Two Cultures, One Red Blood

The tag line from David Gulpilil on the cover of the DVD of Darlene Johnson’s film One Red Blood (2002) reads “…my life and how I really live it.” And so this promises to be as much autobiography as biography, blending Gulpilil’s own telling of his story with commentary and anecdote from a broad range of friends, lovers, and colleagues. These include Rolf de Heer (who directed Gulpilil in The Tracker and Ten Canoes), Philip Noyce (Rabbit-Proof Fence), the brilliant actress Justine Saunders and fellow actor Jack Thompson. The portrait that emerges is multi-faceted, even kaleidoscopic in nature, revolving around a character who almost never seems to surrender his own sense of self to those he has obligated himself to.

Perhaps moregulpilil than any other Aboriginal actor, Gulpilil is truly a man of two worlds, and this is the theme that emerges mostly clearly from the documentary. Johnson sets this dichotomy up early on. In an opening sequence Gulpilil speaks from his bush home near Ramingining about his birthplace across the river. He notes that the river is now too wide for him to cross; he can’t drop a tree across the river now, for the tree is too short and he can’t swim the river, which is full of crocodiles. Aerial shots of the river in flood provides a sense of verisimilitude to his remarks. But the metaphorical truth of these statements achieves resonance when the film cuts to Gulpilil performing on a television stage, painted up with ochre and adorned with fantastically beautiful dancing belts–and the shot is interrupted by Mike Munro, who announces, to cheers from the television audience, “David Gulpilil, THIS IS YOUR LIFE!” Indeed. And yet what One Red Blood achieves is an integrative vision of how Gulpilil navigates the crossing.

The story of Gulpilil’s prowess as a dancer leading to his casting, at the age of 17, as the young Aboriginal who rescues two lost white children from the bush in Nicolas Roeg’s Walkabout (1971) may be the salient episode in the whitefella biography. Over the next decade he made a dozen more appearance in film and television, ranging from Peter Weir’s The Last Wave to four episodes of the series based on Arthur Upfield’s Boney novels, one of which is excerpted here in all its embarrassing wretchedness.

Both Justine Saunders and historian Koori Gary Foley speak warmly and with a bit of awe about the impact that Gulpilil’s performance inWalkabout had on Aboriginal audiences across the country for its positive presentation of Indigenous culture. (To put the film in some historical perspective, think that Walkabout was made only fifteen years after Jedda.) And yet Johnson doesn’t overlook the obstacles that Gulpilil’s performance was up against. In Los Angeles, the young star is surrounded by adoring young female fans who want to know why his character killed himself at the end of the film, wondering if there’s some hidden “Aboriginal” meaning to the action. In what might be the first filmed record of the trademark Gulpilil cheekiness, he replies “I want to know that too.” 

The film cuts from footage of Gulpilil whirling about in the mechanical teacups at Disneyland to life back in Ramingining. Gulpilil talks about growing up in country unspoiled, he accuses, until the white man arrived. There’s some wonderful documentary footage from the earliest days of the Maningrida settlement included in this section (again, only about fifteen years prior to the production of Walkabout, and thus contemporaneous with Jedda). Gulpilil’s responsibilities as head of the family, as member of the larger community with all the obligations that entails are briefly discussed by friends, but it is Gulpilil himself who speaks the most about what joys and hardships his life in bush presents.

In 1986 Gulpilil played Neville Bell, Crocodile Dundee‘s Abo mate, and the clip included in One Red Blood is, if anything, more embarrassing to watch now than the footage from the early Boney television shows. In the space of perhaps two minutes Gulpilil’s character is transformed from a marauding night-creeper with Mick Dundee’s knife at his throat into a debtribalized misfit who attends corroboree only because his father makes him. And then when girlfriend Sue wants to take his picture, he tells her that she can’t. She tells Neville (doesn’t ask, mind you) that he believes it will take away his soul, and he cheekily corrects her, “No, your lens cap is on.”

Worse, this role in the most commercially successful film of Gulpilil’s career was also his last significant film job for another fifteen years. The work dried up, and no explanation is provided, and the point is passed over rather quickly. But afterwards I wondered how Gulpilil made sense of the change. Did he understand that, like many film stars, he’d had a good run, and it was now ended? Or did he wonder that the whitefella world’s appreciation of his talents could be revoked so easily, in ways that his status as a dancer among his Yolngu compatriots would never have changed in such an arbitrary fashion?

The rest of One Red Blood celebrates Gulpilil’s achievements in later life both in Arnhem Land and in the cinema. There is footage of him at home in Arnhem Land that proves him to be as ebullient and as wise today as ever. In sharp contrast, there is the film star in the city, in formal wear, still enjoying his celebrity. And there are wonderful sequences from the filming of The Tracker in which we get to watch both spirits, the bushman and the actor, working in tandem, sequences that reveal best of all Gulpilil’s unique genius.

gulpilil out bush gulpilil in adelaide

The documentary concludes with clips from an initiation ceremony in Maningrida, which Gulpilil arranged to be filmed. Although not quite as unprecedented as claimed (there is, after all, much more extensive documentation in Ian Dunlop’s masterful Dhapi Ceremony at Yirrkala (1972), this concluding bit does give us a last, and all too rare opportunity to witness Gulpilil’s extraordinary skill as a dancer. Indeed, if I have one complaint about One Red Blood, it is that it slights this aspect of Gulpilil’s performing viruosity: I would have been grateful for the opportunity to watch him dance that is almost never captured in his feature films.

*************
Included on the DVD of One Red Blood, for reasons that are unexplained is a short feature called Walkabout, edited in 1974 out of two films made in the early 1940s by the anthropologist Charles Mountford. I can only surmise that the similarity in titles between the Mountford documentary and the Roeg feature film is reponsible, but I was nonetheless delighted at the happy accident. Mountford’s expeditions through Central Australia were recorded in Walkabout (1940) and Tjurunga (1942); ceremonial footage in both films was cut and the remainder of the two movies was combined to create a 1974 release called Walkabout. It is replete with charming children and Mountford’s repetitive if genuine surprise at how clever these “primitives” can be. These films are among the few documentaries of traditional people made prior to 1950, let alone made widely available, and their ethnographic value in documenting both the Central Australians as well as their observers is indisputable.

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