until the 70s, “national cinema” really wasn’t a thing for Australia (Walsh, 21). Government funds rejuvenated the industry in the late 60s and made way for directors like Weir to make their mark.

Films within the movement featured several characteristics and tropes, solidifying a specific view of the country to filmgoers elsewhere. Per Theodore F. Sheckels, the general tenets of Australian New Wave included:

  1. Freedom
  2. Anti-authoritarianism
  3. Anti-British sentiment
  4. Anti-urbanism
  5. A love of horses (and nature in general)
  6. Mateship
  7. Competition
  8. Alcohol consumption and rowdy behavior
  9. Anti-intellectualism
  10. Sexism
  11. Support for the underdog
  12. Fatalism

These films are also mostly set away from the present day, instead preferring to look at historically significant events. The movement had a strong connection with American audiences. According to Mike Hale for The NY Times:

The films also shared a vitality, a love of open spaces and a propensity for sudden violence and languorous sexuality that may have reminded Americans of their own new wave, the Hollywood-maverick period of the late 1960s and early ’70s that had just about run its course.

Most of the themes of Australian New Wave cinema are generic enough to work globally, and that’s certainly what Weir’s films have achieved. As a war movie, Gallipoli overtly taps into many of these rather masculine tropes, while Picnic at Hanging Rock takes a subtler, more mysterious approach to identity-building. It’s a reach to say they’re two sides of the same coin, but they definitely share the characteristic of deftly interweaving Australianness into a worldwide consciousness.

Gallipoli

From the film’s opening shot of Arch (Mark Lee) training to compete in a local race, viewers are introduced to two of Gallipoli’s heroes: the protagonist and the outback. Red dirt kicks up beneath Arch’s feet as he jets across the plain, not a building in sight for miles. There is a tangible sense of freshness in the wide-open spaces permeating the film, which is juxtaposed with claustrophobic enclosure as the film progresses and enlisted men head off to dire fates in less indulgent places.

Arch is quintessentially Australian in the way cinema likes to portray Australia: he’s laid back, an underdog, values competition, makes friends with almost anybody (even one of two black characters that make it into the movie) and has a true affinity for nature and animals. He is a natural sportsman and manages to enlist in with the prestigious Light Horse riders regiment for the war.

Gallipoli Outback

Village Roadshow/Paramount Pictures

The audience gets to know a sense of his recklessness and unyielding optimism when he agrees to race barefoot through the bush against one of his rivals, who happens to be on a horse. He is later shown to be extremely patriotic (“If we can’t stop them there, they could end up here!”) if also ignorant about the horrors of war. On the surface, this almost unseeing, unhindered sense of confidence shields him from much. It even aids his fellow comrades when they need a morale boost.

Particularly, Arch possesses qualities that not only Australians would strive towards. He’s an all-around likable, hardworking young man – salt of the earth and maybe a little foolhardy but never so much as to come across frustrating. He loves adventure and is a bit naïve, but his innocence provides a distinct sparkle to a narrative preoccupied with tension of heritage. He’s easily removable from all of that and is almost like a blank slate.

Meanwhile, his eventual best friend Frank (Mel Gibson) provides a much more sobering counterpoint. He appears older, wiser, more worn out by the world around him. It turns out he even has a darker, more inescapable past: his Irish grandfather was killed by Englishmen, creating a huge disdain for the latter. It’s a grudge that runs through Frank’s family and causes them to be apathetic to the British war cause. This isn’t just a sentiment of a single household, but other displaced Australian characters repeat a similar refrain.

However, befriending Arch ignites something like inspirational kinship in Frank. They both eventually conscript, albeit in different regiments at first, and end up in Cairo together at the same time. Eventually, they go into war together, although they don’t come out.

Gallipoli Arch Frank

Village Roadshow/Paramount Pictures

Throughout the film are montages of Arch or Frank running. These symbolize the pride Arch exudes in his talents and harking back to the open space of the outback where one could run freely. More importantly, they are signalled by “Oxygène” by Jean Michel Jarre – something vibrant and exciting. The track plays just before the final, chilling sequence of the movie, almost tricking an audience – especially one less familiar with the horrific impact that the Battle of Gallipoli had on the ANZAC soldiers and Australian/New Zealander identity – into believing there will be a better ending. Perhaps not a happy one, but not one quite as tragic.

Frank’s scream of anguish and rage the moment he realizes he was only seconds too late from stopping his best friend from walking into the line of fire is heartbreaking. It plays like a kick in the teeth and fuels fire not just in the character, but in audiences too. There is a callousness to war that cuts through the apparent mysticism that Arch once invested in.

The film does many things to address white male Australian identity during World War I, but notably leaves out many other facets of the conversation. There’s a distinct lack of women’s representation in anything other than subservient roles, and men behave in demanding and sexist ways towards them. Indigenous Australians barely exist in the movie. There are apparently issues with historical accuracy painting the British in particularly unfavorable light.

These missing elements aren’t uncommon for most war movies, though. For what it’s worth, Gallipoli definitely portrays a singular narrative. In doing so, Weir was able to focus in on a relationship sporting universally relatable dynamics and tropes, making the terrifying, destabilizing nature of war all the more apparent onscreen. Weir successfully distilled his concerns about identity and responsibility into scenes of camaraderie and friendship.

Gallipoli Arch Final

Village Roadshow/Paramount Pictures

Picnic at Hanging Rock

Much more implicit than Gallipoli is Weir’s mystery drama film, Picnic at Hanging Rock. The film depicts the fictitious disappearance of a group of school girls and one of their teachers in central Victoria. With its ethereal cinematography, commanding score, and inexplicable characters, it perpetuates a link between the unknowability of the Australian landscape and that of a woman’s coming-of-age. The film purports that there is a magic that exists in Australia that is easily translated to the awakening of something primal and instinctive in women. And given the nature of the film’s “reveal” or lack thereof, it is clear audiences are not meant to find out what that something is.

The film represents time as it folds in on itself. Miranda (Anne-Louise Lambert) professes, “I won’t be here much longer,” right after the opening credits stop rolling. It hints at not only her eventual, permanent disappearance but also foreshadows Sara’s (Margaret Nelson) fate at the end of the movie. The story lays all of its cards out for us from the get-go, and audiences are left feeling dread and anticipation as they watch an inevitable tragedy reveal itself.

When the girls visit Hanging Rock and a group of them wander off to explore, the camera conceptualizes the Rock from their perspective. Low angle handheld shots gaze upon it, and upon nature, as Bruce Smeaton’s overwhelming score plays in the background. The camera pans in circles, and viewers and characters alike are lost in time and atmosphere, completely engulfed by sensation. It gets so prodigious that the girls pass out in alcoves during their ascent of the Rock multiple times until they finally disappear.

Picnic At Hanging Rock Miranda

Janus Films

Hanging Rock itself symbolizes danger and allurement. It stands as an imposing, powerful backdrop, with the film’s pulsating score generating an almost-heartbeat for the landscape – it is truly alive and watching, although its perspectives are unknown. This can be contrasted with the relative silence within the walls of Appleyard College. There, the lack of sound is suffocating – overwhelming in its own way. The girls are indelibly intertwined by their collective experiences at the college. It exemplifies privilege (especially that of class) alongside repression, for student and teacher alike. Mrs Appleyard (Rachel Roberts) leaves no prisoners, drunkenly commenting upon Miss McCraw’s (Vivean Gray) disappearance alongside the girls’:

“How can she lower herself to be spirited away? Lost? Raped? Murdered in cold blood like a silly school girl on that wretched Hanging Rock?” – Mrs Appleyard

Throughout the film, characters give in to uninhibited impulses. Some rebel against established social norms and others do so in protection of such customs. These expectations of etiquette are subtly categorized as British in the film. Mrs Appleyard has a portrait of Queen Victoria in her impeccable if somber office. She is exceedingly strict towards the girls, controlling their every move like an imposing matriarch. However, upon finding out that it is indeed impossible to reign everyone in – especially Sara, who is the most vocally opposed to her – she takes matters into her own hands. After Sara is found dead and Mr Whitehead (Frank Gunnell) rushes into Appleyard’s office to tell her of it, she is already dressed in black, as though she is in mourning. It wouldn’t be a far stretch to imply that she had something to do with Sara’s death, possibly in an attempt to regain some sense of control over her failing school.

Picnic At Hanging Rock Appleyard

Janus Films

In a subplot that further hints at British-Australian relations, Michael (Dominic Guard) – an Englishman who takes an interest in the missing girls – is at first too “proper” when compared against his rougher Australian valet, Albert (John Jarrett). In the film’s theatrical release, Michael is shown to strike up a kinship with missing-then-found Irma (Karen Robson), although she cannot (or refuses to) satiate his desire to learn about what happened to the other girls. Michael and Albert’s roles are significantly reduced in the Director’s Cut of the film, but they still provide a distinctive male gaze to the film that communicates the “splendor” and clandestine nature that the girls – particularly the missing ones – supposedly emanate.

“There’s a lot of things other people don’t know. Secrets.” – Sara

Picnic At Hanging Rock

Janus Films

Picnic at Hanging Rock frustratingly teases and never satisfies audiences with any answers. It speaks in reference and innuendo over images that convey leading perspectives without actually confirming anything. The film’s haziness – literally and figuratively – almost shields its Australian themes from view, but they lurk under the surface. Set in Appleyard College then at Hanging Rock, the film is anti-urban and pro-nature. It is positively anti-authoritarian and serves as a possible cautionary tale of the suppression of specific freedoms. The film even comments on gender relations, or rather women’s roles in 1900s Australia, to some extent. Furthermore, by presenting the film’s events as practically-fact – opening the movie on a text card detailing the supposed historical tragedy of Hanging Rock – it manages to get away with its obsessive, singular gaze. It doesn’t have to consider the stories of the missing identities – Indigenous Australians, a concerted focus on class distinctions – when it’s primarily meant to perplex.

Weir’s films attempt to breach universality as well as provide an inward-looking quest for identity in Australian cinema. There’s no doubt that – at least where two of his most prominent home-grown exports are concerned – this is achieved rather succinctly and successfully. Perhaps the inherent historicity of the works – Gallipoli being set during World War I and Picnic at Hanging Rock in 1900 – adds to the distance and nostalgia, generating the ability to forgive certain representational anomalies that would stick out in modern films. That doesn’t mean surrogate characters like Frank and Sara – decidedly modern for their time – don’t exist as the audience’s crutch to a closer reality.

Overall, Weir possesses a kind of deftness in conveying genuine emotion and investment in the characters he translates onscreen. His cinema is undeniably powerful – enough to directly influence other prominent creators like Sofia Coppola – and it works wonderfully in its obvious timelessness.

 

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Often chugging tea and thinking about horror movies. Curator of daily stuff and things here at Film School Rejects.