Ever since Voltaire penned L’Ingénu, about a young French-Canadian in France, there has been a stream of storytelling which has used the observations of a naive outsider to comment on metropolitan society. Crocodile Dundee owes not a little of its success abroad to the fact that it draws on this tradition: the whole film, when not explicitly challenging America, can be read as questioning modern values. As everyone knows, this comment has not come in classic fashion from within the metropolitan society; both Crocodile Dundee and the earlier The Adventures of Barry McKenzie (set in Britain) are clearly Australian comedies playing on Australia’s image and identity. Nevertheless the two strands are inseparable. Both become ‘revenge’ films, striking back through comedy at the sources of power and sophistication, and are perfectly happy to use metropolitan actors to make their point (and their dollars) all the more effectively.
The Australian film revival effectively began with Bruce Beresford’s The Adventures of Barry McKenzie (1972). Already this film was a considerable advance upon Ted Kotcheff’s Wake In Fright (1971), which was not only shot by a Canadian director on location, but used an English actor to take the part of a Sydney schoolteacher in the Outback, vaguely longing for a nice quiet life in England. By comparison, Bazza was unequivocally Australian. Quite justifiably, Barry Humphries has claimed that Barry McKenzie was the ‘midwife’ of Paul Hogan and the ocker advertisements.1 Now that Hogan himself has devised a character for export in Crocodile Dundee, the earlier film is worth a second look.
Barry McKenzie began as a comic strip in Private Eye, and to the band of public school sophisticates running that satirical magazine it seemed that the author was scarcely exaggerating the ways of his countrymen. In fact, Humphries being Humphries, he was putting into Barry’s mouth many expressions of his own devising. Some people back in Australia thought he was paying his dues for admission to metropolitan circles; but if it was not altogether obvious in the comic strip as it trickled out in fortnightly instalments, in the film it was perfectly plain that Humphries’ targets were as much English as Australian. A London taxi driver takes Barry and Edna from Heathrow to Earl’s Court, via Stonehenge; when they get there, the gas meter needs to be fed with one pound notes. It was said at the time that serious thought was given to filming in Calcutta, since that was the way most Australians viewed London when they first arrived.
The ambivalent stance of the film is even more apparent in some of its incidents. The improbable scene at the Gorts’, which ends in chaos with the mother raging as her scheme for thumbstruck Sarah falls apart, while Mr Gort is begging to be thrashed, not surprisingly sends Barry scuttling into the night. It becomes quite horrific in filmic realisation, compared with the minimally suggestive black and white of the comic strip. Yet it is not only a certain kind of middlebrow English life which is mercilessly sent up here: the whole scene is crucial to the film, and to Humphries’ understanding of Australian-British relations, in that both sides have ludicrous expectations of each other. Edna relentlessly calls the cardiganed housewife ‘Lady Gort’, while Mrs Gort imagines that Bazza is the heir to McKenzie pastoral millions. There is, as F.B. Smith once remarked, ‘a clash of false gentilities’; both sides in this skirmish retire defeated. The idea worked because Australia and England were still close enough to be locked in some kind of dialogue, if not dialectic. The English of twenty and thirty years ago, if not quite so much today, had definite ideas of their own as to what Australia ought to be.
A picaresque hero, Bazza passes through a series of adventures on his quest. But he is so little the knight errant (or the bronzed Aussie) that, to the disgust of a producer of television commercials, he can barely sit satisfactorily on horseback. Exactly what he is seeking, apart from Foster’s and consummations devoutly to be wished, is not clear: tribal instinct and an inheritance have brought him to England in a kind of yobbo’s parody of the Grand Tour. For Bazza, England is not so much a mystic land as a totally unfathomable one. A seemingly blank Australian on whom people can project their own images or fantasies, Barry good-naturedly goes along with this as far as he can. Constant scheming and conniving sail past him almost unnoticed, along with glimpses of sexual aberration: Bazza’s two-dimensional origins in a comic strip give him a rubbery resilience that somehow keeps him intact and coming back for more. As anyone who has seen the film will remember, Bazza remains somewhat more intact than he would like: never have the sexual gaucheries of a certain kind of Australian been more devastatingly portrayed.
In all of this — or much of it — Barry is accompanied by his Svengali, or more correctly a Trilby answering to the name of Edna, wicked old Barry Humphries himself. In addition to her tutelary role, Edna assumes a mediatory one, thereby expressing an older generation’s residual affection towards England. Bazza, on the other hand, represents the young nation on the eve of the Whitlam victory. He is the Lucky Country personified: crude but easy-going, innocent and disaster-prone but resilient, and burdened with considerable doubts about his maturity — sexual, and by extension, national. It is not an entirely happy prognosis that, apart from stating that he was just beginning to like the Poms, Bazza should fly back to Australia totally unaffected by his experiences.
In a sense, Mick Dundee is totally unaffected by his, too. But there is a world of difference between Bazza’s experiences in England and Crocodile Dundee’s conquest of America — now being re-enacted at the box office. The jaunty, ocker-confident manner of Mick, and of Hoges himself, is at one with the success of Peter Allen, Robert Hughes, Rupert Murdoch, and our brief flutter with the America’s Cup: not young Australians re-enacting ancient rites of passage to the former seat of imperial power, but rather increasingly assertive people already in mid-career who are determined to take on America, because it’s there. It is entirely symbolic that Mick’s tutelary figure, Walter Reilly (John Mellion) should be cast away, cushiony voice and all, as Crocodile Dundee heads for the Big Apple. (Which, he’s sophisticated enough to know, isn’t Tasmania.)
Mick is given the big treatment by Hoges and his collaborating screenwriter. The rest of the world is introduced to him gently: the film opens with a phone conversation between Sue Charlton (Linda Kozlowski) and her editor in New York. Speaking from a plush Sydney office, the Opera House and Harbour sparkling behind her. Sue gets permission to follow up a story about the intrepid survivor of an encounter with a crocodile. So she descends on Walkabout Creek, and is met by the cravat-wearing Reilly who, representing civilised values, acts as guide among the rough australoid innocents of the town. They go to the pub; a knife thrown at the wall announces the arrival of Mick, who saunters in with a stuffed crocodile. (The sexuality of crocs in the north can be a bit of a problem. Recently one which went under the name of Charley suddenly had to become Charlene. It then proceeded to eat people.) Quite sensibly, the ambiguous charms of Cyril are immediately cast aside by Mick for the real thing.
Together they go into the bush. It’s a very beautiful Top End we are shown: enough water to quench a hundred droughts, and apart from the arrival by helicopter in Walkabout Creek, practically no dust at all. The comedy of the film in these sequences is almost invariably effective: Mick shaving with a razor until the American girl draws near, whereupon he switches to his hunting knife; or again, Mick donning a kangaroo costume to fire back at roo hunters. They, of course, are dismissed as ‘city cowboys’.
In his resourceful, no-questions-asked approach to problems, Mick comes close to endorsing, as Veronica Brady has pointed out, a New Right approach to politics and life.2 The roo-shooting incident may be harmless enough, since it draws its effectiveness from the old ‘If only the kangaroos had guns, too’ sentiment, and is a kind of wry award of just deserts. But when in New York Mick knocks out a bag snatcher with a well-thrown soup can, or pulls his knife on a menacing Puerto Rican, it isn’t quite enough to cap it with a broad ocker grin and a weak Tarzan yell. Hogan may afford pleasant relief from the macho antics of Rambo, but we come a little closer to the Sylvester Stallone world of Cobra all the same. Hogan here holds the same tenet: the right of every man to act as moral arbiter — if he can. If he can’t, he can fantasise, and applaud the celebrated case of the man in the New York subway who took the law into his own hands and gunned down young marauders.
The most obvious danger of such morality is that it is extremely narrowly based. Rarely has its bankruptcy been so exposed as in Crocodile Dundee, though quite unwittingly. The frontier code is simply not up to dealing with the complexities of the modern world, but Australian laconicism and skepticism dangerously make it seem perfectly serviceable. When Sue talks of her ex-husband protesting fashionable causes, he’s obviously ‘a ratbag’. When again she asks what views does Mick hold on nuclear arms, he replies, ‘Not my business’. So she argues with him, saying he ought to have a voice. ‘Who’d hear it here?’, he asks. Mick’s nihilism is as cock-sure as his sexism.
Somewhat desperate by now. Sue asks him about the Aborigines and land rights. She’s told that the land is 600 million years old, so that any dispute between Aborigines and white men about who owns it ‘is like two fleas arguing over who owns the dog’. So there. Not content with that, the film subtly undermines Aborigines in other ways. A black enters, dressed up for a corroboree; he turns out to be Mick’s mate Nev, and he is, of course, doing all this only because his father wants him to. Nev looks at his watch and says he must be getting along; Hoges, we’ve already been shown, doesn’t need one. (David Gulpilil should never have agreed to take this part.) Later, to establish his credibility, Hoges joins the Aborigines as they dance. Instead of decorations, sunburn cream is smeared on his face.
The opening shot of the film, that of a newspaper building in New York, signals the magnetism of the metropolis. Mick succumbs: Sue wants him to go back with her as some kind of trophy, the basis of more stories perhaps, whereas he decides he might as well go and give the city a look-over. Besides, there’s romantic possibility. So Mick is very different from Bazza. Instead of bumbling along from one adventure to the next, he goes straight to the top. He doesn’t stay in Earl’s Court-style dives, but in the best hotels, and is introduced to great and powerful friends: although he may not be socially adept, still he’s nobody’s fool, and gets by well enough on account of his exoticism. Besides, as Peter Sellers showed with Chauncey Gardiner, Americans will make all sorts of allowances for those who have somehow got to the point of Being There.
Yet, as in The Adventures ofBarry McKenzie, a good deal of the humour arises from Crocodile Dundee’s provincial responses to the big city. He assumes people are driving on the wrong side of the road, and when told the size of New York, says it must be a friendly place with all those people living there. He is so friendly himself that he doesn’t recognise whores for what they are. When Mick later sights one with an elderly gent at a party he remarks that it’s nice of Simone to be dancing with her father. Sexual deviancy is a bit of a problem for him, too, as it was for Bazza; only Mick’s technique with probable transvestites is to put matters to the test with a full frontal grope. For much of the film, though, he is no more successful than Bazza in sexual matters: at the crucial moment somebody always appears. But there’s no doubt that this highly purposeful man will get his girl, despite a well-placed rival. ‘Getting’ any woman is quite beyond poor Bazza.
Indeed, whereas Barry McKenzie seemed to bring out the worst in people, Mick Dundee seems to transform them: it’s as if New York succumbs to his barrage of ‘G’day’s’. Mick insists on treating people as individuals, and it seems to work. A New York cop on horse-back finds him lost and drops him back at his hotel, with a cheery ‘Take it easy, Mick’; the commissionaire gradually comes to smile and talk, the negro chauffeur becomes a mate. Australian ‘naturalness’ seems to carry all before it. While this reinforces Australians’ image of themselves as the world’s good blokes, what is surprising is that the film’s valuation has been accepted extraordinarily widely. The Guardian of London, which usually cannot resist a tilt at Australia whenever the opportunity arises, actually concluded its review by saying
Crocodile Dundee isn’t a very ambitious film, but it is one of those popular entertainments that doesn’t pour treacle all over you. In fact, it almost makes you like the human race.3
Part of the explanation for Crocodile Dundee’s extraordinary success overseas lies in the cult following of another film from the ends of the earth, the South African-made The Gods Must Be Crazy. Although primarily concerned with following the adventures of a Bushman from the Kalahari, the film has other purposes. It includes another American woman working in a newspaper office, only this time in Johannesburg: she actually flees the modern world to seek in Botswana a primitive one attuned to enduring values. And there is a Dundee figure for her to encounter, the Afrikaner Andrew Steyn (impeccably credentialled by his surname, that of the last President of the Orange Free State). Technically proficient, but diffident to the point of being a stumblebum, he projects the Afrikaner image of themselves as decent, misunderstood fellows who are good managers. It is Steyn who tallies the animals in the game reserve, who intervenes to protect a Bushman from African oppression, and who later applies that Bushman’s technology to save a group of hostages. The fact that he keeps tripping over himself when face to face with the American, Kate Thompson, only demonstrates that at bottom he’s quite loveable. Her kiss concluding the film could be taken to signify the Afrikaner’s acceptance in the international community. As the world’s polecat, a Dundee-like apotheosis is denied him.
At the end of the nineteenth century, Social Darwinism had given rise to a belief in the ‘Coming Man’, a physically more perfect variety of manhood which would arise, generally from Anglo-Saxon stock, in North America, Australasia, and South Africa. As Richard White has demonstrated, many of the characteristics now seen to be exclusively Australian were in fact attributed to the new men in these countries: the swashbuckling contents of a Young Australia, published in London in 1893, were simply repackaged with different titles for each Empire country. Both The Gods Must Be Crazy and Crocodile Dundee signal the arrival of the Coming Man. In a context of increasing political conservatism, we hear less perhaps of his generosity and comradeship, but the much lauded qualities of self-reliance, resourcefulness and a probing restlessness present themselves for admiration once again. Mick Dundee in New York becomes like the Australian soldiers admired by Bean, who ‘Took everything on its merits and nothing on authority’.4 As a way of dealing with the complexities of modern life this can seem attractive, particularly as disillusion with urban living, pollution and the nuclear threat has led many to feel that somewhere civilisation has taken a wrong turning. There seems to be a promise of renewal for the centres of civilisation in heeding Hogan’s personal qualities, and directness: he exudes authenticity, even if it is closely related to that once found in a frontier America now long gone and unrecapturable. Hogan’s comic misreadings of New York therefore gratify Americans, for in compensation he gives them a feeling of cultural superiority.
It is significant that the two turning points in recent Australian cinema have been the two films most concerned with the country’s image abroad: The Adventures of Barry McKenzie, the first real success of the new cinema, and now Crocodile Dundee, the first mainstream Australian commercial success overseas. But whereas the first film was basically apologetic, the second is fully in character with the aggressive nationalism of the Age of the Winged Keel. To have the ocker abroad accepted for himself, and still cheerfully pull in the crowds, would be triumph enough; but to have sophisticated New Yorkers see the daughter of a city newspaper proprietor take off her shoes and run after her frontiersman, who eventually in a crowded subway jumps up like a sheep dog and walks over the top of people to join his girlfriend (to the cheers of more New Yorkers on the crowded platform) is triumph indeed.
Jim Davidson is a prizewinning biographer. His account of Clem Christesen’s Meanjin, along with Stephen Murray-Smith’s Overland, appears next year from Melbourne University Publishing under the title Emperors in Lilliput.
- Jim Davidson, ‘A Fugitive Art: An Interview with Barry Humphries’, Meanjin 2/1986, p. 165.
- Veronica Brady in the Age, 31 January 1987, p. 3.
- Derek Malcolm, Guardian Weekly, 21 December 1986, p. 2
- Richard White, Inventing Australia: Images and Identity 1688-1980 (Sydney, 1981) especially pp. 83, 104, and 126.