Cast & Crew
An examination of the relationship between white and Aboriginal Australia through the trial of five Aborigines accused of killing another. Corporate tax lawyer David Burton accepts the case just as torrential rains blanket even the most arid regions of the nation, and is instantly beset with prophetic dreams and apocalyptic visions. Convinced of an underground tribal society in Sydney whose existence could exonerate his clients, he unearths information to support this theory, but raises questions of an age-old link between the Sydney tribe and his own family--a link that could leave Australia buried underwater as fulfillment of an ancient prophecy.
Jose L. Perez
The Last Wave
The initial inspiration for the story, according to the director, came from a trip that Weir made to Tunisia in 1971. "I was suddenly seized with this strange feeling I was going to find something, I even saw what I was going to see. And there it was, on the ground, a carving of a child's head. I brought it home and thought about it for ages afterwards. What was that experience? Why did I see the head in my mind before I saw it in actuality. And then I started to think, what if a very rational person - a lawyer, say - had had the same experience? How would he cope with it?"
Picnic at Hanging Rock had brought international attention to Weir and The Last Wave was an ambitious follow-up, with a budget twice the size of Picnic, due largely to the demands of the special effects. The Australian producers reached out to American studio United Artists to help with financing and Weir cast American actor Richard Chamberlain as the lawyer, David Burton, to give it international appeal. That was an important consideration given the specifically Australian subject of Aboriginal culture and mythology and the concept of "dreamtime," which the skeptical Burton has explained to him by his clients.
One of Weir's biggest challenges was getting tribal people involved in his film. He didn't think the film would work without their cooperation but acting was not a part of their tribal lives. An exception was David Gulpilil, a ceremonial tribal dancer who Nicholas Roeg cast in Walkabout (1971) and went on to appear in other films in the white world while continuing to preserve and perform the cultural rituals and dances of his people. Weir reached out to Nandjiwarra Amagula, a tribal elder and magistrate from Groote Eylandt community. Amagula agreed to participate - he played the role of Charlie, who is accused of killing a man in a pub fight - and brought other Aboriginal performers into the film. Even with such outreach, however, the project was controversial - the story is built on the idea of a fictional underground tribal group living in the city - and Aboriginal groups picketed production during location shooting.
Weir has repeatedly insisted that he was no expert on Aboriginal tribal culture, simply "a storyteller," but he made a point to learn as much as he could from Amagula, who was on the set through most of the film, and he incorporated observations, insights, and comments that Amagula and others made during the production. Anything that the Aboriginal characters said in the film was either contributed or cleared by them. When he asked Amagula if there was anything in the script that he didn't like, he requested that Weir make the point that the law was more important than the man: "For us, the law and for our culture the law is the most important thing and I would like you to add it to your story." Weir added it to a conversation in a dinner scene.
The use of authentic tribal symbols was forbidden by the culture so Weir's art director, Goran Warff, created an entire fictional array of art and symbols. Weir scouted tunnels under the city of Sydney for his underground society and shot in old subway tunnels and sewer lines, which Warff painted over with his signs and symbols. Rain plays a defining role in the film and Weir's team took pains to create different textures and qualities as the rains became more intense and the weather darker and more ominous over the course of the film. Weir cast it in a blue / gray light, in contrast to the golden, white light of the desert sun of Picnic at Hanging Rock.
The Last Wave became Weir's first film to get distributed in the United States, although ironically it wasn't through United Artists. Though they put up half of the production costs in exchange for distribution rights, they ended up passing on the finished film. World Northal, a company that specialized in martial arts imports, picked it up and retitled it Black Rain for its initial American release. The film was a commercial and critical success in Australia, winning Australian Film Institute awards for its eerie soundtrack and atmospheric cinematography and earning nominations for direction, screenplay, and Chamberlain's performance, but it would take Gallipoli (1981) for Weir to finally break through to American audiences.
By Sean Axmaker
"Peter Weir on The Last Wave," interview recorded for the Criterion DVD, 2001.
Peter Weir: When Cultures Collide, Marek Haltof. Twayne, 1996.
35mm Dreams: Conversations with Five Directors about the Australian Film Revivial, Sue Matthews. Penguin, 1984.
The Films of Peter Weir, Jonathan Raynor. Cassell, 1998.
The Last Wave
The Last Wave
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
The Last Wave
Released in United States 1978
Released in United States April 1981
Released in United States December 1, 1977
Released in United States November 2006
Released in United States on Video May 9, 1991
Re-released in United States November 30, 2001
The 2001 re-release is a newly restored 35mm print.
Released in United States 1978 (Shown at FILMEX: Los Angeles International Film Exposition (Contemporary Cinema) April 13 - May 7, 1978.)
Released in United States April 1981 (Shown at FILMEX: Los Angeles International Film Exposition (Best of Filmex) April 2-23, 1981.)
Released in United States on Video May 9, 1991
Released in United States November 2006 (Shown at AFI/Los Angeles Film Festival (20 Years of AFI Fest) November 1-12, 2006.)
Re-released in United States November 30, 2001 (Screening Room; New York City)
Released in United States December 1, 1977 (Premiered in Australia December 1, 1977.)