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.
Can you tell me a little bit about your upbringing, and how you came to directing?
I was born in central Australia, in a town called Alice Springs, in the 70s. Kind of a frontier town, full of angels and demons. Where I come from, the only way out of the town is if you can play sports, be drafted in some kind of national league. I was terrible at kicking a football or throwing anything. And I actually started off as a DJ, a radio DJ at the age of 16. Didn’t really go to school, didn’t give a shit about school. Education, for me, I didn’t find very important until I got older. And then I wanted to write for movies and I couldn’t spell. Like, “See, you should have went to school, you idiot.”
It didn’t stop Tarantino…
…Yeah. But, cinema in a strange way was escapism for me. But not going to the cinema. It was like joining the circus and running away. I started off as a camera assistant carrying boxes, and then went to focus pulling, and then to camera operating, and then I started to travel which was fantastic. And that’s how I got out of the town I lived in. Ironically, this film, that’s where I sort of went back to Alice Springs, to make this western.
What was that like?
Good, good. It was fun, because after reading the script and agreeing to do it, I kind of knew exactly where every shot, every scene was going to be set. Because Alice Springs is incredibly beautiful, and has valleys and mountain ranges, and everything you kind of need to make a Western in a 50 square kilometer area. So, it was kind of exciting, and you know, every director wants to make a western. It was nice to go home.
Can you expand on angels and demons a little bit?
Oh, it’s like everywhere, you know? The irony of a classic western is that the good guy wears a white hat, and a bad guy wears a black hat, and never shall their morals meet in the middle of the street, you know what I mean? Maybe their bullets will. See, I grew up in a frontier town full of racists and full of incredibly beautiful people, and everyone had to kind of get on in a way. So, it was full of angels, and it was full of demons. Full of the most racist people you’ll ever meet in your entire life, and full of the most incredibly beautiful human beings that would give you their last dollar.
What does racism look like there? Is it straightforward, is it subtle?
Up until the 80s, it was straightforward. You’d be called whatever name anybody wanted to call you, as an indigenous person. And then obviously that became not cool. They’re still there, you know what I mean? There’s still just as many racists in the town that I live in, except they use the internet now rather than they use their mouths.
Were there any real events that inspired this movie?
Yeah, it’s based on a true on a story. It’s based on the sound recorder’s grandfather. I knew the sound recorder, we grew up on the same street in the same town, in Alice Springs. And we met when we were six, and for some strange weird fate life thing, he became a sound recorder and I became a sound recorder, then a director of photography. So, he pitched the story to me a couple years ago and I told him to go away and write it, expecting him not to. And then he did write it, and he came back a year or two later, and said, “Here’s the script.”