No Strzelecki

Short Empire

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 ...

(The title of this post, as Australians of a certain age may have guessed, is an homage to that great maker of epic films, Warren Perso, the 'last Aussie auteur'.)

Image source: Wikimedia Commons.


  1. 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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10 thoughts on “No Strzelecki

  1. Post author

    I suspect that nobody will be able to escapethe publicity machine for this flick when it premieres.

    I'm sure you're right ... I'll probably be sick of the thing before it even opens!

  2. "...the men who conquered it, the women who loved them,.." !?! God, we women really must be useless creatures if that is all we did.

    Somehow I find myself not very interested in this film and after reading The Australian article, I think I need to hit something. Perhaps I'm a pessimist, but it sounds like mythology, not history or "truth", to me.

  3. Post author

    Of course, but since when have movies offered anything else? The thing is that films are a hugely important way for people to pick up ideas about the past, much more so than even popular/populist history books (how many people have seen Peter Weir's Gallipoli, compared with how many people read Les Carlyon's Gallipoli?) So Australia has the potential to modify the way Australians remember our military history: adding an inglorious defeat to a glorious one. The film might flop, of course, or they might botch their version of history to emphasis the heroic bits, or our current myths are just too ingrained in our national consciousness to be modified at all. Probably the last one in fact ...

  4. Post author

    Thanks for that -- the realism deficit is always a possibility but I wouldn't be too worried about the lack of any mention of aeroplanes in that piece: the trailer features the raid on Darwin fairly prominently -- some nice CG Zeroes and Kates, looks like. (Plus a shot of our Nic looking at clouds through a passenger window, presumably that's on board the Empire.) The trailer I saw is, I think, the third from the top here, which is a different one to the one available at the official site (it's got a bit more on the raid and aftermath, plus I notice the radio announcer has an Australian accent, not American!)

    But that story makes me realise that the intended audience of Australia is not Australians -- and it couldn't be, with a reported $130 million budget, it'd never make it back. (Titantic made only $58 million here.) Which could mean that it can afford to take an interestingly different view of Australian history than if it was being made for Australians. Or, probably more likely if the BBC story is anything to go by, it's going to sugarcoat the Darwin raid's aftermath. Otherwise Marn Ferguson wouldn't be so keen to use it for a tourism campaign. I guess that was always going to happen ... oh well, at least the aircraft will be pretty.

  5. Ian Evans

    There was a Harvard in one clip - real aircraft?
    Could have been a cgi Boomerang perhaps.

  6. Post author

    I didn't catch that, but I hope it's not a Boomerang -- still on the drawing board at this time! A Wirraway would be more likely, but as far as I know the only Allied fighters around were the USAAF's P-40 Kittyhawks. The Harvard, like the related Boomerang and Wirraway, could be confused for a Zero so maybe they needed a real aeroplane for some scene? (Harvards stood in for Zeroes in Tora! Tora! Tora!) Or maybe the CG was so bad that it looked more like a Harvard than a Zero :)

  7. from what i can discern.....the flying boats all seam to have imperial airway written on the side of the plane.....not qantas ......but again i could be wrong.....i was a joint operation between imperal &qanyas as the planes were as far as singarpore then qantas pilots took over from there....i didn't

  8. Post author

    Thanks, Joe -- are you referring to the movie? or to the real Empire boats? If the former, I'm surprised as the (non-flying) boat in it definitely does have QANTAS EMPIRE AIRWAYS LTD written on it (which is the correct name for the Qantas overseas operation at the time). If the latter, you're right about the handover at Singapore, but QEA used its own Empires for the Singapore to Sydney run. If you click on the photo at the top of this page you might be able to make out that it says QANTAS EMPIRE AIRWAYS on the side, with BRISBANE (I think) underneath.

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