Today, many filmgoers associate Peter Weir with his touching US movie Dead Poets’s Society. I, too, love Dead Poet’s Society for the message it conveys to its audiences and for the charming performances of its actors. But if the evaluation is based on the quality of the cinema, I would rate Weir’s earlier film The Last Wave, a film he made in his native Australia, to be intrinsically far superior.
There are several reasons why I consider Weir’s The Last Wave to stand out amongst Weir’s interesting and rich cinematic works.
First, unlike his more talked about films Dead Poet’s Society, Gallipoli, Picnic at Hanging Rock, Witness, The Year of Living Dangerously, The Truman Show, Fearless, and Cars that Ate Paris, all of which are either based on actual events and characters, or works of novelists, Weir’s The Last Wave is an intensely original personal story, conceptualized and developed by the director himself. It is inconsequential that the end of the film is left open-ended and is difficult to comprehend for many who prefer finite endings for movies. But then which parts of our life are fully finite and understood? In a fascinating interview available on the internet with the director, Ms Judith Kass reveals that Weir’s idea to make the film was initiated by an indefinable sudden urge to dig up a buried ancient statue of a child in Tunisia, after stumbling on another piece of the statue above ground, while on a holiday in that country. This incident led Weir to develop the story of this thought-provoking movie. For those who believe in spiritual coincidences, could there be a better reality tale?
Second, this is a rare attempt in the annals of Australian cinema to truly understand the Aboriginal inhabitant’s mind, values, and sacred beliefs with part sanction and approval from the Aboriginals themselves.
Third, some of the actors in the film were not “acting” in the true sense—they were portraying characters they had decided for themselves after they were satisfied with Weir’s script. In fact, a real life Aboriginal and tribal magistrate Nandjiwarra Amagula ‘plays’ the role of “Charlie” in the film, after incorporating his and other Aboriginals’ views on the development of that character. For Nandjiwarra Amagula, this was his sole movie appearance.
Most of all I love my favorite line in the film “Our dreams are shadows of something real.” And this is not Sigmund Freud, but the words of the original scriptwriters of the film—Peter Weir, Tony Morphett and Petru Popescu.
The film is essentially just that. It sways between dreams and reality. It toys with subconscious memories, rebirths, ancestral faiths, and relationships with natural calamities.
For Weir, the plot of the film balances the virtues of material wealth of modern Western society with the spiritual wealth of Aboriginals of Australia. It is also a tale of nature doing unusual things, when rain is not clean water but a dark liquid, when wind and rain can make you squirm with fear within the safety of your home and when you feel they are speaking to you, when waves from the sea can appear to be like a tsunami, literally or figuratively speaking. The Aboriginals seem to to know more about the strange natural phenomena than the richer and more educated European Australians. It is also a tale of how modern Australia has built cities such as Sydney over traditional Aboriginal land with artifacts and totems that may still be holy and sacred to the tribes that once ruled the land. And these artifacts could be truly buried under the sewers and waste outlets of modern cities.
The Last Wave is an inquiry into one’s subconscious as well. It is definitely not a thriller or even a horror film. The lead character David Burton (a decent performance by American actor Richard Chamberlain) of the movie is an Australian lawyer, who is supposed to have a South American lineage. He is defending an Aboriginal accused in a murder of another. He experiences strange dreams and feels he has an unidentifiable "connection" to one of the accused in the case. The Aboriginals in turn identify him to be a “mukurul from across the sea.” Weir develops the connection further as the plot progresses, as the character David shows a distinct affinity and curiosity for the Aboriginals. The same Aboriginals frighten David’s wife, while they mean no harm. As David encounters Charlie the Aboriginal to ask him why he had come outside his home and frightened his wife on a rainy night, and asks him “Who are you?” Charlie’s enigmatic response is “Who are you? Who are you? Who are you? Are you a fish? Are you a snake? Are you a man? Who are you?” An existential conundrum indeed, probably partly resolved when David picks up an aboriginal “mask” figuratively and literally, much later towards the end of the movie.
Weir achieves a rare feat in cinema as the film empathizes with the unknown instead of tending to rationalize the odd facts presented in the script. When I saw the film, some 30 years ago, it provided a great introduction to the emerging and throughly awesome Australian cinema of the Seventies. When I view the same film today I get the feeling of reassurance that Weir had somehow grasped the uncanny problem of vagaries of nature relating to water that Australians increasingly face as they wait for cloud bearing storms to survive the ever increasing water shortage on the continent. That he was not able connect this to the main tale adequately is unfortunate. Can Australia afford to forget the spiritual wealth of the original inhabitants of that continent as they grapple with nature’s vagaries even to this day?
Critics have pointed out that Weir was at a loss to close the tale and the apocalyptic end was not in the original script. If you reflect on the final scene of the film one could say that Weir truly couldn’t have ended the tale any better. It is a film that will make the viewer question many facts, dreams, and the freaky behaviors of nature. It need not be Australia-centric but has relevance to parallel global values.
Kudos for this nugget of cinema need to go not just to Weir, but to a host of other gifted Australians: cinematographer Russell Boyd, actor David Gulpilil, composer Charles Wain, and Oscar winning cameraman John Seale (obviously an apprentice in this film).
My appreciation of the film increased after reading Peter Weir’s interview with Judith M. Kass available at http://www.peterweircave.com/articles/articlei.html But the best lines in the interview are the following.
Judith Kass: What would you like your audiences to know about your films?
Peter Weir: I remember a quote of Bruce Springsteen's in Rolling Stone. He said, "I like to give my audiences something money can't buy." So I'd like them to walk out with much more than the $4.00 or whatever it cost.
If you have seen the movie, reflect on the importance of the original title of the film The Last Wave and perhaps you will get more value than $4! The Last Wave won the Golden Ibex (the Grand Prize) at the Teheran International Film Festival, 1977.