Did you like or loathe Gone with the Wind? Gone with the Wind won Best Picture for 1939, along with heaps of other awards. Vivian Leigh, as Scarlett O’Hara won Best Actress. Victor Fleming won Best Director for the movie. It even spawned an award for the first Oscar given to an African American, the unforgettable Hattie McDaniel as Mammie, the O’Hara’s house servant.
In 1939, Gone with the Wind was a visually stunning epic of a film. There were vast and bloated movies before it on its scale, but nothing quite like it. All those stars! Cast of thousands! Bloated budgets! Burning sets! Moreover, it had hype that was probably not equaled until Cleopatra was released in 1963.
The problem is that if you go back and look at Gone with the Wind with 21st century eyes, you wonder what all the fuss was about. In actuality, it is not that good a movie. Vivian Leigh played Scarlett O’Hara, and mostly her portrayal spoke to her failings as an actress rather than her mastery of the craft. Clark Gable’s portrayal of Rhett Butler was similarly one dimensional and uninspiring. Basically, he had to act like an asshole. Many of its characters were grating, like the milquetoast Ashley Wilkes played by Leslie Howard. Scenery it had aplenty, and the special effects for its time were amazing. Yet if you watch the movie today, it’s a wonder it was as successful as it was. In reality it was a B picture masquerading as an A picture.
Why do I mention Gone with the Wind in connection with the recently released epic movie Australia? Perhaps it is because it has Gone with the Wind all over it. The good news is that
Director Baz Luhrmann, a native Australian and director of the amazing film Moulin Rouge!, seemed intent on making his country’s Gone with the Wind. He probably succeeded, simply because movies about Australia rarely transcend its borders. Nor do Australian film companies have the deep pockets needed to create an epic motion picture like this, at least not without a lot of foreign capital. Gone with the Wind director Victor Fleming could have made a much better picture if he had done a better job of casting. Baz Luhrmann did not make this mistake. Perhaps because he already used Nichole Kidman in Moulin Rouge!, she appears here as Australia’s Scarlett O’Hara. Whoops, Kidman who actually is a native Aussie, here portrays Lady Sarah Ashley, an English gentlewoman whose husband owns a massive cattle tract in the Aboriginal lands on Australia’s north coast. Faraway Downs is much more remote than Tara, but it serves a similar role. It seems Lady Ashley’s husband is competing with King Carney, who otherwise has a sweet monopoly on the cattle business in North Australia in 1939.
Lady Ashley arrives at Faraway Downs just in time to see the recent corpse of her husband, who has been murdered. Scarlett O’Hara has to wait until near the end of Gone with the Wind to remake Tara. Lady Ashley has to quickly figure out how to save her estate, since she needs the money. She quickly realizes she is not in England anymore because her estate comes complete with a charismatic Aboriginal boy named Nullah (Brandon Walters), who quickly wends his way into her heart. It turns out that King Carney has been poaching cattle from the Ashley estate with the help of Neil Fletcher (played by David Wenham, a.k.a. Faramir from The Lord of the Rings movies), who is supposed to be managing Faraway Downs. Fletcher turns out to be the chief bad guy and nemesis, sort of like Rhett Butler, but with no redeeming qualities. Drover (Hugh Jackman, also a native Aussie) turns out to be a combination of Ashley Wilkes and Rhett Butler, but has the more immediate challenge of getting a thousand head of cattle to Darwin, Australia where they can be sold to the military, which is preparing for World War Two.
There are no nasty Union troops burning down Atlanta in this movie, but you do have the Japanese show up near the end of the movie attacking Darwin, Australia. The Japanese though are almost ancillary to this epic, since it is Fletcher and his evil boss King Carney who create most of the negative karma. Naturally, the gentrified Lady Ashley has to quickly adapt to ways on the outback, although strangely she seems as pasty white at the end of the movie as she is at the beginning. Among their peculiar neighbors is King George, Nullah’s Aboriginal grandfather, who is suspected in the death of Lady Ashley’s husband and can be frequently seen in the mountains making fires from the tops of hills and dancing.
In short, there are more plots and subplots than you can shake a stick at in Australia. Prejudice against Aboriginals is a frequent recurring theme. Nallah spends much of the movie avoiding the law, which wants to send him to a Christian missionary island off Darwin. Lady Ashley becomes the unlikely social vanguard trying to convince a very prejudiced white Australia to let aboriginals be aboriginals.
So the pleasure of this movie is that Lurhmann does a far better job of casting and directing Australia than Victor Fleming did with Gone with the Wind. That is because Nichole Kidman is a much better actress than Vivian Leigh, and either Hugh Jackman or David Wenham can act more convincingly than Clark Gable or Leslie Howard. The scenery is uniformly stunning and the acting ranges from good to excellent. It is also, at times, heart wrenching.
Yet it is an epic. Moreover, Baz Lurhmann has a certain engrained style to his directing which can be characterized as flamboyant. One way to tell an epic motion picture is to count the number of minutes without orchestration. The orchestration is virtually ever present and so sweeping it would do Max Steiner proud. Another way to tell it’s an epic is that the events in the movie must be timed so that the most dramatic things happen at the most dramatic and unlikely times. For example, at one point near the end of Australia it looks like Lady Ashley is dead. Yet, you guessed it, in the heat of battle some bad intelligence was exchanged. It was Fletcher’s wife who bit the big one, not Lady Ashley. Hooray! There are lots of moments like this in Australia, so many that by the end of the movie you just have to scratch your head. Except for the big question mark of World War II, it is a happily ever after movie, sort of, with everything so neatly tied up it becomes surreal.
Still, eh, what a ride! You can bet Victor Fleming would have preferred to direct Australia to Gone with the Wind. In reality though, Baz Lurhmann just learned from Fleming’s mistakes and made something just as sweeping and much better, just nearly seventy years later.
Overall, Australia is a fun and engaging movie, but because it so frequently descends into rank implausibility, I have to mark it down a notch or two. 3.3 on my 4.0 scale.