The Last Wave
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Synopsis: David Burton (Richard Chamberlain), a lawyer in Sydney, Australia is persuaded against his better judgment to defend a group of aborigines accused of murdering one of their own tribal members. As Burton delves into the case, he begins to experience a series of nightmares and odd occurrences that rattle his rational thought process. The case eventually puts a severe strain on Burton's marriage as he becomes increasingly obsessed with bringing to light the secrets his clients have been withholding. When he uncovers a link between the aborigines and his own ancestors, visions of an impending apocalypse become more frequent, culminating in Burton's discovery of a sacred underground tribal lair.
One of several films that were associated with "The New Australian Cinema" movement of the 1970s, The Last Wave (1977, aka Black Rain), was also an important film in establishing Peter Weir's international reputation as a director to watch. He had already made a big impact with Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975), a mysterious, enigmatic period film about the disappearance of some schoolgirls at a remote geological site, that quickly attracted a cult following. The Last Wave shared similar mystical and occult elements with Weir's previous film but also explored the cultural disconnect between white urban society and the laws and legends of aboriginal tribal people. More importantly, the film moves ominously back and forth between a dream world and a natural one in which frogs fall from the sky, water pours out of car radios and hailstorms suddenly erupt without warning in the dusty, arid Outback. While the film could be read as an early warning of the global warming effects to come, the underlaying tension and power of this quietly menacing thriller comes from Weir's use of symbols and mythology to question Australia's identity and its future.
The screenplay for The Last Wave was initally inspired by a trip Weir made to Duga, a city in Tunisia, where some ancient Roman ruins were located. In an interview with Judith M. Mass prior to the opening of his film in New York City in 1979, he recalled, "...I had this feeling which lasted a few seconds, that I was going to find something. I was picking up bits of stone and I saw on a stone these parallel lines and I picked that stone up. In fact it was a hand, a fist, and the lines were between the fingers. It resisted a little bit, then burst up through the ploughed field and there was this head, the head of a child, broken off at the neck and at the wrist....I wondered about the head; why did I know I was going to find it?...And I thought, what if a lawyer had found it...And at some stage from that I thought, What if a lawyer dreamt of some evidence, what if he found some evidence through a premonition? Someone trained to think precisely on one hand; on the other, the facts, dreaming, dream some evidence."
Weir's ideas were then developed with screenwriters Tony Morphett and Petru Popescu into a final script which was cast with Australian and aboriginal actors and in the lead, Richard Chamberlain. Regarding that choice, Weir said, "...there was something in his face, there was some alien quality, and in my story my character had that quality...Also, we couldn't raise all the money in Australia and Chamberlain's name occurred to somebody and I remembered that face, those eyes in particular."
Casting and working with the aboriginal actors was a trickier proposition because most of them were not professional actors. Nanjiwarra Amagula, who plays Charlie, the tribal leader in The Last Wave, was actually a local clan leader. "To get him," Weir stated, "I had to go to, in Sydney, the Aboriginal Cultural Foundation director, a man called Lance Bennett, who subsequently became a friend. He was highly suspicious of a feature filmmaker delving into tribal cultural manners. It's all very well to photograph a tribal man with spears against Ayres Rock, but another to delve into the system of perception, which I wanted to. So he screened me, he read my draft screenplay, and finally...he said, "OK, I'll help you..There's only one man who can play your Charlie, one man who has enough wisdom, enough breadth, enough understanding, not just to come into the city but to make a feature film...I'll tell him about this on the radio-telephone on his island in the Gulf of Carpentaria - Groote Island. He may or may not see you." Luckily, Amagula met with Weir and was cast in the pivotal but largely non-speaking role of Charlie.
Richard Chamberlain, who had recently completed a television adaptation of The Man in the Iron Mask (1977), welcomed the opportunity to work outside Hollywood. He noted in his autobiography, "The Australian movie boom was just entering its first burst of creativity, and our young crew worked with an excited exuberance not often found in the highly professional, but sometimes slightly jaded, productions of Hollywood." Working with the film's tribal Aborigines was a relevation. Like the early Hawaiians they are tuned into nature in ways modern city folks can't even begin to understand. Young David Gulpilil, one of our main actors, was unusual in that he was hip to city ways and comfortable in our urban world but also could throw off his clothes and survive with skill in the Outback, chasing down animals with little more than his bare hands." .
Gulpilil, of course, had already made an unforgettable impression in his movie debut in Nicholas Roeg's Walkabout (1971) and was probably Australia's best known Aboriginal actor by the time he made The Last Wave, having already appeared in Mad Dog Morgan (1976) opposite Dennis Hopper and Storm Boy (1976). Gulpilil has since gone on to critical acclaim and acting awards for his work in such films as Rolf de Heer's The Tracker (2002) and Rabbit-Proof Fence (2002), directed by Phillip Noyce.
The Last Wave enjoyed a modest success as an art house release in the U.S., despite the fact that it was marketed as a genre thriller and many U.S. critics treated it as such. Pauline Kael of The New Yorker wrote, "The plot of this Australian film is a throwback to the B-movies of the 30s and early 40s, and the dialogue...is vintage RKO and Universal..But it's hokum without the fun of hokum; despite all the scare-movie apparatus, this film fairly aches to be called profound." Vincent Canby of The New York Times was more positive, calling the film, "a movingly moody shock-film, composed entirely of the kind of variations on mundane behavior and events that are most scary and disorienting because they so closely parallel the normal." The film's reputation has grown since then thanks to a DVD release on the esteemed Criterion Collection label and is essential viewing for anyone interested in Peter Weir's development as a director. The Last Wave is also worth a look alone for Russell Boyd's ravishing and magical cinematography which depicts an exotic but unsettling side of Sydney and the Australian Outback rarely seen in movies.
Producers: Hal McElroy, James McElroy
Director: Peter Weir
Screenplay: Peter Weir, Tony Morphett, Petru Popescu (screenplay)
Cinematography: Russell Boyd
Art Direction: Neil Angwin
Music: Charles Wain
Film Editing: Max Lemon
Cast: Richard Chamberlain (David Burton), Olivia Hamnett (Annie Burton), Gulpilil (Chris Lee), Frederick Parslow (Rev. Burton), Vivean Gray (Dr. Whitburn), Nandjiwarra Amagula (Charlie), Walter Amagula (Gerry Lee), Roy Bara (Larry), Cedrick Lalara (Lindsey), Morris Lalara (Jacko).
by Jeff Stafford
Shattered: A Memoir by Richard Chamberlain (It Books)
Peter Weir Interview, conducted by Judith M. Kass, Jan. 1979