Monday, June 8, 2009
The Internet Archive describes this film by pioneer Australian director Charles Chauvel as his attempt to break into the international market. Such an aspiration may explain the weird generic mix Uncivilised presents to the unprepared viewer. In 78 minutes it contains scenes of violent action and almost horrific suspense, lurid romance, fantasies of primtivism, drug addiction and race mixing, and songs. It's as if MGM replaced Johnny Weissmuller in the role of Tarzan with Nelson Eddy or Walter Woolf King, or if Chauvel envisioned his star, Dennis Hoey, as a white Paul Robeson. I don't want to go overboard and call Uncivilised a musical, but it's a very musical film. That's just part of the whole delirious package.
The setting is the northwest part of Australia, "still embalmed in mystery" in 1936. There are rumors that a "wild white man," the orphaned son of missionaries, rules an aboriginal tribe in the region. The authorities wonder whether this mystery man might be involved in the pituri trade. Pituri is "a narcotic desert plant that induces a voluptuous condition," as author Beatrice Lynn is horrified to learn. Her publisher, Mr. Hemmingway, is pushing her to visit the region and write a book about the WWM. She needs fresh subject matter after her last few duds, he insists. "Get a new angle on life," he tells her, "Find this wild white man. Hypnotize him. Make him fall in love with you. Bring back his scalp."
Beatrice is to be escorted into the wild country by Radcliffe, a mounted policeman. Care must be taken because Moopil the Black Killer, mad son of Vitchi the Witch Doctor, is on the prowl. You know he's near when you hear a huge scream; whether its his or a victim's, I couldn't tell you. But Moopil proves to be the least of Bea's problems. The first night out, she's snatched out of her tent by a man in a turban. This film is seventy years ahead of its time in picking an Afghan as its initial villain. This is Akbar Jan, who sells pituri to the aborigines but would like to get in on the more lucrative opium trade. The wild white man doesn't care much for Akbar, but a white woman (that is, a white loobra) may be the Afghan's ticket into a new market. If Bea doesn't like the plan, she could try her luck with Moopil. "If he caught you, you would not live," Akbar advises, "and maybe you would not die, for week." We've seen Moopil do his stuff on a couple of white guys who protest impotently, "Come out, you black devils! Come out, you black hounds of hell!" before getting speared -- just so you keep the threat in mind.
Soon Akbar's gang of snake-eating tribesmen rendezvous with the coneheaded minions of the wild white man. "Well, Miss book writer," Akbar says, "You fat in fire now." We look down on the party as it approaches, from the lofty vantage of Mara, the wild white man himself. Classic movie fans could only reel at the thought I planted in my last post, that this is none other than Dennis Hoey, who played Inspector Lestrade in several of Basil Rathbone's Sherlock Holmes pictures for Universal in the 1940s. Here he is barefoot, bare chested, and in full voice as he gives some love call along the lines of "Oh, eye-oh, EYE-OHH!" When Akbar and Bea arrive in his village of bare-breasted women, he ceremoniously lays hands on the white woman. "I put hand on shoulder, tribe know you're mine," he explains.
An awkward courtship begins. Mara is very much a savage, noble or not. He has a Tarzan-like power word to command people, "kilowati" (in my approximation) translating roughly to "ungaawa." His table matters are atrocious, provoking the otherwise terrified Bea to laugh her head off. Akbar needs to explain things to the white chief. "White mens and white womans have many different customs," he relates, "It is for the white woman to speak. She must say no or yes....Do not forget, Mara, you are white."
"Sometimes I do forget," Mara confesses. But something holds him back when he might otherwise manhandle the defiant Beatrice. He throws her to the floor when she slaps him, but he softens quickly and promises that no one will hurt her. Grabbing on to this glimmer of hope, Bea writes in her journal, "He is not all savage. Can I rely upon his white instincts for protection?"
The plot thickens with the arrival of Trask, a white opium dealer. He's been an occasional visitor in Mara's village, without revealing his real objective. Mara's parents were rather rich for missionaries. Among their unaccounted-for possessions, beside Mara himself (nee Marvin), are the Van Druyten rubies, "worth more than all the opium in China" in Trask's estimate. Akbar has been trying to find the rubies in order to trade them with Trask for opium. Trask is trying to avoid the middleman by getting the rubies from Sondra, the resident half-caste. Now follow the trail of drama: Beatrice Lynn resists the advances of Mara, for whom Sondra pines jealously, she herself being the love object of both Akbar and Vitchi the witch doctor (who has threatened to choke her if Mara won't let him have her), the latter of whom is inciting his son Moopil the Black Killer to attack the village to avenge himself on Mara for various slights. Do you have all that? Very good. Now you can watch Bea take a skinny dip.
Did I mention that Sondra is jealous? Don't take my word for it. "I hate the white woman," she says, "You hear me, I want her to die, to die, but first to go like fire inside, go mad!" This she confides in a witch who hands her some pituri to spike Bea's food with. Recall that pituri induces a "voluptuous" state in users. Up to this point the courtship has been developing gradually, though it is complicated by Mara's ignorance of the word "love." But when Bea suddenly comes on too strong he catches the stink of pituri on her and doesn't like it. He is disillusioned. "I no think of you as woman," he tells her, "I think of you as black men do their totem, their gods. But I fool. You just like other loobras. You eat thing I hate....Pituri woman!" The poor man probably doesn't realize that he's done the right thing. But Bea sets him straight later, after he sobers up: "If you had listened to that pituri," she says, "I would have killed myself."
But things are approaching the breaking point. Moopil the Black Killer is closing in, and the Van Druyten rubies have been found. Mara has been keeping the tribe in line with his charismatic singing in native lingo, like a dancing Mussolini. But the mood grows inexorably darker and the natives get spookier looking, almost fluorescent in their body paint in the black and white cinematography, which looks good even in the Internet Archive copy. There's going to be a showdown or two, or three, as grudges are resolved, secret agendas are revealed, and Beatrice faces a Jane's Choice between the acclaim of civilization and her growing love for the WWM. Of course her struggle is moot if Mara can't survive the big battle between his tribe and Moopil's band -- actually quite the fierce affair with plenty of spear effects, including a fleeting spear-to-the-eye shot.
Again, this is a film I had not heard of until last night. I chose to look at it almost at random while trawling through the Archive's movie holdings. It was a revelation if not an outright apocalypse. Its feverish presentation of aborigines comes as a jolt to someone used to the quite benign portrayal of them in current product. The film's racism gives it a transgressive kick that might be intolerable to some people, but it's not as if we're talking about The Eternal Jew or The Birth of A Nation here. In any event, the movie is so strange in so many ways that the racist bits recede in memory compared to the crowning oddity of Dennis Hoey's extraordinary performance. I can't speak for Uncivilised's box-office success, if it had any abroad, but I have to give Charles Chauvel credit for putting Australia on the map of the wild world of cinema.
Note: the illustrations are thumbnails taken from the Internet Archive. I would have made screen captures myself, but when you pause the Archive player you get a start-button graphic that mars the image. In any event, you can watch the film itself by referring to my previous post, or by visiting the Internet Archive.