The cinematic Western started in large part as a justification of manifestation destiny, glorifying the rugged, upright white settler in his struggle against the savage native. On a longer timeline, filmmakers continue to reinvent the genre, and one of its strengths has proven to be its adaptability. The Lone Ranger-ish white hats of the 1950s gave way to the anti-heroes of the 1970s, and these days, the Western is becoming useful as a familiar framework for stories with more exotic settings, and interestingly, as a way to tell the stories of those same colonized people.
Late last year we wrote about a pair of white South African filmmakers telling the story of a rail town on the eastern cape, shot entirely in Sesotho language, in Five Fingers For Marseilles. This year’s Sundance Film Festival brings us Sweet Country, an Australian Western set in the central desert post WWI, telling the story of an Aboriginal cowboy (Hamilton Morris) on the run from a local constable (Bryan Brown), with the cowboy’s wife (Anni Finsterer), a white missionary (Sam Neill), and a local boy (twins Tremayne and Trevor Doolan) all getting caught up in the mix.
If there was a Mount Rushmore of Australian cinema, Bryan Brown and Sam Neill would probably be on it (I realize Neill is technically a Kiwi, I still think he’s been in enough Aussie films to warrant the honor). But unlike in the case of Marseilles, Sweet Country‘s director, Warwick Thornton, actually comes from the community he depicts. It not only rings with authenticity, it’s visually beautiful in a way that only a cinematographer shooting the town he grew up in can be.
And it’s a good thing it’s so pretty, because Thornton doesn’t spare the brutality of Australia’s genocidal colonial period. I won’t sugar coat it, Sweet Country is a tough watch. For Thornton, this isn’t just an artistic choice but a duty, to tell the truth that all those white hat westerns tried to obscure. Or as he puts it, as only an Australian could: “for the last 200 years, indigenous people have had to drink a lot of concrete and harden the f*ck up. So, it’s about the time that the rest of Australia drink some concrete and harden the f*ck up with us.”
How can you not like a guy who talks like that? Thornton draws a connection between his work and indigenous people’s oral history, that kept their stories and culture alive in times of crisis. Sweet Country, in fact, came from a sound recorder Thornton had worked with and knew from childhood — it was the story of the sound designer’s own grandfather. So in a way, Thornton’s job as director is just the modern evolution of that same oral history — utilizing the post-Captain Cook Australians’ medium (film), form (the western), and favorite actors (Brown and Neill) to preserve pre-Captain Cook Australians’ stories and identity.
I sat down with Thornton this week at Sundance.