Mysticism in Film: ‘The Last Wave’ (1977) – Part 1

A two-part guide through the outback of Peter Weir’s most underrated film of the seventies.

“We’re nothing but the law we learn from our forefathers.”

“But surely, men are more important than laws?”

“No. The law is more important than just man.”

The mysterious Chris Lee (David Gulpilil) instructs Lawyer David Burton (Richard Chamberlain) on the law.

Well, folks, looks like we’re in for a two-parter. In doing my research for this essay, I discovered that many current commentaries and reviews had, at best, expressed bafflement at film’s ambiguous conclusion. This was not simply a “death of the author” situation, since the meaning is actually clear within the text itself. It should be noted that there was a heightened interest in anthropological subjects at the time of the film’s release, so it worked better then than it does now. Over the next two weeks, we’ll provide a guide through the Outback of Weir’s most underrated film of the seventies, so be warned; major spoilers ahead…

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Like most of Peter Weir’s films, including his mainstream hits like ‘The Truman Show,’ (1998), ‘The Last Wave’ is an intelligent, off-kilter beast. Part legal thriller, part apocalyptic Lovecraftian nightmare, with smatterings of M.R. James sprinkled in for good measure, it eschews “boo” scares in favour of following a similar path to Weir’s previous film, ‘Picnic at Hanging Rock’ (1975) by building an atmosphere of general unease.

Somewhere in the Outback, a shadowy figure who we’ll later learn is known as Charlie (real life Northern Aboriginal tribal magistrate Nandjiwarra Amagula, who did the film on two conditions; firstly that he could bring his wife and second, that the point was made that the law more imprtant than the man) paints strange, Aboriginal petroglyphs upon the underside of a vast, wave-shaped rock, designs resembling a face… In a beautifully subtle transition, we dissolve to an establish shot of an isolated desert town so that, just for a moment, it appears as though the face on the rock is looking down on the tiny community from the sky.

Darkness is coming.

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Billy pays the price for stealing secrets.

As thunder rumbles and lightning flashes, one of the local school children observes that there are no clouds. Then, from this cloudless sky, hailstones the size of cricket balls begin to fall. Meanwhile Sydney is experiencing its own freak weather conditions; torrential rain batters the city, and weird, rainbow-like lights scar the blackened sky. There are showers of black rain seemingly comprised of oil; background chatter at parties hints at comets and lights in the sky; characters speak of cyclones and reports of freak weather conditions.

Amidst all this unsettling weirdness (and the film does unsettle, never presenting its set pieces as spectacle), Sydney lawyer David Burton is having bad dreams. He has visions of strange, Jamesian figures lurking in the darkness, dream-encounters with a young Aborigine holding a stone baring a design similar to the ones we saw in the opening, and, eventually, waking visions of an apocalyptic flood.

During a weekend visit to David’s stepfather, Reverend Burton (Frederick Parslow), the Reverend tells David of his childhood dreams about his body being stolen by “taxi drivers” and returned to him in the morning. David doesn’t remember; Reverend Burton seems to be holding something back.

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The Burton family. White, middle class, happy and blissfully asleep.

All this comes to a head after David is asked to defend five aborigines for the possible murder of a sixth, Billy (Athol Compton). The police are baffled because the cause of Billy’s death, despite him having a negligible amount of water in his lungs was, “his heart stopped beating”. One of the accused, Gerry Lee (Walter Amagula) claims that, “Billy died. That’s all.” All we, as an audience know, is that the accused chased Billy through the labyrinthine sewers and storm drains after he stole something and, despite him giving whatever it was back, they later followed him to a bar, and after he ran, Billy dropped dead on a building site after Charlie apparently pointed a Killing Bone at him (this is, like everything else presented in the film, is a genuine Aboriginal tradition, though the results are never as instant as those seen in the film. Death usually results days or weeks later, usually as a result of psychosomatic shock, so the victim himself has to believe). But the reason he was killed remains unclear; we’ve seen the victim.

After a brief meeting with the accused during which time one, Chris Lee is mysteriously absent, David takes the case but has to blunder through it as he’s doing it as a legal aid volunteer; his field being corporate taxation.

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One of David’s dream visitors.

Everything about David and his wife Annie (Olivia Hammett) scream white, affluent and middle class. Annie is a painter, but he art has a vaguely culturally appropriated feel to it, despite her never having met an Aborigine. They have two young daughters and are admired, respected and thoroughly Christian. When David finally meets Chris, all this suddenly comes tumbling down. Chris is the figure from David’s dreams.

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There’s the face of a man with 50,000 years worth of culture in his head…

As Chris Lee, Gulpilil’s appearance is extraordinary. Initially kept mostly in the shadows apart from brief dream-glimpses, our first proper look at him is when his commanding presence swans into a bar to meet David. Curly haired, sporting a fetching flared jeans and leather jacket combo and with Aboriginal features nothing short of beautiful, it’s a wonder that his role here didn’t become as iconic as his debut in Nicholas Roeg’s ‘Walkabout’ (1971), He was, at the time, the only tribal Aborigine working as professional actor, and the look he gives David is stunning; it has all the serenity and confidence of a man fully aware of the 50,000 years worth of uninterrupted ancestral knowledge behind him.

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…And there’s the face of a man who doesn’t. Perhaps.

The key to the whole film is the scene during which David and Annie have dinner with Chris and his unexpected guest Charlie (who claims not to speak English, so Chris has to translate, including his compliments to Annie about her paintings). After David describes the dream in which he saw Chris, the visitors hint what dreams really are; they are “shadow of something real.” Peter Weir was determined to use real tribal Aborigines to play these parts. He felt the film would simply not work otherwise, and ever line of dialogue as either theirs, or pre-approved by them. Weir notes that Gulpilil would actually experience dreams and skin twitches like those his character describes in the film whenever a family member was in trouble. Charlie is interested the most in David’s heritage (his “sunrise”), even asking to see his family albums, and it transpires that both his natural parents are dead, and that David was born in South America (Chamberlain was actually cast because of his angular features; Weir was unaware at the time his leading man actual had some Native American ancestry).

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“Dream like… seeing… hearing… talking.”

Charlie and Chris seem to place great significance in this David’s bloodline, explaining that a person is essentially the sum of their ancestor’s knowledge. A character feeling the consequences of the actions of his ancestors is one of films more subtle Lovecraftian themes. But who, exactly were David’s ancestors? Who, or what, exactly is he?

Next week we ask, “Are you Mulkurul?”

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Charlie finds signs and significance in David’s past that David himself is ignorant of.

 About the author: Jonathan Sisson studied Moving Image at the University of Central Lancashire and produced several short films. After that, he became and actor and has appeared in several film and television productions.

 Jonathan Sisson’s 2001 film ‘The Institute’ is now online on Vimeo and can be seen here: https://vimeo.com/193049022

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