A Wave of His Own: Celebrating Australian Movie Icon David Gulpilil

A Wave of His Own: Celebrating Australian Movie Icon David Gulpilil
The guide: David Gulpilil, Jenny Agutter, and Luc Roeg (as Lucien John) in "Walkabout"
(© 1971 - Twentieth Century Fox)

Among the 19 movies screening in Film Society of Lincoln Center’s excellent “The Last New Wave: Celebrating the Australian Film Revival” (today through January 31) are several seldom revived locally: “Petersen” (1974), “Backroads” (1977), “The FJ Holden” (1977), “Money Movers” (1978), and “The Odd Angry Shot” (1979). Perhaps for that reason, some of the usual suspects have been omitted, including “The Cars That Ate Paris” (1974), “Caddie” (1976), and two late entries, “The Club” and “Breaker Morant” (both 1980).

Even more familiar, Nicolas Roeg’s “Walkabout” (1971) and Peter Weir’s “The Last Wave” (1977) have also been omitted, and that means one of the New Wave’s most iconic faces is absent – that of David Gulpilil. In the list of "40 Best Australian Actors/Actresses" posted on IMDB a year ago today, the foremost Aboriginal indigenous Australian actor was disgracefully ranked 40th, just below “The Hunger Games”’s Liam Hemsworth. Right from the start, Gulpilil was a natural who knew how to captivate the camera by ignoring it.

“Walkabout” opened in the US on July 1, 1971, his eighteenth birthday. He was haunting as the youth who guides the white teenage schoolgirl (Jenny Agutter) and her younger brother from the bush, where they have been stranded, to the edge of civilization. Gulpilil is a famous tribal dancer, and the mating dance he performs for the girl near the end of the film has a primal sensuality. That she can’t respond leaves him no escape.

It’s arguable that “Walkabout,” financed by Americans and directed by an Englishman, wasn’t a New Wave film. However, it helped to energize the emergent movement, and its themes  – the irresolvable conflict between the wilderness and civilization, the spiritual aridity of modern urban life – amounted to a trenchant cultural critique. The tragedy of British imperialism in Australia are represented in the FSLC’s choice of Phillip Noyce’s “Backroads” and Fred Schepisi’s “The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith” (1978); the Aboriginal stars of these films are the activist Gary Foley and Tommy Lewis, respectively.

In “The Last Wave” Gulpilil played Chris Lee, one of five Aboriginal clients of Richard Chamberlain’s lawyer, who’s defending them on a charge of ritualized murder. Freak weather conditions in Sydney coincide with the lawyer experiencing ominous nightmares. As he attempts to understand his clients’ spiritual life, Chris becomes his guide and teaches him about the meaning of dreams. Gulpilil was never more present or beautiful, his voice never more velvety and compelling. The movie’s climactic apocalypse may occur in a parallel consciousness, but it hasn’t been outdated by “Melancholia” (2011) or “The Turin Horse” (2012).

Gulpilil also appeared alongside Dennis Hopper in the bushranger movie “Mad Dog Morgan” (1976) – more “Ozploitation” than New Wave. His alcoholism may have limited his appearances over the years, but he has graced such movies as “The Right Stuff” (1983), “Crocodile Dundee” (1986), “Until the End of the World” (1991), “Rabbit-Proof Fence” and “The Tracker” (both 2002), “The Proposition” (2005), and “Ten Canoes” (2006). The latter starred his son James.

Now in recovery, Gulpilil, approaching 60, most recently acted in Catriona McKenzie’s “Satellite Boy,” which will play at the Berlinale next month. He plays a white-bearded tracker-hunter who tries to pass on his skills to the grandson with whom he lives in an abandoned Outback movie theater – and which is threatened with demolition by a mining company. It’s as if the youth in “Walkabout” had survived and grown old, still to be bedeviled by white greed.

Criterion has published the DVDs of "Walkabout" and "The Last Wave." Among the extras on the “Walkabout” disc is the one-hour biographical documentary “Gulpilil – One Red Blood.”

Below: Trailer for "Satellite Boy"