Aboriginal Prophecies from Down Under

The rational versus the irrational always creates compelling conflicts in the best kind of fantasy/horror films where scientists and/or investigators are faced with trying to understand or explain supernatural events or mysteries of the occult. A denial of the paranormal fueled the chilling storyline of Jacques Tourneur’s Curse of the Demon (1957, released in the U.K. as Night of the Demon). A similar tone of skepticism is under attack in The Last Wave (1977), one of the rare Australian films to delve into Aboriginal mythology and superstitions but also one that addresses the environment on an apocalyptic level.

Often associated with “The New Australian Cinema” movement of the 1970s, The Last Wave (1977, aka Black Rain), was an important film in establishing Peter Weir’s international reputation as a director to watch. He first attracted attention with the quirky black comedy The Cars That Ate Paris (1974), which was released in an edited version in the U.S. entitled The Cars That Eat People, and followed it with Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975), a mysterious, enigmatic period film about the disappearance of some schoolgirls at a remote geological site that quickly attracted a cult following. The Last Wave shared similar mystical and occult elements with the latter film but also explored the cultural disconnect between white urban society and the laws and legends of aboriginal tribal people.

An eerie scene from the 1977 Australian film, THE LAST WAVE, directed by Peter Weir.

More importantly, the film moves ominously back and forth between a dream world and a natural one in which frogs fall from the sky, water pours out of car radios and hailstorms suddenly erupt without warning in the dusty, arid Outback. While The Last Wave could be read as an early warning of the global warming effects to come, the underlaying tension and power of this quietly menacing thriller comes from Weir’s use of symbols and mythology to question Australia’s identity and its future.

Synopsis: David Burton (Richard Chamberlain), a lawyer in Sydney, Australia is persuaded against his better judgment to defend a group of aborigines accused of murdering one of their own tribal members. As Burton delves into the case, he begins to experience a series of nightmares and odd occurrences that rattle his rational thought process. The case eventually puts a severe strain on Burton’s marriage as he becomes increasingly obsessed with bringing to light the secrets his clients have been withholding. When he uncovers a link between the aborigines and his own ancestors, visions of an impending apocalypse become more frequent, culminating in Burton’s discovery of a sacred underground tribal lair.

The screenplay for The Last Wave was initially inspired by a trip Weir made to Duga, a city in Tunisia, where some ancient Roman ruins were located. In an interview with Judith M. Mass prior to the opening of his film in New York City in 1979, he recalled, “…I had this feeling which lasted a few seconds, that I was going to find something. I was picking up bits of stone and I saw on a stone these parallel lines and I picked that stone up. In fact it was a hand, a fist, and the lines were between the fingers. It resisted a little bit, then burst up through the ploughed field and there was this head, the head of a child, broken off at the neck and at the wrist….I wondered about the head; why did I know I was going to find it?…And I thought, what if a lawyer had found it…And at some stage from that I thought, What if a lawyer dreamt of some evidence, what if he found some evidence through a premonition? Someone trained to think precisely on one hand; on the other, the facts, dreaming, dream some evidence.”

Chris (David Gulpilil) displays an ominous warning sign from his ancestors in Peter Weir’s 1977 film, THE LAST WAVE.

Weir’s ideas were then developed with screenwriters Tony Morphett and Petru Popescu into a final script which was cast with Australian and aboriginal actors and in the lead, Richard Chamberlain. Regarding that choice, Weir said, “…there was something in his face, there was some alien quality, and in my story my character had that quality…Also, we couldn’t raise all the money in Australia and Chamberlain’s name occurred to somebody and I remembered that face, those eyes in particular.”

Australian director Peter Weir

Casting and working with the aboriginal actors was a trickier proposition because most of them were not professional actors. Nanjiwarra Amagula, who plays Charlie, the tribal leader in The Last Wave, was actually a local clan leader. Weir found him through the help of Lance Bennett, the director of the Aboriginal Cultural Foundation in Sydney. Bennett was initially suspicious of Weir’s intentions until he interviewed him and read a draft of his screenplay. After that, he agreed to help him find the ideal person for the pivotal but largely non-speaking role of Charlie. Amagula, who lived on Groote Island in the Gulf of Carpentaria, turned out to be the perfect fit and he met with Weir and agreed to do the film.

Richard Chamberlain, who had recently completed a television adaptation of The Man in the Iron Mask (1977), welcomed the opportunity to work outside Hollywood. He noted in his autobiography, “The Australian movie boom was just entering its first burst of creativity, and our young crew worked with an excited exuberance not often found in the highly professional, but sometimes slightly jaded, productions of Hollywood.” Working with the film’s tribal Aborigines was a revelation. Like the early Hawaiians they are tuned into nature in ways modern city folks can’t even begin to understand. Young David Gulpilil, one of our main actors, was unusual in that he was hip to city ways and comfortable in our urban world but also could throw off his clothes and survive with skill in the Outback, chasing down animals with little more than his bare hands.”

Gulpilil, of course, had already made an unforgettable impression in his movie debut in Nicholas Roeg’s Walkabout (1971) and was probably Australia’s best known Aboriginal actor by the time he made The Last Wave, having already appeared in Mad Dog Morgan (1976) opposite Dennis Hopper and Storm Boy (1976). Gulpilil has since gone on to critical acclaim and acting awards for his work in such films as Rolf de Heer’s The Tracker (2002) and Rabbit-Proof Fence (2002), directed by Phillip Noyce.

The Last Wave enjoyed a modest success as an art house release in the U.S., despite the fact that it was marketed as a genre thriller and many U.S. critics treated it as such. Pauline Kael of The New Yorker wrote, “The plot of this Australian film is a throwback to the B-movies of the 30s and early 40s, and the dialogue…is vintage RKO and Universal..But it’s hokum without the fun of hokum; despite all the scare-movie apparatus, this film fairly aches to be called profound.”

Vincent Canby of The New York Times was more positive, calling the film, “a movingly moody shock-film, composed entirely of the kind of variations on mundane behavior and events that are most scary and disorienting because they so closely parallel the normal.”

David Burton (Richard Chamberlain) investigates strange happenings which might not have any rational explanation in THE LAST WAVE (1977), directed by Peter Weir.

The Last Wave’s reputation has grown since then thanks to a DVD release from the esteemed Criterion Collection in March 2010 but it is still not available on Blu-ray in the U.S. If you have an all-region Blu-ray player, you can opt for the Australian release from Umbrella Entertainment in September 2020.

The film is essential viewing for anyone interested in Peter Weir’s development as a director. It is also worth a look for Russell Boyd’s ravishing and magical cinematography which depicts an exotic but unsettling side of Sydney and the Australian Outback rarely seen in movies.

*This is a revised and updated version of an article that originally appeared on the Turner Classic Movies website.

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