Continuum: The Australian Journal of Media & Culture
Vol. 2, No. 1, 1987
Asian Cinema
Edited by Brian Shoesmith & Tom O'Regan

To go back and beyond

Stuart Cunningham

These comments on John Heyer's The Back of Beyond (Shell Film Unit, 1954) are offered as a dialogue with the interview "On The Back of Beyond conducted with Ross Gibson by Tom O'Regan, Brian Shoesmith and Albert Moran and published , in the inaugural issue of Continuum. l It is not so much that I wish to take exception to arguments and analyses forwarded in that interview. Quite the contrary, it, and the film it accords its time to, is sufficiently provocative to warrant considered dialogue.

It is well accepted that Back belongs within the stylistic universe of that form of documentary inaugurated by the 'British documentary movement' while being, in the words of Ross Gibson, 'a very peculiar adaptation' of that tradition (p.83). Developing the word play, we might say that the film is a superb example of an import culture's 'adaptive accordance' with the conventions of its master stylistic ensemble, here the British documentary, inso far as it has found a means of adapting the style to the theme of adaptation. By taking this standpoint the question becomes one of how Back of Beyond 'Australianises' an embedded import style. I want to pursue this question through a dialogue with the film and with Gibson's reading of it.

Because I will discuss the film in some detail, I provide a sequence breakdown somewhat different to that offered by Eric Else:2

Sequences In The Back of Beyond

1. TITLES, INTRODUCTION. Foreword, the symbolic landscape, explorers to settlers, introduction of Tom Kruse.
2. MARREE. The town, Kruse and William Henry, Bejah, the mail train arrives, Mary, Tom departs.
4. ETADINNA. Malcolm, the Oldfields, William and the children play the gramaphone, the mail truck departs.
5. COOPER CROSSING. Introduction, unloading and camp, Mrs MacDonald and the Flying Doctor relay, crossing the creek.
6. KOPPERAMANNA MISSION. Jack the Dogger, Malcolm soliloquy, Dieri responses.
7. TRAVELLING VIGNETTES. Stoney Plains, Mulka Station, Mungerannie Station, the Channel country, Clifton Hills Station, the ruins.
9 WINDSTORM, BIRDSVILLE. Tommy and the goats, lessons in the sand, Joe the Rainmaker, the arrival of the mail truck.

Back still operates within the stylistic and ideological perimeters associated with British documentary (voice-of-God narration creating stable hierarchies within sound-image relations, the homogenising metonymy of the representative 'core' or 'slice' of the nation as priority story material, civil society and civic responsibility presented as moral givens) as well as some of the technical constraints (burdensome 35mm cameras, revoicing). However, it works significant adaptations of them. Gibson calls its narrative 'minimalist, humble' (p.82); I would call it 'delegated' . Within a world where survival turns on the necessity to ' tell stories', there is a concerted attempt to delegate enunciative authority to diegetic storytellers. This is, of course, partial - the Film is an adaptation of, while remaining in accordance with, its master stylistic ensemble. Delegation is tied up with an awareness of a gap between the ensemble's conventions, which produce, in classical documentary practice, a romanticisation of heroic civic toil, a heightened degree of typification of character, narrative linearity, and stable enunciative authority (the voice-of-God), and the social and geographical conditions under which these social actors live their lives. 'Adapting' an aesthetic of romanticisation, there is a consistent de-dramatisation carried in characters' social gestures. Characterisation itself is minimalist in the extreme. The superstructure of narrative is classically linear, but the digressions within that superstructure are roomy and at times scarcely motivated by narrative imperatives. A result of these adaptive strategies, as I have asserted, is a degree of delegation of enunciative authority. Backhas found stylistic gestures appropriate to the topos of ecological minimalism in the Australian environment.

De-dramatisation operates 'around' an enunciation (narration, camerawork, editing) which goes some way toward accommodation of the characteristic rhetorical flourishes of the classical documentary. Consider the poetry in the 'Night Mail' tradition (for instance, the 'dust in the mouth, iron in the mind material in sequence 3) which is nevertheless a minimal gesture toward that tradition. Take, as well, the example of the 'night bog' sequence (3). Tom and William are travelling at night. The headlights train on a world of threateningly ghostly gums. The truck comes to a hall. As the surreally carefree Tin Pan Alley record plays on the sound track accompanying the men 's equally carefree reminiscences about breakdown disasters and their resourceful bricolages of remedies- shot scale, camera position and editing position Them and their situation as the objects of predatory gazes and among symbols of extinction - the dingo and snake , the cattle skull. Like all major transitions in this film, the reprise to end this sequence is a marked enlargement of shot scale that drives a wedge between diegetic situation and the spectator's grasp of a vast environment. In other words or involvement in, or placement outside of, the drama of character and situation The little drama of the predators is not sustained; indeed we find out much later when Tom is talking to Jack the Dogger (6), that he has taken full cognisance of the presence or the dingo and thus the characters' vulnerability during the 'night bog' sequence has to be reread retrospectively. As we shall see, this is the ease in a number of sequences in the film.

A similar kind of de-dramatisation occurs in the Coopers Creek sequence (5) where Malcolm and William, enjoying their meal in a surreal built aswell as natural environment (the modular 'domestic' living room and kitchen set up in the midst of the vastnesses), appear serenely unconcerned with the melodrama of Mrs MacDonald rapidly losing her sight as she uses Tom as a relay to the Flying Doctor once again elements of mise-en-scene (the prologue to the sequence with its brutal images of carcasses hanging from trees), and shot scale relations (the drama of the radio relay fading' across extreme long shots of the camp), when considered in the light of the dispositions of Tom, Malcolm and William, set up a powerful sense of tonal disjunction in this scene.

De-dramatisation has its effects on both characterisation and narrative linearity. 'Characters' - the social actors who populate the track in the past and present - exemplify the adaptive ecological pragmatism that is Back's raison d'etre. Thus their articulation into the film's narrative suggests a 'tentative defiance' of the codes of heroisation at work in their own way as crucially in classical documentary as in narrative fiction. Major 'secondary' characters are pulled into the narrative to 'tell their story' - William and his improvisory spirit in the night bog sequence (3), Malcolm and his reminiscences about the Kopperamanna Mission in (6), the narrator's interpolated 'lost children' story, as well, more decisively, as the several vignettes of minor secondary characters - but then they 'fade' back into the texture and context of the journey.

Again, however, this is not some thoroughgoing stylistic gesture toward deforming character. There is a code-obeying centring on the 'character' of Tom Kruse, even though intriguing trace elements of character remain unassimilated to narrative imperatives, 'float' in the realm of signifying excess. what is in the 'personal' letter he delays reading until Coopers Creek, after he has said he doesn't want it and the flyer bizarrely offering 'Hauling for Profit'? (2 and 5). What do we make of the walk-on appearance of his wife in Marree and his dance with the display-window torso at the Creek crossing, so beautifully hypostasised in Camera Natura 7 One would expect more neatness in a documentary narrative intent on providing a stable, knowable, characterisation as a spectator's entree into its world. Notwithstanding this, characterisation as adaptive ecological pragmatism is well caught, partly through a powerful sense, as Gibson says, of off-screen space which helps give the viewer a sense that anything s/he sees is just one spot on a continuum.' (p.90)

Narrative linearity, moreover, encounters an ethic and aesthetic of adaptation. This is discussed in the interview in terms of figurations of the circle, and that is certainly correct. However, I want to widen the focus somewhat in considering what should be regarded as an extraordinarily layered and subtle scripting, by Australian standards, whether documentary or fiction. This subtle layering has its effects in producing tonal heterogenity, retrospective rereading, a sense of ' humility' insofar as a gap i9 created between social life and a hesitant enunciation.

We have to go back over and beyond in our reading of the narrative, inscribing an arc or circle of reconsiderations. Consider some examples. The ecology of fauna. The first time we see a dingo, it is in terms of a romantic figuration of the proud, natural predator (3). However, as we have seen, this is reframed later when Tom comments on the dingo to lack the Dogger (6). lack scalps dingoes for a living, and his discourse on his placement in a desolate but necessary economic chain is overlaid by a narratorial parallelism of disinterested ecological necessity-as 'nature' kills, infloods, so 'man' kills dingoes. This is about the closest the film comes to a 'line' on developmentalism within the terms of national reconstruction, the dominant way in which Australian documentary of the time figured it's British documentary ethic of civic responsibility. Then, in the prologue to the next sequence (7), we see the dingo as a sordid scavenger for flesh. The ecology of fauna has been progressively reframed across narrative time. A similar work is performed on snakes, with their first sighting in (3) being recast by the harrowing melodrama of the pitiful spaniel, the pet of the lost children, being left to the depredations of the snake (8).

Narrative linearity is also disrupted when, as we have seen, trace elements of character such as the Kruse letter are not rounded off, or when we don ' t know quite how to read a scene as a result of tonal disjunction. We shall see another example of this when the 'lost children' sequence is considered.

However, it is the way that the figure of the circle is inscribed that suggests. most elliptically, Back' s ellipticality of narrative. Wandering and wondering: the circle is very much a figure for ecological adaptation, but it is also a ground for a kind of surreal wondering that lies at the core of this film 's strange attraction The circle figures diegetically three times, apart from the gramaphone figure read ;n The interview. First, it seems quite denotative, when the truck is spun in circles getting speed up to mount the sandhills in sequence (1). Second, it appears more connotative, when the boat spins in circles on the Cooper after Tom has fallen overboard.(5) There is the tonal shift to comedy, but more, there is Malcolm's surreal wondering 'Now where is that fella Kruse?' Is it 'Now where is that fella Kruse? 'Nowwhere is that fella Kruse?' Wandering, lost in repetition. Third, the most connotative of the cyclical recurrences, The tracks marked out by Sally and Roberta, the lost children (8).

Of course, a reading cannot simply itself wander off into excess, because the film recalls us, disjunctively, to its ecological pragmatism. The 'lost children' is indeed, a cautionary tale: in the sequence immediately following, at Birdsville, a black woman teaches her young charges, black and white, her desert knowledge. Retrospectively, we must read this as confirming that unadaptive while culture (remember the world from which the lost children emerge, to wander to their deaths) will never survive such an environment.

This, then, is an appropriate moment at which to enter a demurrer about the interview's reading of women in The Back of Beyond (p.88). Consider Mary, the Aboriginal woman in the Marree sequence(2). Or the mother of the lost children, lying dead for no known reason save what we learn later from the diary of the Birdsville policeman ('Where the policeman can close the door of his station at sunset and write in his diary "January 22. Thomas Crow appears out of his mind. Sub-inspector King shot himself on the police station verandah. Another hot day." '),in the most chilling shot of the film (8). Or consider the role of the 'bush Telegraph', administered by women almost exclusively. If the notion of a 'delegated ' narrative has any currency, then it is women who are the minders of the 'travelling stories', that is, the travellers like Tom Kruse who are 'communicated' by way of the station radios. They are the diegetic enunciators to which the film's enunciation delegates its authority.

We could also examine the role of figures like Bejah, the retired Afghan camel driver, or of Malcolm, the 'graduate' of Father Vogelsang's 'forgotten' mission, or of Joe the Rainmaker. All of these figures occupy spaces outside of, but at the same lime before and beyond, the temporal boundaries of while settlement, and from which while settlement must graft its instincts for survival.

In sum, no better example than The Back of Beyond can be offered of Elsaesser's notion3 of the pressures of a specific 'social imaginary' creating the conditions for a negotiated difference from the prevailing paradigm of representation, here the British documentary. And the is no better example of the febrile cinematic traditions from which we derive privileged elements of the texture of our social imaginary.


'On The Back of Beyond: An Interview with Ross Gibson', Tom O'Regan, Brian Shoesmith and Albert Moran, Continuum 1, no.1 (1987), pp.80-92.

The Back of Beyond: A compilation by Eric Else for use in studying John Heyer's film of Inland Australia (London: Longman, 1968). My breakdown coalesces some of the rather pedantic sequence divisions which occur here into something a little simpler and more expressive of the rhythm of the film.

Thomas Elsasser, Primary Identification and the Historical Subject', Cine-Tracts 3, no.3 (1980), pp.43-52.

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