A Girl of the Bush opens with an inter-title that immediately encapsulates the proudly Australian sentiment of the film.
The celebrated words of Dorothea MacKellar appear on screen:
I love a sunburnt country
a land of sweeping plains
of rugged mountain ranges
of droughts and flooding rains.
After an unsuccessful prospecting trip, we are told, Keane and Denver had ‘selected’ a strip of country on the ‘edge of civilisation’. John Tulloch maintains this detail is significant in that it could suggest the romance of a new country, with the farm station representing culture or the struggling figure of the pioneer-settler clinging on to life 1. Further visuals of the station, depicting a cultivated garden and well-furnished house, seem to suggest the former proposition.
Keane, a widower, has adopted Lorna and she represents for him a link to his inheritance. Robertson Davies recounts in The Mirror of Nature that often in melodrama father-figures have no wives and so their honour is embodied by the daughter. She replaces the mother-figure of the plot exemplifying her loyalty and virtue. Certainly, he argues, in the nineteenth century, the daughter is conceived of as the feminine virtuous element of rural life 2.
The rural life of A Girl of the Bush was meticulously recreated to mimic real experience on a station. Franklyn Barrett’s highly praised photography included shots of sheep crossing the river, and of Lorna supervising the shearing and observing the wool being laid out and packed in to bales. Indeed, these scenes were among the most remarked upon sequences in the film.
The Picture Show Trade Supplement described how every phase of shearing is depicted, and it ‘provides a most artistic and interesting setting’. The article added that ‘the shearers themselves play small parts in these scenes, as the local residents do in others, thus ensuring correct types’ 3. Only ‘correct types’ were presumably acceptable to play the part of the shearer, a true representative of the hard-working, honest labourer of the outback.
‘Types’ were a staple element of silent film. As Sally Speed noted in her thesis, ‘Women film-makers in Australia’, they were ‘familiar and meaningful to the audience brought up on the melodrama of stage and vaudeville’ 4.
The realism of the shearing scenes and their ‘correct types’ was also commented on by a New Zealand review which described ‘the organised energy of the shearing shed, the dipping, the branding of steers and the breaking of colts’ 5. The concern of Barrett and critical reviews of the time with the realism of these scenes of outback life was echoed by a fan letter to Vera James:
I had the good fortune to witness your interpretation of the role of “A Girl of the Bush” and considered it a true interpretation of the role. I think I know of what I am speaking as I have been on a station. You were the real thing in that role 6.
It was not only the realism of scenes of bush life that captured the attention of contemporary reviewers. The Picture Show article on the film declared that just because A Girl of the Bush is essentially an Australian story, this does not prevent it from representing other than bush life: ‘There are many scenes laid in and around Sydney, particularly in the slum regions, where a realistic two-up raid has been staged’ 7.
The New Zealand review goes further to say that ‘even – for presumably no picture of Australian life would be complete with out it – a Sydney “two-up” academy and a most realistic police raid’ are shown’ 8.
The discrepancy between these two reviews is revealing. The Picture Show critic clearly viewed the depiction of bush life as essentially Australian. The scenes of “two-up” in Sydney add dimension to the plot but are not representative of ‘real’ Australian life. The New Zealand reviewer however incorporated the city and scenes of the ‘inevitable slums’ into a wider depiction of Australian life.
This anomaly can be seen as representative of the Australian bush myth or legend being perpetrated, not only by the film-maker, but by critics as well. It is a further example of critics reliving and embellishing the imagery of films in their reviews in the same terms as delivered to them by the film itself.
The virtues of bush life, as opposed to the evils of the city are effectively demonstrated in A Girl of the Bush by the characterisations of the hero, Tom Wilson, and the villainous Oswald Keane. Oswald, the nephew of old man Keane, also lives on the station. Unlike for Lorna, ‘country life is purgatory’ for him. The characterisation of Oswald is conveyed in early sequences through his idleness on the station.
While Lorna involves herself in daily chores, Oswald is depicted alongside her, idly smoking and spouting talk of gambling. He is shabbily dressed and makes furtive glances toward Lorna. His status as untrustworthy and a voyeur and seducer of women is confirmed by further inter-titles. Oswald has frequently been afflicted by debt due to gambling, and has been saved by his uncle from the ‘vengeance of the blacks who would have killed you for interfering with their gins [sic]’.
'You would not be so cruel as to leave me now?' Mary Burns to Oswald Keane. A Girl of the Bush (1921)
Oswald not only has seduced Aboriginal women, but a white woman as well. The audience is introduced to Mary Burns. She is the struggling pioneer whose father is often away from home searching for the elusive yellow gold. Interposing shots of Oswald furtively concealed behind a bush and Mary’s father leaving the shanty home further convey the untrustworthy, cowardly nature of Oswald’s character.
His attitude toward Mary is clearly casual when he tells her he is leaving for the city. She, on the other hand, clings to him, opening displaying her desperation and dependence. She pleads: ‘You would not be so cruel as to leave me now?’ From the outset then, Oswald has convincingly been portrayed as possessing villainous intent toward women and as detached from bush life.
The hero of A Girl of the Bush, in marked contrast, is an honest hard-working man who is liked by all. The Picture Show declared that ‘Jack Martin, as the young engineer, has such good looks and youthful energy that even the least impressionable girl is going to fall in love with him at first sight…’ 9.
The audience is first introduced to the hero, Tom Wilson, as he brushes past Lorna in the doorway of the General Store at Bundallili. Although everything is checked off on his shopping list, Tom goes back into the store ostensibly to enquire about men’s recreation but really to talk to Lorna.
Use of the close-up revealed to the audience the immediate favour Lorna bestows on Tom. She smiles openly at him as he brushes past her, while earlier she had been seen to recoil at the touch of Oswald. Later Tom is depicted, again in contrast to Oswald, helping Lorna on the station.
A later complication in the plot provides the perfect opportunity to display Tom’s decency and likeability. In the wrong place at the wrong time, he is accused of the murder of Oswald. In the process, his character is fully restored, due to his popularity with the country folk: ‘The men of Kangaroo Flat followed the trial with a keen interest. They refused to believe Tom Wilson guilty of such a crime. Tom is revealed by the plot and by visual technique to be a man worthy of our heroine, Lorna.
Next: The plot thickens…!
Feature image: A Girl of the Bush, 1921, National Film and Sound Archive
- John Tulloch, Legends on the Screen, the narrative film in Australia 1919-1929, Currency Press, Sydney, 1981, p377 ↩
- Robertson Davies, The Mirror of Nature, the Alexander Lectures, University of Toronto Press, Toronto, 1982, p54 and p65 ↩
- The Picture Show Trade Supplement, 1 December 1920, p67 ↩
- Sally Speed, ‘Women film-makers in Australia (1920-1933)’, B.A. Honours thesis, Australian National University, 1984, p40 ↩
- New Zealand review for the Octagon Theatre, April 1921 in Vera James scrapbook of news clippings held by the National Film and Sound Archive in Canberra ↩
- Fan letter to Vera James from Mr Guthrie Street of Brisbane, dated 18 September 1921 in a box of memorabilia of Vera James held by the National Film and Sound Archive ↩
- The Picture Show, 1 March 1921, p33 ↩
- New Zealand review of A Girl of the Bush found in Vera James scrapbook held by the National Film and Sound Archive ↩
- The Picture Show, 1 March 1921, p34 ↩