Arch Nicholson’s Dark Age was completed in 1987 but it was never released theatrically and only got a DVD release belatedly. That makes last month’s screening at Palace Central Cinemas in Sydney the world debut of this remarkable film on the big screen. On the face of it, Dark Age is a horror film, revolving around a giant crocodile that wreaks havoc in Darwin and the Kakadu. As so often occurs, however, these genre trappings allow Nicholson and screenwriters Sonia Borg, Stephen Cross and Tony Morphett to explore insights that wouldn’t have been permissible, in the same way, in mainstream Australian cinema at this time, let alone mainstream Australian cinema designed to arrive at an international market.
As a horror film, Dark Age works brilliantly, since while the crocodile itself might occasionally be underwhelming, Nicholson compensates with amazing tableaux shot across and around the surface of the water, building an elastic sense of space through sinuous tracking-shots that recapitulate the crocodile’s sliding movement even when it’s not immediately present. No space in the film feels entirely extricable from the surface of the water, as Nicholson taps into the mercurial weather of the wet season, and the accompanying awareness that even the driest of roads and riverbeds might be flooded at a moment’s notice, or with the next big storm. Most of the action takes place at the mouth of the Darwin River, the estuarine nexus between sea and land, which further intensifies this sense of porosity, and this feeling that the water cycle is omnipresent in all its fluctuations and iterations, even or especially in what appears to be the most secure and sequestered of terrestrial environments. In addition, that estuarine backdrop allows Nicholson to riff a bit on Jaws without losing sight of the peculiarly Australian horror of saltwater crocodiles – and this crocodile is always strangest and scariest when it emerges from the ocean, culminating with a terrific sequence in which it makes an appearance in the Darwin Harbour waterfront.
From the very outset of the film, Nicholson also plays with the relationship between this crocodile and the local indigenous population, and the ways in which horror films, more generally, tend to equate indigenous subjectivity with the most dangerous or threatening animals in any given ecosystem. In an early scene, a collection of white characters are trapped in a car in a flooded river, and hemmed in by a series of threatening point-of-view shots that seem to betoken both the gaze of the crocodile and a broader, more amorphous indigenous gaze. In a wry twist, however, these point-of-view shots are attached to a friendly combination of white and indigenous locals who help the men to escape their car and the river. Similarly, the first people to be taken by the crocodile are local poachers – the characters in the film who use racist epithets, suggest using indigenous locals as bait, and continuously disregard the advice of local indigenous characters. This first wave of “victims” of the crocodile aren’t entirely depleted, however, and remain around the fringes of the action, repeatedly blaming the indigenous population for the “savagery” of the crocodile and the land, and generating a mob mentality that finally turns into a genocidal imperative.
Beyond this first wave of racist characters, the film focuses on two key stakeholders in the fate of the crocodile. On the one hand, there is the local white government, spearheaded by Rex Garret, played by Ray Meagher, who want to kill the crocodile as quickly as possible, in order to prevent bad publicity spreading, since this might forestall a potential Japanese investment in luxury condominiums that are planned for part of a local national park. On the other hand, there is the local indigenous population, spearheaded by Oondabund, played by Burnum Burnum, and Adjaral, played by David Gulpilil. Not only do Ondabund and Adjaral not want to kill the crocodile, which goes by the name of Numunwurri in their mythology, but they believe that it is not possible. In between these two factions is Steve Harris, played by John Jarratt, a wildlife ranger who only wants to kill the crocodile because he believes that protecting it, and endangering more lives, will damage the push for crocodile conservation more generally. At first, Steve is a voice of moderation, reminding the indigenous folk that “the only way to change the system is to be a part of it.” As the film proceeds, however, he radicalizes, and quickly ends up aligning himself with the local indigenous stewards of the land, much to the local government’s chagrin: “You’re not Aboriginal, you can’t do things their way.” “Well, our way certainly hasn’t got us anywhere.”
Harris’ gradual shift in ideology over the course of the film stems from his gradual realisation of the importance Numunwurri has for Oondabund, Adjaral and the local indigenous population. Oondabund explains that Numunwurri is part of the Dreaming, so integral to the landscape that he effectively is the landscape. For years, the indigenous people have fed sacred bones to Numunwurri, making him one of the main animals to mediate their relation to the landscape, and maintain their synergy with the landscape. Killimg Numunwurri is thus as inconceivable as removing the landscape, or removing the indigenous people from their landscape, meaning that killing Numunwurri effectively recapitulates the horror of colonialism,. It’s no coincidence that Rex, the character who is most determined to raze the landscape for condominiums, is also the most dismissive of the role of the Dreaming. It’s a nice touch he’s played by Meagher, the actor who would become Ray on Home and Away – a campy emblem of the true blue Aussie, whose modus operandi here is to discuss indigenous people in third person whenever they’re in the room.
Nor is it a coincidence that Numunwurri only started killing humans when whites arrives in Australia, internalising the trauma of colonialism as a function of the landscape itself. As Oondabund explains, Numunwurri used to be a human, or at least amenable to humans, but grew hostile when he was taken away from his home, turning him into a figure of displaced indigenous sovereignty. This leads to Steve and Oondabund’s joint decision to catch Numunwurri and return him to his original home, a billabong far inland, where he can be restored to his rightful relation to the land, and properly mediate the indigenous relation to the land once again. There’s something utopian about Steve and Oondabund’s decision to become joint custodians of Numunwurri, especially at this moment in Australian cinema, that turns the process of capturing Numunwurri into a kind of false ending. Instead, Nicholson reserves the real suspense of the third act for their efforts to return Numunwurri to his billabong before the last residue of the first wave of racists can catch up to them.
The last part of the film follows this process, in what amounts to a sustained chase sequence in which the racist posse gather their forces and set out for the billabong on Oondabund, Adjaral and Steve’s trail. In a remarkably lyrical sequence, Nicholson takes us through a cross-section of top end topographies, from sugar canes fields to deserts, as if to evoke the sheer panorama of landscapes that are still nurtured and envisaged by indigenous respect and stewardship of the land. Meanwhile, the posse converge genocide and ecocide, as their definition of vermin expands beyond Numunwurri, Oondabund and Adjaral to the landscape they have claimed and protected, culminating with an incredible set piece by the billabong that condenses the struggle for indigenous sovereignty to a battle between Oondabund and the most virulent of the racists, with Adajaral forced into collateral damage. In the opening parts of the film, the synth score occasionally feels cheesily “exotic,” but here it works perfectly as a strategy for trying to capture a genuinely syncretic, synthetic dialogue between whites and indigenous people that hasn’t yet been formulated by Australian film.
For all the sublimity and gravity of this closing vision of indigenous sovereignty, part of what makes the film so effective – and prevents it simply sinking into a white savior complex – is its campy sense of humour, and its refusal to let its own moral protestations overshadow Burnum Burnum and David Gulpilil’s presence and power. To that end, Nicholson often treats white people as an anthropological curiosity, especially during the campy squabbles between Steve and his ex-girlfriend Cathy, played by Nikki Coghill, who happens to be an anthropologist herself. The sheer presence of indigenous culture makes white courtship seem ridiculous, or contrived, while Nicholson archly refames stereotypes of Australian wholesomeness into emblems of racism, giving all of the genocidal-ecocidal posse names like “Bluey” and “Smithy.” The depiction of the top end is similarly campy, with many of the freshwater sites often recalling early colonial paintings in their inability, or unwillingness, to get the landscape just right, or to completely take it on its own terms. Yet whereas early colonial artists often imported European cues to the Australian landscape, these vistas feel more designed for American audiences, often looking more like a Florida bayou than an Australian billabong. And it’s that slightly campy artificiality, and its scepticism of white authenticity, that makes Dark Age so durable, and so ahead of its time in its self-probing vision of indigenous-white dialogue – too far ahead, it appears, to be released in its time.