The Hateful Eight. That’s a four and a half star film if ever I’ve seen one. Shot in Ultra Panavision 70, the film is absolutely gorgeous, and, in some parts, completely disgusting. Heads explode. Limbs explode. Reproductive organs are intermittently fellated and shot off. It’s all part of Tarantino’s grand meditation on racial violence in the 21st century. You’ll leave the cinema with a double handful of standout moments to think over – but the scene that stuck with me the most was when outlaw Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) picks up a guitar and sings Jim Jones at Botany Bay, an Australian folk-song that chronicles the journey of the titular convict to Australia, where he dreams of breaking his shackles and joining up with the bush ranger Jack Donahue.
This little slice of Australiana left me pondering one question:
Where are our Westerns?
Since their inception, Westerns have functioned as the manufactured mythology of cultures without verse or legend. Young nations like America lack the stories of demi-gods and monsters that other countries have possessed for eons; they resort to telling tales of hard men who conquer seemingly untameable wilderness while resisting hordes of ferocious savages, harsh conditions, and deadly diseases.
Of course, given what we know of Colonial history, these engineered myths are incredibly dangerous when used as tools for learning. Watching an older Western is like watching a cover-up. White men are the good guys, Native Americans are the bad guys, and aggressive industrialisation is a celebrated phenomenon.
Recent Westerns upset this status quo; Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man features untranslated Cree and Blackfoot speech, as well as a complex, well-rounded Native American protagonist in the form of Gary Farmer’s Nobody. Andrew Dominik’s The Assassination of Jesse James showed how bloodthirsty that good old boy could be, and Paul Thomas Anderson’s There will be Blood lays bare the corruption inherent to oil companies in the Old West.
But, to the point: we need more of the latter and less of the former. How much do you or I know about our Colonial history? Broad strokes, sure. Aboriginals were here first. We came along. Slaughtered them and took the land. But shit is cool now; we said ‘Sorry’ in 2007. All good! Our understanding of these events leaves a lot to be desired. The problem, for a lot of people – and I won’t leave myself out of this – is that the significance of what came before escapes us.
We’re all taught in school that the owners of this land were simple hunter-gatherers. In truth, they maintained vast agricultural systems that would easily outdo our modern grain belt in complexity and area. We’re all taught in school that Aboriginals were ‘mistreated’ by Colonists, a vaguely euphemistic term that really doesn’t encompass the enormity of the violence inflicted upon Indigenous Australians. We’re all taught a few mispronounced, token words of the local language; we’re never made aware of the tremendous number of languages spoken across this very old continent, and this leads to a homogeneous view of Aboriginal culture. This was an entire civilization laid to waste.
A skilled director could show us all of this, and more. The Western – that most humble and disused genre – could be turned into a tool that fosters greater cultural understanding. And don’t get me wrong; these measures would hardly be a cure-all. And they’d have to be implemented with great input from the Aboriginal community to be effective.
But we’re a country with an incredibly rich film history. Mad Max might as well be compulsory viewing in schools. The Castle still exists as that sacred gem of Australian film history. Why don’t we direct some of that creative energy into places where it could be of real, tangible use?
Picture this: He wears an heirloom possum skin cloak sewn with kangaroo sinews and stitched with clan insignia. Weathered boots and a holstered six-shooter. He knows the land and charts a haphazard course across it, helping those in need and fighting oppression in all its forms. The Man with No Name.