Film: Australian rules? Not at the flicks, it doesn’t

By John Butler


The recent experience of watching Springboks and All Blacks do battle in a Hollywood film has prompted some general reflections on how differing cinematic cultures approach sport. More particularly, it has  given me cause to consider how sport has (or hasn’t) been treated in Australian cinema.

Hollywood has long been the world’s dominant film culture, by dint of economic power as much as anything else, and our local cinema can’t hope to match it in terms of resources or output. Nevertheless, there seems to me some striking differences in how the two countries have approached sport as  subject matter.

In American cinema, sport of all types has been a significant genre for a very long time. We all have memories of old black and white films celebrating (American) boxers, baseball players, footballers and racehorses — to name but a few. The travails and triumphs of sporting heroes have always been regarded as rich fodder by Hollywood film-makers. This continues to be the case right up to the present day.

Now consider the Australian scene. I doubt I could find anyone on the Almanac website who wouldn’t agree on the centrality of sport in Australian culture. Even if there are, perish the thought, some philistines who would suggest this is overdone, I doubt they would contest the notion that sport plays a significant role in Australian society.

How has Australian cinema reflected this fact? How many Australian films have even featured sport as a significant element?

Despite the fanatical devotion of so many to our indigenous code, I can think of only three films that have had Australian Rules as a significant component: The Club, The Great McCarthy and Australian Rules (the film). That’s it.

Rugby (League or Union) is no better served. It took a Vietnamese Australian, Khoa Do, to finally make a film about League with his 2006 Footy Legends. Apart from this, the little seen The Final Winter rounds out my list. As for Union, Americans have made more films about that sport than Australians.

When thoughts turn to cricket, our other great national pastime, the pickings are just as slim. The 1980s TV miniseries Bodyline pretty much sees things out, although Sarah Watt’s Look Both Ways at least featured cricket in one scene.

At the risk of social stereotyping, I would venture to suggest that sport has a much greater hold on Australian consciousness than, say, the woes of inner city junkies. Yet who gets the most screen time? No contest really.

So what factors are at play in this imbalance?

You could suggest that this situation reflects the biases of our various film funding bodies. But how many sporting based scripts do they ever see? This surely can’t be the whole answer.

Is there some anti-sporting bias in our film community? It’s hard to see why that would be any more prevalent here than in the USA. Other areas of the arts in Australia certainly don’t seem to suffer from such an affliction.

Are the stories of Australian sport inherently less interesting than other countries? Hardly, although now I think we may be getting closer to the nub of things. This is not to suggest that these stories are actually less interesting. Rather, perhaps something here speaks to our perceptions of our own stories.

One of the significant cultural differences between here and the USA is that Americans have a much more straightforward attitude to success. They just love it. If you have a story of achievement, you won’t find much trouble attracting a laudatory audience there. All the better if it’s a tale of triumph against the odds. Never mind if the subsequent story includes a fall from grace; that can be accommodated as well. Tales of a sporting nature rarely have trouble finding a home in this scenario.

On the other hand, we Aussies have a much more ambiguous relationship to success. I won’t venture into the usual discussions of cultural cringe or tall poppy syndrome — this is well worn territory — although its very familiarity would indicate some substance to these notions.

But it’s hard to escape the feeling we are inclined to be a little suspicious of success too loudly celebrated, virtues too loudly proclaimed. We generally like our sporting heroes built along more modest, less brash lines. Mundine and Hewitt are not to everyone’s tastes in this country, despite the presence of Fanatics and the Oi Oi Oi brigade.

In this regard, our British heritage is all too obvious. Whilst we don’t seem to have clung quite so resolutely to class-based notions of amateur versus professional, in most other respects the sensibilities are similar. In this light, it’s interesting to note that Bollywood has made many more films with cricket as theme than the English ever have.

Surely all of this has some relevance to the absence of sport from Australian film. It must say something about how different nations tell the stories of their heroes. We managed to make a film about Phar Lap, but where’s the Don Bradman biopic? If The Don was a Yank, it’s inconceivable one wouldn’t have been made before now. We seem to have a reluctance to tell straightforward heroic tales outside the context of war, but this is probably opening another line of discussion altogether.

As a nation, we are nowadays fond of proclaiming the cultural cringe is dead. That we can confidently take a place on the world stage. In sporting realms, we seem to often pursue these claims almost to the point of belligerence. Likewise, we loudly proclaim the virtues of our film industry; at least the parts of it which have gained some international approval.

And yet, does our walk really match our talk? This is where the paucity of sport in Australian film seems to raise interesting questions.

I am sure many in the Almanac community would view these issues differently. All thoughts, agreeing or otherwise, are welcomed.

About John Butler

John Butler has fled the World's Most Livable Car Park and now breathes the rarefied air of the Ballarat Plateau. For his sins, he has been a Carlton member for more than 30 years.

Comments

  1. What about Year of the Dogs, the documentary made about the Western Bulldogs’ 1997 season? It’s one of the most moving Australian films I’ve ever seen.

  2. John Butler says:

    Craig, I agree about Year of The Dog, but to my knowledge it was only shown on TV. I’ll stand to be corrected on this point.

    I was mainly trying to focus on cinema releases. In the case of Bodyline, I made an exception because there are no other cricket films to discuss really.

  3. John What about The Final Winter , a movie about rugby league and a player at the end of his career ? Had a limited theatre release before going to pay TV . The footy scenes are not flash but still a good show overall . The hero plays for the Newtoen Jets one of the original Sydney clubs but now defunct.

  4. John Sorry !! See it already rated a mention .Serves me right for not reading more carefully

  5. It’s quite a pity, I love a good sport story, and if it were Australian and something we could relate to, I feel it would be so much better.

  6. John B

    Year of the Dogs was certainly shown in a Brisbane cinema, at East Brisbane, just opposite the Lord Stanley Hotel. I know because we went there on prelim final night in 1997 I reckpn – a Friday when SK beat North. We also won the meat tray at the pub that night and then went hom,e to watch the footy which came on at about midnight.

    Terrific film. Excellent charcaterisation I reckon.

    Cheers

  7. John Butler says:

    Thanks JTH

    I’ll have the researcher flogged immediately.

    As they say, to live is to learn.

  8. Rocket Rod Gillett says:

    Gary,

    Re: Final Winter.

    As you probably know the Newtown rugby league team were called the Blubags for nearly all of its existence. When Singo took over in the 70s I think he renamed them the Jets…

    Always loved the car bumper sticker: “I’m a Bluebag Faithful” – never seen anywhere else but along King Street.

    Not quite as poignant as the sticker on a tradie’s ute in North Sydney: “Where’s My Team?”

  9. JB

    I reckon that Brisbane season lasted all of one week. Quirky cinema called ‘The Classic’ from memory. Also saw Road To Nhill there, with two other people in the entire joint. Those sort of movies had a pretty short life in Brisvegas in those days.

  10. John, You left out one class of sporting film. There is at least one Racing film and one racing telemovie, They are respectively about Phar Lap and Archer and are imaginatively titled “Phar Lap” and “Archer”

    There is also a film about ironman competitions called Coolangatta Gold which I am told is one of the all-time worst Australian Movies, and BMX Bandits about BMX racers (I think, I never saw it)

    On a more serious note, part of the reason that there are not more films about major Australian sport is that there are also very few fictional books about Australian Sport. Three of the best films about baseball, “The Natural”, “Field of Dreams” and “Eight Men Out” are all based on books of the same name. The Natural was by Bernard Malamud who was one of America’s best novelists in the mid-Twentieth Century.

    The best novels about Australian Rules are Phillip Gwynne’s “Deadly Unna” which along with its sequal “Nukkin Ya” formed the basis of the movie Australian Rules and “Tyger,Tyger” written by Michael Hyde. Both Gwynne and Hyde are regarded as writers of teenage fiction but their works are better than any work of fiction based on footy for adults.

    In fact the best football writing in an adult work of fiction is in Dave Warner’s “City of Light”. Which is not principally a novel about footy at all – it is a detective novel about political corruption and murder.

  11. Sheikh Mohammed bin Rocket says:

    Of course, in Dave Warner’s novel “City of Light” the main character “Snowy” was an East Fremantle footballer.

  12. In the 1960s Charmian Clift (George Johnston’s wife) adapted My Brother Jack for television. The book had Jack as your typically confident Australian lad, but the TV show turned Jack (played by Ed Devereaux) into a VFL football star.

    Jack’s football prowess is not a large part of the TV show, but the makers must have felt the need for extra Melbourne cred, so whenever Jack was introduced to his brother’s arty friends there was much fuss made about his performances for “the Demons”.

    (I may just be subconsciously boosting The Demons; it’s a fair while since I’ve seen the show.)

  13. John Butler says:

    Dave, I considered mentioning The Gold and The Bandits, but some uncharacteristic quality control set in.

    That is an excellent point about sporting novels. One for the book page to ponder.

    On that note, it sounds like I should track down “City of Light”.

  14. Sheikh Mohammed bin Rocket says:

    John,

    Dave Warner tells me that the publisher Fremantle Arts Centre Press may be able to help you with a copy of City of Light.

    Dave Nadel,

    As it turns out Dave Warner has been working on an adaption of Phillip Gwynne’s The Build up for a TV series this week…

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