The new movie “Sweet Country” is a western set in the Australian Outback. But the film’s director, Warwick Thornton, seeks to shatter some myths about the Western genre.
“We have this perception of the Wild West, but for every white cowboy, there were fifteen Mexicans and one hundred Native Americans,” said Thornton, an Aboriginal Australian from the town of Alice Springs in the country’s Northern Territory. “We see these westerns in North America and we think, ‘Where are all the workers? The reality is, this is a complete lie.
Set in 1929, “Sweet Country” tells the story of an Aboriginal farmer on the run for murdering a white man. The film, which stars Australian lead actors Sam Neill and Bryan Brown, has received critical acclaim for its portrayal of Australia’s indigenous past, with a score of 94% on Rotten tomatoes.
A hit in his native Australia as well as on the festival circuit where he won a special award at the Toronto International Film Festival, “Sweet Country” opens in select theaters this weekend. MarketWatch explained to Thornton why his western is so different from those starring John Wayne and Gary Cooper, and why, despite functioning as a consistent hit factory (“Dances with Wolves,” Unforgiven, ”“ True Grit “), the output of the genre is so negligible.
How was “Sweet Country” born?
A good friend of mine, David Tranter, who is a sound recordist, said he had a good idea for a movie about his grandfather. The film is therefore loosely based on a true story. My reaction to anyone who tells me on a film set that they have a good idea for a movie is to say, “Go ahead and write it down”. 99.9% of the time, whoever I tell this to never writes anything and you never hear from the idea again. But a few years later, David Tranter returned with a script. It wasn’t that good, but he had an incredibly beautiful heart. The producers paired it with a writer named Steven McGregor and they spent about a year rebuilding it. I read it and it was fantastic.
“Sweet Country” is the first movie you made that wasn’t written. What attracted you about the material?
David Trantor and I are aborigines and we both come from neighboring tribes in Central Australia. So her story is my story and it’s a universal story for a lot of people in Central Australia and a lot of indigenous people in Australia. In a strange way, this is probably a very universal story for a lot of Native Americans as well. This idea of land grabbing, the herder taking back vacant land that has never been vacant; it belonged to indigenous peoples or indigenous peoples had a full connection to it. The ranchers took over and slaughtered anyone who tried to say “No”.
‘Sweet Country’ is a western that’s not afraid to tackle social issues.
You have the problem of stolen children. What happened to an entire generation was sort of borderline genocide. Australia has a huge problem with this but North America too with mixed race kids thinking they were trying to save us and irony takes people away from their kids, land and culture and creates a massive divide, the repercussions of all of this is becoming evident now … the more we know about our past, the better choices we will make for our future.
However, we still tend to equate the western with American cinema.
Through any form of colonization of any country, there is a form of Westerner. Australia, North America, and South America all had the western border. The funny thing is that the concept of a western isn’t just unique to North America. It actually happened everywhere. There was a flood of westerns from the 1940s to the 1960s. This classic idea “The good guy wears a white cap, the bad guy wears a black cap and their morals will never intersect on Main Street.” This is what the Americans brought back to the world, but the irony is that the border is entirely in shades of gray. The good guys are the bad guys and the bad guys are the good guys.
Westerns do quite well at the box office, but they are still relatively rare in Hollywood. Why is it?
They’re pretty darn expensive, as with anything rule-related. But it’s getting cheaper and cheaper – with CGI for example, you can now create cities. In the 1950s, there were probably 20 coming out a week, and then it slowed down. Westerns strangely resemble vampires.
With ‘Hostiles’ and ‘Sweet Country’ it seems like the genre is darkening.
The perception of the western is that it’s all about frontier and lawlessness so you can actually play much darker characters and journeys. Everyone loves a good western even if it is a little darker. But it’s okay to be darker, that’s the whole point. With issues like racism, if you put it in the past it’s much more digestible for an audience than if you show it today.
How would you like to make movies in Hollywood?
It is not a financial effort for me. If I make five really good movies in my life, it’s a lot better than 25 bad ones. I do films quite rarely and they must be important to me. But I have three scripts that are ready to go.
Are you going to make another western soon?
About a week ago I got a western script that I haven’t read. What I do is dictated by the budget but another western might be worth pursuing – to put all the clichés back in place!