Monday, 22 June 2015

The Secret River, ABC TV, 14 & 21 June 2015

I felt free to be enthralled by the way this film brought our unique foundation story to life, since I’m well-grounded in the historical facts. A picture tells a thousand words and this production is inspired, evoking a feeling of what it was like to be there, in that time and place two hundred years ago. On the negative side, its conflation of various historical events serves our community very badly in understanding our history. 

The acting is superb. Will, Sal and the two children are perfect in their roles. Will’s physical strength and Sal’s ability to cope with adversity despite her homesickness demonstrates why the settlement of Sydney survived and flourished against the odds, instilling qualities of character which dominated Australia for several centuries. Thanks to the skills of expert screenwriters, the film’s dialogue and its choice of wholesome parenting scenes with the children portray these virtues much better than the book. Women played their part equally with the men, and feistily. The role of the Rum Corps has always made me proud to be a descendant of convict achievers instead of a soldier of the NSW Corps. (Actually one forebear was a soldier who arrived with the Third Fleet, but he died here in 1795, well before the Rum Corps took over the colony.)

Will’s first journey up the Hawkesbury was a magical experience, just as it was on the day of arrival in Sydney, 26 January 1788, when Surgeon Arthur Bowes wrote: ‘The singing of the various birds amongst the trees, and the flight of numerous parraquets, lorrequets, cockatoos and macaws, made all around appear like in enchantment.’ Will's reaction to the bush, the birdsong and the interplay of light and shade was exactly how I imagined the reaction of my First Fleeter, Robert Forrester who in 1791 at the still struggling Sydney Cove also chose to stay in Australia, just like Will, foreseeing a better and more secure future than back in London.

Both sides of the interaction between the aborigines and the settlers is conveyed well in Part 1: the drunken dissolution in Sydney; the settlers’ fear at the Hawkesbury, fuelled by the silent appearance of large groups of aborigines carrying spears and settler gossip of atrocities; the quiet sadness of the aborigines as they are dispossessed; the struggles of both groups for food and survival. These events were always going to happen – someone was going to invade and settle Australia and displace the indigenous peoples – but it is distressing to see the reality depicted so starkly and with such sensitivity to the nuances. Acts of friendship between the two groups did take place, demonstrated in the film by the offering of food, play between the children and concern over Sal’s mastitis. 

Now for the obvious historical anomalies. 

In Part 1, Will arrives in Sydney in 1805, is free after 1810 and settles at the Hawkesbury in 1814, when Sydney was a much more settled place, and the Hawkesbury a much busier river for shipping, than is portrayed in the film. Pictures freely available on the internet prove this. But since Australia’s inspiring story of pioneering settlement is hard to beat, the book, and therefore the film, has concertinaed the experiences of the First and Second Fleets of 1788 and 1790, the settlement of the Hawkesbury in 1794 and the frontier war there up to the early 1800s into this much later time frame. The existence and important role of Governor Macquarie in emancipating convicts (1810-1821) is rather glossed over in the film (Macquarie is distinguished only by his hat and his Scottish accent), minimising an important step in our history. 

Part 2 offended me, making me angry that so few people value the power of the REAL story. All of the gruesome events portrayed in this episode have taken place in our history, in one form or another: men like Thomas Blackwood did take aboriginal wives; some disgusting men like Smasher abused aboriginal women in the way depicted; soldiers did go on the warpath; the settlers did spread fear and panic among themselves and did form vigilante groups; massacres did occur. 

But not in the time frame depicted here. 

The soldiers sent out by Governor Macquarie in 1815, mainly to the Kurrajong district of the lower Blue Mountains, shot and killed about 14 aborigines, obeying the official orders proclaimed in the film’s dialogue. It’s unfashionable in Sydney to malign local hero Macquarie, so when that pile of dead bodies flashes before our eyes, the film does not make clear that the soldiers and not the settlers were responsible. The settlers along the Hawkesbury River generally shot and killed individual aborigines, and at a much earlier time of settlement. 

The scene showing the cold-blooded slaughter of aborigines by settlers is fairly true to the Myall Creek massacre in 1838, but punishment quickly followed and seven of those white perpetrators were hung for murder. In this film, we do not see Will and his neighbours being hanged for what they did. 

Thus, for dramatic reasons, the first fifty years of interaction, and all of the worst mainland interactions between the incoming settlers and the aboriginal population, are condensed into five years of one man’s imagined life, creating an entirely misleading picture of Australian history and exacerbating the already false image of settlement at the Hawkesbury, the secret river. 

As the film shows, early settlers reported that the aborigines had a great sense of humour and were clever mimics and we can thank them for much of our unique brand of humour today. Yet we do not.

In contrast, the sad scene at the end, with a puzzled and patronising Will attempting charity towards an ageing displaced aborigine, formerly running proud and free across Will’s farm, exposes an open wound which still needs to heal.

We’ve spent billions trying to make things right, and we haven’t, in part because we all focus on a narrow, poorly-nuanced version of our history. What might have happened if we hadn’t had such a male-dominated society back then, with so few Sals and Dickies to soften the approach? During the period of transportation, male convicts outnumbered the females by about six to one. From the start we’ve been a macho society. The sledging tradition of our Australian cricket team and the unpleasant aggression of our current Federal Parliament goes back a long way. 

My forebear Robert Forrester shot and killed an aboriginal boy at Windsor on the Hawkesbury in 1794. His neighbours were involved in the murder of two aboriginal teenagers in 1799. On both occasions the perpetrators were challenged by the law, although ultimately it could be said that they ‘got away with it’. These killings forced me to confront the realities of European settlement of Australia. In my book I tried to be fair to both sides in my assessment, but The Secret River prefers sensationalism and smacks of political correctness. Due to the conflation of historic events, the graphic images in this film fuel the racial divide and rub unnecessary salt into an open wound. 

The film ends with Will’s material success. We did not need to see the London chapter of his life to understand his attempts at upward mobility (call me ‘Mr Thornhill’), his pride in achievement after coming from nothing, and his obsession with materialism. It resonates with today’s Australia, still a nation of immigrants coming from many poor and disadvantaged places, with many of our fellow citizens, including some of our leaders, still being cruel to the have-nots. 

Less-than-truthful Will, underneath his bravado an ashamed man, paid a heavy emotional price for his success, with the loss of his younger son Dickie, disgusted at his father’s behaviour. For me, in today’s Australia, this is the most valuable ‘true’ theme of this powerful film - the price we pay for fear and greed.

NOTE: ‘Robert Forrester, First Fleeter’ was published in 2009 and is available through BookPOD