Some of the best news the Australian film industry has had in a long time comes in the announcement of two new movies in development: one about the Indigenous warrior Pemulwuy, and the other about his fellow resistance fighter Musquito.
Both these men have sensational stories. Pemulwuy was a fearless fighter who led a resistance against the white invaders of the First Fleet, fighting the British around Botany Bay for more than a decade, striking fear into the hearts of every settler with his daring raids. Musquito was a tracker who helped the government in Van Diemen’s Land apprehend several notorious bushrangers in the early 1800s, but after being betrayed by that government, went bush and led attacks on settlements along the Tasmanian coast. Both Pemulwuy and Musquito were huge, awesome badasses, and if their stories are done right these upcoming movies should be brilliant. But the fact it took so long for such fantastic tales from this nation’s history to make it to screen does cause one to wonder: why hasn’t Australian film and TV taken greater advantage of this country’s incredible, rich history?
Oh, there are Australian historical movies and series. But they tend to run along a very narrow range of subject matter. You’ve got Ned Kelly. You’ve got Gallipoli. You’ve got a smattering of other wartime exploits that are generally designed to remind us of Gallipoli. And those are the themes that Aussie filmmakers have returned to time and again. Yet every time another movie about Gallipoli or Ned comes along – and yet another Kelly flick is heading our way soon – an opportunity is missed to tell another story, just as compelling and worth bringing to the masses.
Neglect of Indigenous history is the clearest example of how our film industry has been remiss in taking advantage of Australia’s past. Finally, we’re getting Pemulwuy and Musquito films – hopefully soon we will also see on the screen the story of Bennelong, or that of Vincent Lingiari, immortalised n Paul Kelly’s “From Little Things Big Things Grow”. Wonderful stories, important stories, and most of all, cinematic stories.
But there are other aspects of our history that merit the attention of producers. Look up “Ned Kelly” on IMDB and you’ll get 94 results, but where is the biopic of Captain Moonlite, Australia’s only (that we know of) gay bushranger – and more than that, a preacher, a conman, and a dashing rogue of astounding charisma whose life was positively made for the movies. Or Captain Thunderbolt, whose career was longer than Ned’s and comes with a built-in love story thanks to his partner in romance and crime, Mary-Anne Bugg? Or John Caesar, the African giant who was the first bushranger of them all?
Why is our pop culture’s treatment of our history so narrow, so blinkered, so wedded to such a tiny set of narratives? Why not films about the Gold Rush – Australia’s own Wild West – or about the Rum Rebellion? Hell, why not films about Federation itself: the very foundation of the country? Australia could benefit from the illumination that a boom in screen history would bring.
The Pemulwuy and Musquito movies are a great start, particularly for the future awareness of the Frontier Wars: those bloody conflicts between invaders and invaded that were hidden from us in history class for so many years. Let’s hope that this presages a new golden age of filmmakers tackling Australian history, in all its messy, fascinating, distressing and inspirational glory.