Bitter Springs (1950)
Picture the scene: It’s the late 1940s and you are in an office in Ealing Studios. Someone points out that westerns continue to do well at the box office. Someone else points out that, this being Ealing Studios – home to everything that is ‘very British, making a western is not really an option. Everyone’s heads nod. Westerns are out. Then a lone voice pipes up “What about if we set in Australia?
Instead of cowboys we have settlers setting up a sheep farm in the outback. Instead of Indians we have an aboriginal tribe …” Strangely he hasn’t been shouted down yet “… who want to defend their tribal lands …” Still no one has stopped him “… and so besiege the settlers’ farmhouse …” he’s on a roll now “… and we’ll make the audience sympathetic towards the aborigines.” Still no one has shouted him down so for good measure he throws in: “The villain can be Chips Rafferty – he’s Australia’s biggest star.” Still no dissent “And we’ll throw in Tommy Trinder for some light relief.”
Even better, we'll put him inside a sack in the opening scene!
I don’t know whether such a meeting ever occurred but somehow such a film actually got made. It sounds like commercial suicide since I cannot imagine who Ealing Studios expected to be their audience. British audiences were happy enough with American westerns – why would they need an Australian one? And Australian audiences were hardly likely to flock in their droves to see a film in which the settlers – i.e. the audience – were portrayed as the villains.
But the film got made. And though it’s short, lacking in action, neither particularly dramatic nor particularly funny, it isn’t the worst film ever made. For all I know, it might not even by the worst Australian ‘western’ ever made (some might argue that ‘Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome’ takes that prize).
I think the tag ‘western’ is appropriate:
settlers battling against nature as they drive through hostile territory to find somewhere to build a new life for themselves ...
wide open landscape, under majestic skies ...
settlers besieged in a log cabin ...
... yep, it’s western alright.
Where ‘Bitter Springs’ works is in its sympathetic portrayal of the aborigines. In the words of one reviewer, the film was “a triumph for aborigines.” At no point does the audience want them to be forced off their land.
The cultural clash, as shown by them being treated to their first view of a mirror is presented as a battle that they will surely lose but one in which they hold the moral high ground. The audience is also treated – travelogue style – to scenes of aborigine life. One scene sticks in mind: a hunter sneaks up on a kangaroo by wearing sticks on his head in an approximation of kangaroo ears. He copies the animal’s gestures and movements, distracting his quarry whilst his friends sneak in for the kill.
In one pivotal scene a settler shoots an aborigine man after Chips Rafferty is threatened following a confrontation over the killing of a sheep.
As the dead man is carried away the viewer sees the sheep in the foreground:
It's clear to the audience that the settlers consider the aborigine's life to be worth no more than that of a sheep.
Such moments are perhaps brave for a film in this period but despite these moments of enlightenment, it's no wonderthe film wasn’t successful.
My favourite line in the film?
In one scene Blackjack, an aboriginal farmer, translates his boss's words into his native tongue. When he comes to the words white man he simply says "White fella" as indication that the aboriginal language did not have its own word for 'white man'.
Oh yes, it's got Gordon Jackson in it: