A slice of meat pie: the Western Australian kind

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While watching movies on the Criterion Channel with David Gulipuli, I started looking for these types of movies set in the Outback, aka “the bush”. This is Australia’s real estate, an untamed land where its settlers must learn to survive. The Outback is also a piece of beautiful naturalism where nothing has changed drastically since humans started settling, but the human density residing here is still low. This huge plot of land has been used in Australian cinema for more than a century, establishing the “meat pie western” in contrast to the American style of the genre.

The name is cited as early as the 1970s by the film historian Eric Reade in his book History and Heartburn when describing the genus. This sentence was written in the same way as the genre of spaghetti western films produced in Italy. When Australians, from when the British colonized the country, began to settle and explore the Outback, they encountered the rugged terrain and an arid climate. Isolated from the big cities, it becomes a breeding ground for new establishments and wandering criminals. It was also an open stage for storytellers and on screen.

So it was no surprise that when it came to telling a story about the region, one of the most notorious was produced first. In 1906, The story of the Kelly gang came out, with all the hallmarks of any western. It’s good versus evil, plus gunfights and horseback riding; then there’s the interesting shield that bandits had in real life: metal armor. It hadn’t been seen in any other western. Additionally, the film was the first narrative film to be released worldwide lasting sixty minutes. However, two-thirds of the film is lost, while the remaining third of the film has been restored, including the film’s climax.

Several remakes of Ned Kelly and his exploits have been remade multiple times (Mick Jagger, Heath Ledger and George MacKay have played him), but others, including fictional tales, have also been produced. When films about bushrangers like Kelly were temporarily banned, other areas of bush life were portrayed. In the 1920s, American husband and wife duo Wilfred Lucas and Bess Meredyth were hired to come to Australia and make two films, The Kangaroo Man and Coolabong’s Jackeroo. Both films starred boxer Snowy Baker and depict life in cities while fending off thieves and protecting a woman from trouble.

As sound films came into play, a diverse genre of this same depicted meat pie began to gain support from international studios. Columbia Pictures co-financed 1936’s Rangle River while famed UK Ealing Studios helped fund The Overlanders (1946). Appetizers (1960), another film produced by the British in Australia, starred American actor Robert Mitchum, whose fake Australian accent was poor. While the United States had its Western TV show in gun smoke, Australians had theirs with Whiplash. When the ban on bushranger films was lifted, the growing Australian New Wave of the 1970s began to incorporate outdoor elements into their Outback films.

Inn of the Damned from 1975 mixed Western themes with horror. Mad Dog Morgan, an independent picture starring Dennis Hopper, told the true story of a bushranger with strong violence that could now be shown on screen. And even though it doesn’t look like a meat pie western, George Miller madmax incorporates certain themes, such as a Wild West type setting with a single man trying to fight off an entire gang of criminals. These 1970s films also belonged to another category, the Ozploitation genre, all low-budget feature films focusing on horror, dystopia, sex, and other types of film that took advantage of a freer culture.

Production of films of this genre plummeted in the rest of the century, but around the turn a new kind of western meat pie was being made. As the country re-examined its past relationship with the indigenous community, these new films such as the tracker (2002), Proposal (2005), and Charlie’s Country (2013) have all considered the terrible story of the Stolen Generation. They come in different guises, whether noir or revisionist westerns, set in the past at a particular time. The main directors who explored this era are Rolf de Heer, Warwick Thornton, John Hillcoat and David Michod.

Australia is another nation with a very different culture and style from the American way. Watch another drama set in the Outback, such as walkabout encompasses what it feels like to be there. It has allowed so many films to be shot there dealing with many themes and to invent its own western. It’s a far cry from how we can think of Australia because it’s not Crocodile Dundee. Meat westerns are not for someone like John Wayne playing cowboys and Indians. It’s harder.

Follow me on Twitter: @brian_cine (Cine-A-Man)

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