the nightingale: a revision for the frontier film

Author: Jasper Caverly 

CW:  Sexual assault, violence against Aboriginal people
*Spoilers*

A great majority of the Australian genre-film canon is indebted to movements conceived by filmmakers in the international realm of cinema, leading to filmic delays in topical popularity, mimicry, and global otherness. In the contemporary genre-market, then, societal displays of suppression may in fact be Australia’s greatest ally on the world stage, manifested through a strong sense of pertinence, revision and uniqueness – a vision ratified by the Australian horror film I wrote about last week: Jennifer Kent’s film, The Nightingale (2018).

Today, I would like to discuss The Nightingale’s status as a genre film, and the way it is loosely bound to the Western canon. Ultimately, the film functions less as a traditional Western and more as a reimagination of the American frontier film, placed within the context of a factually scrutinized, unapologetic retelling of British settlement in Australia. The impact of this subversion on audiences, which I will come back to later, underscores the importance of escaping – or at least twisting – traditional conventions when seeking to tell stories through cinema, and for spectators, looking beyond the surface level of a genre film.

My interpretation of The Nightingale generic underpinnings is strongly validated through representations of colonialism and implications of subversive imagery. As a Western, Kent’s film is motivated by the adherence to a set of generic tendencies proposed by Douglas Pye: plot, structural features, character, time and space, iconography and themes (2012, p. 241-242). The Nightingale follows a young heroine/hero partnership as they pursue a villain-led travelling party across the untamed landscape of the Australian bush – the heroine seeking to enact revenge upon her rapist through rudimentary justice. For those of us familiar with the genre, this purpose-bound struggle against a body of evil across an arduous journey recalls genre tropes of the 20th century Western. Replace the lead characters with cowboys, the villains with American Indians, the Tasmanian bush with a Nevada plain – and you have a frontier film.

While the film’s narrative conventions and iconography adhere to the Western mode, Kent tackles the ideological challenges built up by this genre by opting for a revisionist, self-critical approach to the western. (Gallagher, 2012, p. 299). As Bazin & Gray write, “…[the revisionist western] looks for some additional interest to justify its existence – an aesthetic, sociological, moral, psychological, political…quality extrinsic to the genre and which is supposed to enrich it.” (2005, p. 151). The generic qualities of The Nightingale, which aim to subvert or challenge colonial frontierism, are further illustrated through explicit instances of sexual assault and modal hybridity in presentations of ‘the uncanny’.

Within the film, there are three sequences where women – one colonial servant and one imprisoned Indigenous women – are forced into acts of sexual violence at the hands of imperial soldiers. These scenes were criticised by festival-goers and media personnel during the film’s initial release, but nonetheless, it is vital to consider these identities and their symbolic implications within the Western mode.

Let’s first consider the function of the soldier in the western film: they are frequently represented as heroes who seek to overcome ‘savagery’, protect those in need, and bring peace to the frontier. In The Nightingale, however, these ‘heroes’ are demythologised by their own acts of savagery – through idiocracy, insobriety, racism, passivity to militaristic rank and a general disregard for others’ quality of life. They personify historic colonial violence; the part of Australia’s national conscience consistently willing to be ignored (Harman, 2020 p. 12). If the soldiers become villains for the sake of being revisionist, then, do the ‘others’ become the heroes? While masculine characters and narratives have paved the Western’s history, women often exist in these worlds as a byproduct of plot and structural features – as disposable, often dead, and existing purely to serve a function.

Now consider Clare, a young Irish convict and mother, who traverses the rugged landscape of ‘Van Diemen’s Land’ to enact revenge upon her oppressor. She is self-liberated, determined and acts upon her suffering. In a way, she protects others and brings peace through justified violence (to borrow from the rhetoric of the Western canon). With Clare at the centre of the narrative, Kent not only emphasises female agency but the ‘rape-revenge’ arc too, interrogating the valorisation of ‘wild colonial boys’ and masculine assertions of power (Johnson, 2020 p. 4).  The atrocities she endures are of contextual relevance to the cultural climate, pertinent to colonial and contemporary history, and as necessary as the conversations that have become a product of The Nightingale’s viewership.

This is the film’s greatest subversion of the western canon; a complete revision of the genre’s cinematic intent and its ‘afterwardness’ felt by viewers post-viewing. It is here the film justifies its existence within the genre and is granted the definition of ‘mannerist’. Kent’s deeply subversive motive in writing multiple acts of sexual violence into a script and showing them on-screen, reminds the audience that this subject matter exists beyond the fictional space, confronting us twofold and trapping us within an unavoidable truth.

While this method of delivery lacks subtlety and may not be wholly necessary in achieving realism, Kent’s transparency is undeniably effective for the audience.  In The Nightingale, sexual violence creates a motivation for the heroine, who is cunning and capable and no longer an accessory to narrative and to man. For the audience, this is horrifying to watch, eliciting a confrontation that defies expectations of the Western mode. For some of us, Kent’s subversion may evoke strong emotion, forcing us to momentarily confront fears, trauma or remorse. For others, it may serve a more powerful function, by shifting or possibly rewriting thinking/behavioural patterns in a manner similar to CBT treatment (APA Div. 12, 2017).

As I stated in last week’s essay, The Nightingale is a film best understood within the context of Australia’s colonial history and the western’s evolution in contemporary cinema. This is not a coy film playing with the tensions of familiarity. Instead, Kent’s sinister, fearful, and distorted view of the world nominates terror as its reigning power, rather than beauty, with all expectations subverted and very few gratified. As writer and director, Kent silently assesses the audience’s familiarity with narrative expectations of the Western and subverts them through her use of challenging imagery and content in a context that while safely digestible, is by no means easy to stomach.

The Nightingale exists in a web of influence, and its determination as a Western is limited by this very distinction. It does, however, solidify the surprising ways that genre films can reveal their deeper implications – as long as we’re willing to look closer, past the surface level, and examine what their semiotic language is really telling us.

The Nightingale asks us not to shy away from considering where learned narrative expectations come from or whether they uphold antiquated rhetoric. Ultimately, the film reminds us that storytellers can be truthtellers too – and should strive to be. After all, if Australia’s colonial history is built on blood and violence, and its national conscience is guilty of this past, then shouldn’t our national cinema aim to challenge these anxieties by confronting them head on?

Jasper Caverly can be contacted via email, at caverlyjasper@gmail.com

Header photo by Matt Nettheim

References (APA):
American Psychological Association Division 12 (2017, July). What is cognitive behavioral therapy? Society of Clinical Psychology, retrieved from <https://www.div12.org/sites/default/files/WhatIsCognitiveBehaviorTherapy.pdf>

Bazin, A., & Gray, H. (2005). What is cinema? volume ii: Volume ii. University of California Press.

Gallagher, T. (2012). Shoot-Out at the genre corral: Problems in the “evolution” of the western. In B. K. Grant (Eds.), Film genre reader iv (pp. 239-254). University of Texas Press.

Harman, K. E. (2020) Uncanny parallels: Jennifer kent’s the nightingale, violence and the vandemonian past, Studies in Australiasian Cienma, (In Press).

Johnson, T. (2020). Hierarchies of horror: The violent refrains of jennifer kent’s the nightingale, Metro Magazine.

Kent, J. (Director). (2018). The nightingale [Film]. Causeway Films.

Pye, D. (2012). The western (genre and movies). In B. K. Grant (Eds.), Film genre reader iv (pp. 239-254). University of Texas Press.

instances of conflict and suggestions of solidarity in the nightingale

Author: Jasper Caverly

CW: Sexual assault, violence against Aboriginal people

This essay contains spoilers for The Nightingale (2018)

Subversive media has the ability to undermine dominant rhetoric, hold the arms of societal power to account, and ultimately spark the idea of social change . Cinema’s history, especially, tends to mirror a nation’s mentality; encapsulating the audience’s collective desires, or seeking to challenge them. Films and their inhabitants, then, often reflect a nation’s subconscious, acting as  an inadvertent expression of culture, values and ideology.

For the purpose of this essay, I am particularly concerned with the characterisation in Jennifer Kent’s Australian psychological thriller The Nightingale (2018) . If we delve deep into Kent’s film, we can begin to understand how cinema can simultaneously represent Australian national archetypes and reflect contemporary societal concerns, while challenging homogenous perspectives of identity.

The Nightingale is set in the colonial frontier of Tasmania, 1825, where British colonists and Indigenous peoples fought over custodianship during the genocidal Black War. Kent’s film uses  this context as a backdrop to query identity (and thus power) in the colonial past, consequently providing a commentary on our ‘post-colonial’ present.  Hierarchies of class, race, and gender are embodied in the film as persons of the soldiery, conviction, settlement and indigeneity (Harman, 2020 p. 2).

As such, I would like to select two distinctions of characterisation for further discussion within this essay: women (gender) and Aboriginal peoples (race). In keeping with the historical context of The Nightingale, both are shown to exist in opposition to British rule. Although The Nightingale is arguably led by a female protagonist, the world depicted in the film is certainly reigned by the hand of white men.  In its earliest years as a colony of the British Empire, Australia was dictated by the monarchy, militarist power and norms of patriarchy.

This is reflected strongly and often cruelly in The Nightingale. Protagonist Clare, an Irish convict and mother, is instantly shown to be at the mercy of soldiery and forced into acts of physical labour. Lieutenant Hawkins, who has the ability to grant her freedom, is unwilling to write her a letter of recommendation as he, being of high-ranking social power, would no longer be protected by law which allows him ownership of her. Hawkins is shown exploiting this power multiple times as he rapes her without consequence, then murders her husband and baby.

Impelled by these atrocities, Clare undergoes a visible transformation that likens her to a ‘Paddy’ – an archetype often represented in conflict to or as a fracture of British identity. McLoone terms the ‘Paddy’ as being “…[a] simian primitive – a violent and irrational character who came to represent the Irish as a whole.” (2001, p. 209). This transformation is important, as it places Clare in direct opposition to British military rule, not only by nationality and gender, but nature and motive. Although she is a colonist herself, Clare becomes the narrative instigator, whose purpose is abject to the other colonists. While she desires freedom from her life of conviction, the colonists seek to manifest the land unto the monarch’s will. There is a dichotomy of aspirations here, and on the part of the audience, a psychological attraction to the disadvantaged.

As spectators, we then compel Clare to exceed the contextual expectations of the world she inhabits and fulfil her need for retribution in the form of violent justice. The efficacy of Clare’s emblematic defiance is best described by Curthoys, who writes, “Through contested allegorical images of the convict woman, national history is made and remade in moral, economic, and cultural terms, implying the eternally recurrent question: Is Australian history a cause for shame or pride?” (2003, p. 81).

Another distinction of identity explored in The Nightingale is the relationship between Indigenous and colonising Australians. Before I unpack this relationship, however, it is essential to underscore the notion that Australian films operate within the context of documented genocide, beginning in the 18th century, whereby the custodians of the land have been (and are being) dispossessed by British settlers. Public interest, factual scrutiny and exploration of the Indigenous/settler relationship in media demonstrates that the ideation of ‘Australianness’ and what it means ‘to be Australian’ are salient, if not central, to a national sense of identity  (Walter, 2012 p. 15).

In Kent’s film, ‘Billy’ (whose name is actually Mangana), is a Letteremairrener man who has experienced white assimilation and slavery and is therefore able to speak english (Screen Australia, 2018). Billy is employed to help Clare pursue Hawkins across the unconquered bush of ‘Van Diemen’s Land’, a task which would be impossible to navigate without navigation and a means of surviving off of the land – knowledge Billy has collected through his upbringing. What Billy represents is a recurring archetype of Indigenous characters in Australian cinema: ‘the tracker’.

The tracker entered Australian mythology (and cinema) as an Aboriginal with uncanny powers of observation, integral to nation-building, but one who is mostly a voiceless participant in dialogue between coloniser and pre/colonised spaces (Langton, 2006). However, Billy’s character in The Nightingale is portrayed with agency, rendering him exempt from pre-established stereotypes. He is written to be resourceful, intelligent and compassionate, even in the face of cultural extermination. Essentially, Billy embodies Indigenous oppression within the narrative and its historic context, by acting as a voice for voiceless participants – one that serves to celebrate Aboriginality, rather than exploiting it.

The creation of Billy’s character was closely supervised by Jim Everett, from the plangermairreenner (sic) clan of the Ben Lomond people, who acted as a cultural consultant and associate producer on the film. This level of cultural consultation was crucial for the production team to create a character who effectively embodied the dispossession, violence and enslavement endured by Indigenous Tasmanians. Arrow & Findlay write, “The film is also replete with images and evidence of Indigenous survival and resistance…Billy’s final line in the film – ‘I’m still here’ – is a defiant declaration of survival in the face of unbreakable sadness. Here Billy speaks from the past to the audience in the present.” (2020, p. 3).

Today, Australia is made up of a broad, cosmopolitan population; the result of 250 years of foreign settlement and globalisation. Despite the country’s apparent embrace of multiculturalism, the typified Australian identity remains the masculine, hard-working, fair-go bloke from the outback (or interchangeably, the frontier). Attitudes of nationalism determine that the ‘average’ Australian speaks english, respects political and judicial systems, and is garnered by a cognitive sense of ‘feeling’ that they belong here (Healey, 2016 p. 27). It is through these aspects that Australia’s colonial past remains victorious, supported by the book-keeping of national history and educational curriculums – a systemic hegemony granting ignorance to the lasting effects of colonialism and quelling settlement anxieties.

The Nightingale is ultimately concerned with the unification of minority groups and allyship in the face of adversity – solidarity in a disharmonious social climate . It seeks to hold ruling powers accountable for their past and present by disrupting the possibility of an inequitable future. It opposes notions of supremacy by representing two of the many identities that have been historically discriminated against, disadvantaged and disenfranchised by hierarchical malice; a malevolence decided on the basis of gender, race and class.

The way Kent’s film engages with characterisation should be seen allegorically; as retaining social pertinence in contemporary dialogue, and challenging the ‘victory’ of settlement by subverting the imperial/empirical narrative. Even then, Clare’s victory feels as though it’s worth more than Billy’s. In fact, neither character is genuinely victorious by film’s end, indicating that The Nightingale is closer to a social study of Australia’s sustained, problematic attitudes, rather than a historic one.

Jasper Caverly can be contacted via email: caverlyjasper@gmail.com

Header image courtesy of X-Press Magazine

REFERENCES

Arrow, M & Findlay, J. (2020). A critical introduction to the nightingale: Gender, race and troubled histories on screen,Studies in Australasian Cinema.

Curthoys, A. (1999). Expulsion, exodus and exile in white australian historical mythology, Journal of Australian Studies, 23(61), 1-19.

Harman, K. E. (2020) Uncanny parallels: Jennifer kent’s the nightingale, violence and the vandemonian past, Studies in Australiasian Cienma, (In Press).

Healey, J. (2016). Multiculturalism and australian identity. The Spinney Press.

Kent, J. (Director). (2018). The nightingale [Film]. Causeway Films.

Langton, M. (2006). Out from the shadows: Marcia langton considers the significance and traces the development of the aboriginal tracker figure in australian film, Meajin, (65)1.

McLoone, M. (2001). Political violence and the myth of atavism. In J. D. Slocum (Eds.), Terrorism, media, liberation (pp. 209-231). Rutgers University Press.

Screen Australia, (2018, September 12). The nightingale wins two awards at venice film festival, Screen Australia. <https://www.screenaustralia.gov.au/sa/screen-news/2018/09-12-the-nightingale-wins-two-awards-at-venice>

Walter, M. (2012). Keeping our distance: Non-indegenous/aboriginal relations in australian society. In J. Pietsch & H. Aarons (Eds.), Australia: Identity, fear and governance in the 21st century. ANU Press.

 

COVID-19 Series: #6

Author: Andrew Dopper

“I’m not insane!” screams the hysterical man, hair plastered to his head with sweat.

A psychiatrist sits him down. Momentarily calmed, the man begins talking, recounting his return to California.

“At first glance, everything looked the same,” he says, his eyes gleaming wildly.  “It wasn’t,” he adds . “Something evil had taken possession of the town.”

This excerpt is from the opening scene of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), a science-fiction horror about people becoming “pod people” or becoming “them”. On the surface, the film is a run-of-the-mill 1950’s horror about aliens possessing people. Sounds fun, right?

In fact, it is widely regarded and almost laughably obvious, that the inspiration for the film was the fear of Communism invading America. Them are the Soviets. This era is now often referred to as “The Red Scare”. Invasion of the Body Snatchers was one of countless films inspired by Cold War paranoia. Paradoxically, half of Hollywood at the time of filming were actually Communists. The hilarity.

In the wake of the 1973 global oil crisis, which saw petrol shortages and looting across Australia, we saw a young Mel Gibson roar through lawless highways in 1979’s Mad Max. Later, in 1985’s Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome, Max takes out a Geiger counter to detect radiation within the stock of a junk-laden water-dealer

“What’s a little fallout, ey?” the vendor says, as Max trudges off.

Whilst the first two Mad Max films remain the most loved, it’s the aesthetic of Beyond Thunderdome that is still evident in post-apocalyptic fiction today. Unlike the first two films, Beyond Thunderdome was inspired by concern of the nuclear bomb, which saw people living in constant fear of Mutually Assured Destruction (aka M.A.D: They bomb us, we bomb them, repeat––until nothing’s left.) This was a very real scare leading to countless close calls, from the Cuban missile crisis to that time Boris Yeltsin nearly nuked some Norwegians studying the Northern Lights in the 90’s. Yes, that actually happened.

On the 11th of September 2001, a terrorist attack rocked not only the US, but the entire world. After a few years, the superhero genre dominated cinema across the globe. These films usually saw American heroes come out of the woodwork and save the world by stopping foreign bad guys from blowing up Manhattan. It doesn’t take a scholar to notice the inspiration there.

The influence of world events on cinema is clear. What was essentially a 50-year-long dick-measuring competition between the US and USSR inspired not films featuring Americans complaining about Communists at BBQs, but countless sci-fi horror, espionage and spy films. High petrol prices caused by political bickering gave birth to forty years of spike-studded, shotgun-wielding post-apocalyptic media, not films about people saying “jeez, bloody petrol’s expensive. And, rather than producing films about airport bag-checks, 9/11 essentially turned cinemas into superhero viewing machines.

Today, this begs the question: what will post-COVID-19 cinema look like? Since we probably can’t expect 2022’s biggest blockbuster to be Dunny Roll Hoarders II, how do we possibly predict which genres will emerge? I mean, who knew that between 2008-2012 all people wanted to watch were shiny vampires and hunky werewolves?

One way we could gauge the type of cinema this pandemic may produce, is to look at existing films relevant to our current timeframe. Yes, this means that we have to talk about 2011’s Contagion.

Admittedly, re-watching Contagion right now is a jarring experience. I found I laughed dumbly when a Dr. told a man who should know better to stop touching his face, right after informing him how quickly the virus in question could spread.

Living through a similar crisis today, however, I found myself enjoying the film far more than I did when I watched it nearly a decade ago. Contagion was ahead of its time, a quality rare in most films. No one makes a Cold War film a decade before the Cold War.

This is where science-fiction seems to set itself apart from other genres – it often stands at the forefront of a fundamental change in viewing culture.

Recently, I also re-watched one of my favorite films, 2006’s Children of Men. and it hit me harder than ever. The film presents a version of England in the midst of a societal breakdown, one that causes the slow decay of humanity. The world around these people is crumbling under a falling capitalist empire, yet they go about their day adapting to the chaos, even as it slowly sets in and reveals a grim state of world normality, where children can no longer be born.

Unlike traditional apocalyptic cinema, Children of Men does not represent spike-studded rally-drivers and zombie-infested wastelands. It simply shows us London enduring a mass extinction.

Each country is experiencing the COVID-19 pandemic differently, and it’s only  matter of time until more outbreaks occur – if they haven’t already.

Every time I watch Children of Men, consequently, I have to stretch my imagination less and less.

One prediction could be that there is a resurgence of films like Children of Men, which represent life not ­post, but during the world-ending crisis. Rather than depicting epic, country swallowing waves or Bruce Willis blowing up comets, cinema may instead represent slow yet impactful societal breakdowns. This new breed of films would provide a far slower, smaller snapshot of world crises, and in doing so, heighten the prevalence of “slow burn” cinema.

As I write this, the US is experiencing a time of civil unrest caused by police violence; unrest that has rippled across the world and is building every day. Today’s lack of trust in those who lead is a far cry from the celebrated world leaders of yesteryear.

People are seeing the cracks in the capitalist world. We’re experiencing what happens when world leaders actually have to step up and represent the people in crisis. Some countries are prevailing, while others…well, let’s not judge…

*Cough* Trump. *Cough*

In order to progress, we may not see entirely new genres come to fruition, but perhaps witness redefinitions of those we know well.

Comparing Invasion of the Body Snatchers to Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival (2016), we see two alien invasion films; but they are vastly different aesthetically and thematically. The former says, don’t trust anyone while the latter asks, why don’t we just trust anyone? As portrayed in 2008’s The Dark Knight, Gotham City looks a lot different than it did in 1989’s Batman. Christopher Nolan’s portrayed Gotham’s zany villains more as corrupt politicians. Conversely, the America portrayed in 1995’s Judge Dredd had a far lower crime rate than the US actually does today.

The zombie films of the 1950’s people fought zombies, yet now, the zombie hordes act as mere backdrops while people fight one another. Post-COVID, perhaps, we may see the post-apocalyptic genre become something very different, departing completely from spike-studded cars and wasteland couture and edging towards something frighteningly real.

Some of you may be screaming, “but people might want hope!”

Indeed, hope is something Hollywood, and indeed publishers, always seem to advocate for. As a writer, I have been turned down many times for that reason. Positive narratives and happy endings sell. And I do think we will see a feel-good movie resurgence in the wake of this pandemic. Honestly, if the world was on fire, there would still be Pixarfilms about animals embarking on fulfilling journeys with satisfying conclusions.

But audiences are smarter than that. McDonalds might be cheap and tasty, but people still go to 5-star restaurants.

People want hope, yes, but hope comes in many forms. Cinema, like most art, is often a reflection of culture, of the contemporary. Invasion of the Body Snatchers worries, Mad Max observes, Arrival questions, Children of Men warns. Right now, people protest for a better future, not because they have no hope, but because they do have hope.

Could we see films born not from fear of the future but from a reaction to our time in isolation? A resurgence of the frontier film, perhaps – films about exploration and discovery and the natural world. Will we see people moving to more rural areas, wanting to re-connect with the natural world, escaping the rat race? Has capitalism been exposed for its impact on lower classes? Will we see a new genre of “revolution” films?

I could go on.

The reality is, we do not know exactly what film within a post-COVID world will look like. The last six months alone could very well create a new breed of consumer––one that filmmakers will respond to in kind. Remember, an oil crisis in the 70’s eventually lead to whatever the fuck 2018’s Bird Box was.

What I am suggesting, is to watch the screens and take note.

History, after all, shows that it often takes only one or two films to start a genre or film resurgence that takes over the world’s screens for years.

Post-pandemic, let’s hope it’s not shiny vampires again.

About Andrew Dopper

Andrew Dopper is a final year writing and cinema studies student. His short story Dog’s Bend was previously published in SWINE’s 2020 Representation issue. He is currently working on his third novel.

COVID-19 Series: #4

Author: Imogen Williams 

One thing keeping me entertained during isolation is scouring the weekly TV guide for films showing free-to-air. I have seen great films such as The King’s Speech, and not-so-great films such as Daleks’ Invasion Earth 2150 A.D. One of the former such films I’ve watched is the 1959 classic On the Beach, directed by Stanley Kramer, based on the novel by Nevil Shute. I’d been wanting to watch it for a while, since my Mum had told me it was a fantastic film with a brilliant cast including Gregory Peck, Fred Astaire, Ava Gardner and Anthony Perkins (best known as the creepy smiling guy from Psycho). Plus, it is set in Melbourne!

Eager to find out what Melbourne looked like in the days of my parents’ early childhood (spoilers, very different), I watched the film. All my Mum said was true; it was an eye-opening and thought-provoking masterpiece. The film is set in an alternate Melbourne of 1964, in the aftermath of a nuclear war that had wiped humanity from existence everywhere but Australia. The film follows the final months of a group of people’s lives, as they struggle with the knowledge that a cloud of deadly radiation will inevitably reach Melbourne. So, it was quite a distressing film to be watching in the middle of a pandemic, a time when many of us are experiencing a downturn in our mental wellbeing. For me, however, the viewing of the film seemed apt since many aspects of the film have direct comparisons to our current COVID-19 crisis.

In the film, a young Australian woman, Mary Holmes, is in denial about the situation. She is unable to accept that in a few months, humanity will be no more and she cannot bear to hear anyone talking about it.

People have also had this reaction in response to the COVID-19 outbreak. Some, like Mary, are in denial and wish to carry on as if the virus does not exist. We have seen this happen in Melbourne prior to the second wave, with several large families gathering and thus causing outbreaks. Like the film, people are literally gathering on the beach in Australia, and in the US and in the UK. They are ignoring restrictions, not wanting to miss the warm weather, despite the stupidity of such actions. This is still happening during our second lockdown, with people having parties despite the danger they present. Although we can all get tired of constantly hearing about coronavirus, as Mary did about radiation, we must understand the intensity of the situation and respond seriously and sensibly. Mary’s husband Peter understands the enormity of the circumstances and recognises the need to accept the facts and prepare for the worst, which is what we must do too.

Once Mary stops denying humanity’s dreadful plight, she plunges into depression for the remainder of the film. The stress and horror of the COVID-19 crisis has caused some people to do the same, with calls to mental health services in Australia increasing substantially from last year. Crisis support service Beyond Blue reported a 66%, 60% and 47% increase in calls in April, May and June compared to the same months in 2019. Callers reported feeling “worried, uncertain … overwhelmed” and experiencing “exhaustion and fatigue”.

Mary’s denial and depression, and Peter’s pragmatism, are seemingly familiar and justified responses to an unprecedented event. However, the way On the Beach depicts the overall community response to life’s total upheaval, is surprising, I am shocked by the incredible order and calm demonstrated within the film, as the end approached. People having parties, all conducted with an air of civility. There are scenes of drunkenness, sure, but everyone remains fairly reserved. Citizens line up in an orderly fashion to collect their government-supplied suicide pills, as their names get ticked off a list.

There are no fights as people collect their pills – a stark contrast to the video back in March that went viral, of two women selfishly fighting over toilet paper. There was no panic buying, just an acceptance that there will be shortages, like that of petrol, perhaps because WW2 was still fresh in the characters’ minds. Rather than panicking and taking all of the alcohol for themselves, in one scene featuring two men at a club, they simply grumble that there is no way the members will get through all of the bottles of port before the end comes.

Last year, I watched the 2012 American film Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, which detailed the final weeks before Earth was destroyed by an asteroid. This film depicted people behaving and reacting to their impending doom in ways I considered to be far more realistic than in On the Beach. In the modern film, there are riots with people burning buildings and committing murder, because they can get away with it. There is a drunken orgy in a restaurant, and people stop going to work because there is no point, so they generally run around doing whatever they damn well please.

Near the end of On the Beach, Captain Dwight Towers, commander of an American submarine, feels an obligation to captain the submarine back to the US when his crew tell him they would prefer to die at home than in Australia. Dwight is unwilling to do this, since he would like to stay and die with his lover Moira. However, he decides to leave her behind to help his men head home, as he sees this as his duty. He does this despite the fact human civilisation is mere days away from its end.

I told my Mum that the order and goodwill shown in On the Beach seemed unrealistic, and was surprised that she believed this behaviour to be perfectly accurate. Mum explained that she was alive during the tail-end of the era when the film is set, during 1950s and 60s Melbourne, and that in many ways, people showed more care and respect for the good of the whole community, rather than only caring about self-preservation and promotion.

My mother’s words concerned me, and made me wonder – has this sense of good for the whole been lost? I feel that maybe it has, that the good of the individual is now considered more important. However, often what is good for the whole, can also be good for the individual. Though an individual may decide to sneak across the NSW border, because in that moment it seems right for them, in the end this could cause another outbreak, which would in turn negatively impact that individual.

These days, many people seem to be rather disparaging of the phrase ‘the common good’. I have encountered those writing in newspapers and on social media, complaining of how the government is forcing people to be tested “for the common good” as if it is a bad thing! However, some do believe in the importance of ‘the greater good’, and I hope that with time and discussion, more of us will.

In On the Beach, the deadly radiation infecting Melbourne is invisible. An unseen enemy, just as COVID-19 is. Ultimately, though, you cannot hide from this silent killer. It is inevitable, it is going to kill you. The characters of On the Beach cannot self-isolate indoors to escape danger as we can, yet they deal with their situation graciously.

The film concludes with shots of a deserted Melbourne – not a soul on the streets. This is eery because there is no sign of destruction. The buildings are intact, with no markers that anything is wrong but the sheer emptiness of the city. These images are of striking similarity to our quiet Melbourne streets, alongside scenes of deserted precincts in other cities around the world  this year.

When On The Beach was released, the Philadelphia Inquirer stated: “There is not the slightest doubt that this is the most important motion picture ever produced… and the most moving!”. The film is considered important because of its strong anti-nuclear message, yet I now believe this is not the only reason for its importance. On The Beach can teach us plenty about the world today, and how we have changed. Beyond its thematic message, I also recommend the film for its fabulous cinematography, remarkable acting and haunting use of music (a kissing scene backed by the sound of drunken men singing Waltzing Matilda may sound unusual, but is especially poignant).

The media often focuses on the negative and selfish responses to the rules designed to help us. Yet a silent majority do remain, committed to altering their behaviour for the common good. This can be seen by the number of people who write into the ABC’s coronavirus live blog, for example, asking about the right thing to do. Like Dwight, these people personify social responsibility, which we should all aspire to.

If we all do the right thing, then eventually everything will be fine. So why not act with reason and benevolence?

About Imogen Williams

Imogen is a first year student studying a Bachelor of Arts/Bachelor of Business double with majors in History and Marketing! In 2018 she won First Prize in the Senior Secondary School Short Story category of the My Brother Jack Awards with her piece Pensioner Purgatory, which was published online.