Walk Into Paradise sits around the middle of Chips Rafferty’s career, and offers a fascinating vision of both the Australian adventure genre, and Australian perceptions of colonialism, as they stood in the 1950s. Written by Rex Rienits, and directed by Lee Robinson and Marcello Pagliero in a French-Australian production, the film starts as a work of anthropological exotica, introducing us to “the real story of New Guinea” and promising to tell us a tale of “a gallant band of Australian admirals bringing a beacon to the least civilised people on Earth.” Over the course of the film, Robinson and Pagliero are torn between the strangeness of Papua New Guinea (at least to Australians) and the supreme calm of the Australian colonial enterprise, making for an odd combination of thriller and travelogue, danger and relaxation.
The script plays as a microcosm of the colonial process, starting with the discovery of oil in Paradise Valley, an unmapped and uncontrolled territory in what was then the Administration of Papua and New Guinea. While the oil is found by an individual prospector, “Shark-Eye” Kelley, played by Reg Lye, he needs government assistance to take control of the region. That’s where Rafferty comes in, as Steve MacAllister, a one-man colonising machine who leads a patrol to “open up” Paradise Valley so that the government can put down an airstrip and bring in a team of geologists to assess the possibility of an oil well. Steve’s skill doesn’t end there, however, since he knows the indigenous Papua New Guineans well enough to haggle them into building the runway for free, and to discourse about them to his team when they arrive at Paradise Valley. The film thus charts a movement from mapping, to patrols, to the acquisition of indigenous labour, to the construction of the very anthropological discourse that it itself enacts, which becomes the jewel in the crown of Australian colonial confidence.
That anthropological discourse boils down to one scenario that the film repeats over and over again: the encounter between the camera and lands that have never been seen by white people. The directors invite us to bask in the thrill of penetrating into one of the remotest places on earth, places that have “never seen a white man’s foot,” as the camera becomes the pinnacle and vanguard of colonial technology. If colonialism is first and foremost a perceptual lens, a way of reframing indigenous peoples in relation to western culture, then the camera packages all that into its very presence here. The mere fact of the camera speaks to the frisson of first contact, the phallic potency of Australian settlers, which is also reflected in Rafferty’s looming height and ridiculously high trousers, which are frequently set against the more diminutive Papua New Guinean peoples. This dovetails with the introduction of Dr. Louise Dumarcet, played by Francoise Christophe, a scientist from the United Nations, who is venturing into the tropics for the first time. In spirit, Louise is woman in a state of nature, a Vadim-like nymph who allows the directors to conflate male gaze and colonial gaze, encouraging us to map her body with the same can-do attitude that Steve traverses the land.
This all imbues Walk Into Paradise with the economy, brevity and ingenuity of a classical Hollywood adventure film. The location shooting is beautifully photographed and brilliantly choreographed, a masterful travelogue that captures both the breadth and precise gradations of the landscape. Like any great quest narrative, we’re continually moving across thresholds and variegated spaces, all of which gradually constellate around the passage from sea to mountains. It’s not dissimilar, in its way, to the ascent of Guadalcanal in The Thin Red Line, except that here the inexorable enemy is the imminent arrival of the monsoon season. Almost imperceptibly, the film’s logistical energy in orchestrating these spaces blends into Steve’s ingenuity in crossing them, much of which involves fire in some way (he exchanges a lighter for labor at one point, and smokes out an enemy by lighting a fire at another). All his conquests end with him convincing the Paradise Island villagers to build the runway for free, and then raising the Australian flag over their ceremonial square, as they watch on peaceably.
Yet while Walk into Paradise celebrates the ingenuity of Australian empire, it’s even more entranced by the laconic calm of Australian empire. Even when things are most stressful, Steve never loses his cool, while a reassuring Aussie voice is never far away either. Right as the patrol hits one of the most challenging landscapes, a plane arrives overhead, and drops food supplies, low enough for the pilot to promise he’ll have a beer for Steve when he gets back to base. The only antagonist the patrol really encounter is a wayward colonist, a crocodile hunter named Jeff Clayton, played by Pierre Cressoy, who barricades himself with a gun inside an abandoned village after going delirious with malaria. Not only does Louise cure his malaria, but they end up marrying in Paradise Valley, absorbing this brief burst of colonial aggression back into the placid calm of the film as a whole. Similarly, the patrol quickly engenders a new calm in Paradise Valley by providing rapid malaria treatment to the delirious locals at the very moment that Steve raises the Australian flag, a calming tonic in and of itself.
Walk into Paradise thus offers two different types of spectacle. On the one hand, the opening exoticism suggests that this might be a journey into darkness, and yet that’s offset by the ingenuity and calm of the Australian colonial enterprise itself. The directors often seem torn between evoking real conflict, and reducing that conflict to a fait accompli, to the point where the Papua New Guineans are largely subsumed into the landscape, and presented as natural or topographical features. By the time we arrive at Paradise Valley, there’s no trace of the cannibals or headhunters of myth, and not a single scene has been shot at night. In fact, the directors brighten and bleach the palette as we arrive at the mountains, which already feel domesticated by the time Steve raises the flag. They may be at the most remote outpost in PNG, but they’re there to put down a runway that will remove this remoteness in an instant, followed all the way by food drops and beer banter from a host of cheery Australian pilots.
As a result, the Papua New Guinea highlands, the fabled home of cannibals, never take on the Gothic intensity that we might expect. The patrol may be ascending, but their ultimate destination is the lowest-lying land in the region, since that makes the best runway terrain. When we first hear of Paradise Valley, in the first scenes of the film, it’s as a low-lying landscape that somehow floats in the clouds, and that conflation of lowlands and highlands continues throughout the film – most notably in Louise’s ongoing insistence that it’s just as possible to contract malaria upon mountains as it is in valleys. By the time we arrive at Paradise Valley, that fusion of high and low vistas precludes either the exoticism of the mountains or the terror of a descent narrative. It’s apt, then, that the film was released under two titles, Walk Into Paradise and Walk Into Hell, since together these capture its driving tension between the allure of Gothic exotica and the sunny assurance of Aussie colonial calm.
In other words, Walk into Paradise can only afford to be Gothic up to a point, which means that the Gothic mode emerges as one of its own key tropes: the return of the repressed. In this case, that involves the return of a much older spectacle, one more indebted to pre-Code Hollywood, or even to silent cinema: the spectacles of extras en masse. From the opening image, which depicts a sea of Papua New Guineans, the film revels in incredible configurations of indigenous extras – performing colonial ceremonies, performing their own ceremonies, and fusing the two for the sake of the camera. With the exception of Sergeant Major Towalaka, Steve’s sidekick, played by Sergeant Major Somu, it’s hard to discern the extent to which these indigenous extras are acting, since they appear to submit to the camera in the same way that they do to the individual characters. Colonising Paradise Valley means choreographing this mass of people, which Steve does by calling on the “biggest sing-sing that’s ever been heard in New Guinea” to trample down enough grass for the runway. The crowd we saw in the opening shot now turns out to be just one part of this sing-sing, which rewrites and domesticates indigenous ceremony to build a literal vehicle for western invasion.
Only after this massive sing-sing, when we see the Papua New Guineans at their most othered and their most domesticated, can the film afford to relax into its one truly Gothic tableau – and its first and only night scene. Earlier in the film, the directors hint at the Gothic possibility of deserted, empty or evacuated villages, but only fully lean into that potential now, in the middle of the night, as Louise falls asleep, and a local medicine man sneaks into her room. In the eeriest image of the film, this man (who remains uncredited) slowly peeks up from beside her bed, making it difficult (at least for western audiences) to distinguish his face from the elaborate headgear that he has on. The next morning, he follows this eerie perusal by releasing a venomous snake into Louise’s room. Rather than killing her, however, the snake allows Jeff, the reformed crocodile-hunter, to save her, and cement their relationship with a kiss. Moreover, the medicine man is never named or contextualised as part of a broader supernatural world – he’s a lone wolf, forgotten by the film as soon as his part in it is played.
This is the only time that Walk Into Paradise permits empty, silent spaces to evoke the full alterity of Papua New Guinean life, even as the directors flood the final tableaux with indigenous peoples who gather in one last gesture of defiance towards their overlords. In a neat symmetry, only Shark-Eye, the original prospector, is killed in this exchange, meaning his individual claim passes into government property, and the colonial cycle is complete. Steve (and the directors) acknowledge this in the quintessential pose of the film – heroically carrying two Papua New Guinean children, one in each arm, shot from below so his massive frame seems even more phallic, as we cut to Louise and Jeff being presented with flowers in a marriage pose, and a plane arrives overhead, as the runway, and wet season, come into being.
If Steve’s pose cements him into the archetypal Australian colonial hero, then the relation between the runway, plane and indigenous extras evokes a broader colonial consummation. Steve starts by describing the runway to the pilots in pretty bald terms – “It’s firm enough, but I don’t know if it’s long enough.” “Give me time to clear the strip, Dick” – as the indigenous extras are finally and fully abstracted into a fluid surface that clears the ground to make way for the plane, gathers round the plane for a sing-sing worship, recedes again as it lifts off, and ducks in wave after wave as the wheels pass within inches of their heads. The wet season strikes now, breaking at the very moment that Australians have conquered the landscape, and coalescing with the fluidity of the Papua New Guinean extras as the QANTAS logo absorbs their country back into Australia’s Top End. This, then, is the final project of Australian colonialism, as the film imagines it – to exude a charm so effortless, and a calm so laconic, that it simply dissolves indigenous people into a liquid resource to be channelled, directed and exploited at will. Colonialism here erases indigenous people by harmonising them so completely with the land that they cease to exist, or become as mercurial as rain, a process at once terrifying and routine that Walk Into Paradise at least dares to depict in its full sweep.