Another name for the Australian Western is the ‘Meat Pie Western’ – a label that also works on symbolic levels. The actual meat – the guts – of the pie is the people: the hardscrabble, hard yakka humans around which any number of bullet-riddled narratives orbit. The pastry symbolises the land, the omnipotent layer binding all elements together. And the inevitable splodge of tomato sauce on top is an obvious stand-in for blood, so often spilled in a genre typically involving lawmen, rough justice, guns and the pursuit of wealth or revenge.
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All these elements are at play in writer/director Roderick MacKay’s new film The Furnace, which arrives in cinemas December 10. Like most Australian Westerns, it involves a great deal of walking – far more than your average Fitbit target. Not that the rough-as-guts blokes in the film had access to wearable technology.
But hitting 10,000 steps in a day? Pfft. Try multiplying that by 10 and doing it on a sun-scorched landscape pockmarked by men wielding firearms in the eye-for-an-eye days of the late 19th century.
The title refers to an object that the two principal characters – Afghan cameleer Hanif (Ahmed Male) and wounded, bloody bushman Mal (David Wenham) – are desperate to access. It can boil down bricks of stolen gold to make them untraceable. Many things get in the way and the journey is fraught and dangerous, but watching the film is a pleasure – a rock solid addition to the Meat Pie canon.
With another well-reviewed Aussie Western on the way – director Stephen Johnson’s High Ground, which arrives in cinemas in January – the genre is alive, well, and still thirsty for shoot-outs and spectacle.
Before hitting those films up, it’s best to cover off on the classics. So, with that in mind, here are the six greatest Australian Westerns ever made.
1. Sweet Country (2017)
It’s the most sumptuously styled and grandly staged Australian Western, with a painterly look offsetting a polemical message about Australia’s history as a country built off the back of slavery and racism.
An Aboriginal man (Hamilton Morris) employed as ‘blackstock’ shoots and kills a violent bigot (Ewen Leslie) in self-defence and is pursued across the landscape by a hard-bitten lawman (Bryan Brown). Much of the film, which is set in 1929, is an extended chase scene through striking locations – from scorched red desert to a shimmering salt lake.
Unforgiving landscapes are a common feature in Westerns, where infinite horizons and dusty plains are glued together by a burning orange sun. They make survival the core challenge underneath which every other obstacle sits. Director Warwick Thornton draws a through-line to the present day, taking his Biblical-esque narrative into an incendiary politically charged finale.
2. The Overlanders (1946)
An old-timey spirit of adventure fuels this 1946 Saturday matinee classic, which is another story about a long, hard, Fitbit-exploding slog across outback Australia.
True blue cross-country action is spearheaded by a drover named Dan (the great Chips Rafferty) who, with World War II raging and a palpable threat of Japanese invasion, is instructed to kill his 1,000 cattle as part of a scorched earth policy – leave nothing behind.
Instead, the cavalier Dan declares he will “overland them”, moving the cattle across three states towards the ocean via very large slab of land covering coastal plains, shrubs, desert and crocodile-filled water. People think he’s crazy but of course he’s just bloody fair dinkum.
The energy of the film, directed by Harry Watt, hasn’t faded over the years, boosted by a yee-haw, horns-blasting score and constant sense of movement, narratively and geographically.
3. The Nightingale (2018)
Revenge is a common theme in Westerns, but rarely does the pursuit of it register with the gooseflesh-raising impact of writer/director Jennifer Kent’s devastatingly great film, in which rugged Tasmanian wilderness provides a wetter and greener counterpoint to dusty sand-clogged desert.
The film, set in 1825 in a Tasmanian penal colony, follows Irish convict Clare (Aisling Franciosi) who is gang-raped by police, who then murder her husband and accidentally kill her infant baby. She enlists an Aboriginal tracker (Baykali Ganambarr) to help her find them for vengeance’s sake.
Critics and commentators used words like “not for the faint-hearted” to describe The Nightingale’s shocking depictions of violence, but nothing can prepare viewers for the visceral charge of witnessing it. Kent dares us to keep watching, as if to say: turning away from this means turning a blind eye to a long history of entrenched misogyny. Presented in a boxed-in 4:3 ratio, which has a psychologically condensing effect, the film has a commanding style from whoa to go.
4. Inn Of The Damned (1975)
Widely considered a work of Ozploitation due its pulpy vibe and forays into schlock, director Terry Bourke’s under-appreciated film is actually more in the style of a Spaghetti Western, beginning with a jaunty Leone-esque horse-and-carriage ride set to the tune of a rousing Morricone knock-off.
Early in the piece, we meet an unfortunate couple staying the night at the titular inn in Gippsland, Victoria, in 1896. They are brutally murdered in their sleep, but Bourke stages the scene in a way that obscures who (or what) is pushing them into the great beyond.
The location becomes a kind of Bates Motel Down Under, run by two wicked old timers (Dame Judith Anderson and Joseph Furst) who operate an elaborate death machine that works alarmingly well. Suspicious parties come a-knocking, culminating in a suspenseful showdown involving a hero (Alex Cord) determined to outsmart the oldies. It is an unforgettably good ending – so good it pushes the film into greatness.
5. True History Of The Kelly Gang (2020)
How do you begin to tell a ‘true’ story about a man whose life has become a kind of campfire narrative, hard-wired into the national ethos? You lean into the legend; you explore subordination of man to myth.
Director Justin Kurzel again teamed with screenwriter Shaun Grant (they worked together on Snowtown) to adapt Peter Carey’s Booker Prize-winning novel about old mate bucket head himself, played by a (gasp!) beardless George MacKay, who indulges in a bit of (gasp!) crossdressing with other members of the Kelly gang.
“Nothing you’re about to see is true,” reads the opening text, setting the mood for a meta narrative in which a response like “that didn’t happen!” completely misses the point. The idea of Kelly’s life being a process towards fulfilling prophecy is encouraged by his mother (Essie Davis), who implores him to “be who you are meant to be!”
The film’s aesthetic catches up to this idea, hitting hyperdrive in the Glenrowan showdown scene, which is brilliantly weird: a strobe-lit sequence bathed in surreal sounds and images.
6. The Proposition (2005)
Director John Hillcoat’s grisly Nick Cave-penned Western delivers sibling rivalry, betrayal, good old fashioned revenge and another vision of Australia’s violent colonial history.
The story hinges on the titular ultimatum, delivered by Captain Stanley (Ray Winstone) to Charlie Burns (Guy Pearce): track down and kill your psychopathic older brother Arthur (Danny Huston) or your simple-minded younger brother Mikey (Richard Wilson) swings from the gallows. Harsh but, erm… fair?
There is an ugly, gritty texture pasted across the frame and a sense of volatility underscores the drama, fuelling an anxious feeling that things could (and often do) turn very bad very quickly. Guy Pearce delivers one of his pedigree performances, with an energy, a temperament, a banged-up face that screams “rough justice” and “man, I could do with a drink”.
In the hands of cinematographer Benoît Delhomme, the overbearing sun burning above the characters has an intensifying effect, raising the temperature of the drama. There are plenty of shoot-outs, robberies and Cave-written monologues involving tough men delivering roughly poetic ruminations.