Director Baz Luhrmann (Strictly Ballroom, Moulin Rouge) has been working on a new film, called Australia. As the name perhaps suggests, it's a sweeping saga of this wide, brown land of ours: the men who conquered it, the women who loved them, the cattle, the dust, the flies … well, it sounds pretty dull to me, to be honest. But I saw an extended trailer before Indy IV the other day, and it seems that Australia does have a couple of points of interest for the airminded film-goer.
The first is hinted at in this set photo. It shows Nicole Kidman ('our Nic') and, if I'm not mistaken, Bill Hunter (who is contractually obliged to appear in every major Australian motion picture) in a boat with 'QANTAS EMPIRE AIRWAYS LTD' written on the side. Well, since Qantas have not, historically, been known for their watercraft, presumably there'll be a Short Empire flying boat around somewhere! Such as the QEA Empire boat pictured above, VH-ABB Coolangatta. That's excellent — we don't see enough of these strangely beautiful aircraft these days. But a few scenes with a CGI flying boat are probably not enough to get me into the cinema.
The second is much more central to the story, it seems: the Japanese air raids on Darwin on 19 February 1942, carried out by the four fleet carriers of Nagumo's task force and land-based bombers from the East Indies. About 240 aircraft attacked the harbour and airfield; 10 ships were sunk and about 250 people killed. To date, it's the heaviest and costliest attack by an enemy on an Australian target.
Which would seem to make it a fitting subject for an epic Australian film. Except that there was no Blitz-style, Darwin-can-take-it stoicism here. In fact, what happened was not unlike the pre-war predictions of the effects of an aerial knock-out blow. Half the town's population of 2500 (most women and children had been evacuated in December) fled south after the raid, along with a fair number of RAAF service personnel — the so-called 'Adelaide River Stakes' (Adelaide River being a small town about 60 km south of Darwin).1 It's true enough that the two air raids were taken as a sign of imminent invasion, not unreasonably since Fortress Singapore had surrendered just four days earlier, along with most of the 8th Division AIF; and Darwin was a long way from any help. And it has been suggested that the deserting servicemen had been given confusing orders. That doesn't explain the fact that one of them got as far as Melbourne (about 4000 km away!) before stopping. Or, more seriously, the looting which took place in Darwin the night after the raid, perpetrated by servicemen (including some military police). There was certainly bravery — not least from the USAAF pilots who took to the air to defend Darwin in their P-40s, though greatly outnumbered — but overall, it's a pretty inglorious episode in Australia's military history. (And an example of something which Australians might do well to remember on ANZAC Day.)
So, it will be interesting to see how the raid's aftermath is depicted in Australia. Telling anything like the full story would seem to cut against the intended epic nature of the film. But it sounds like Luhrmann does does intend to tell this part of Australia's history:
Darwin was attacked 64 times in six months … The government (disguised) the truth: 2000 whites were killed and non-whites were not counted, so the toll was far greater," he said. "But everything in the film will be in service to a great romance … Facts will be moved around but not in a way that fundamentally disturbs the truth.
I may have to see it after all …
Image source: Wikimedia Commons.
- See here; the relevant volumes of the official history, Douglas Gillison, Royal Australian Air Force, 1939-1942 (Canberra: Australian War Memorial, 1962), 426-32, and Paul Hasluck, The Government and the People, 1942-1945 (Canberra: Australian War Memorial, 1970), 141-4; and the relevant volume of the centenary history of defence, Alan Stephens, The Royal Australian Air Force (South Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 2001), 136-9.
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