The Tread of a White Man’s Foot: Australian Pacific Colonialism and the Cinema, 1925-62

Jane Landman,
The Tread of a White Man’s Foot: Australian Pacific Colonialism and the Cinema, 1925-62.
Pandanus Books, Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies, Australian National University, 2006.
ISBN: 1 7407620 61
AUD$34.96 (pb)

This is not an objective review, as I have watched the progress of this project from its inception and I was honoured to be asked to launch the book at the Film and History Conference in Melbourne in November. However, knowing something well can be a very good reason for writing about it, so I have taken the risk.

The historiography of Australian cinema is a work in progress. The pioneering works of Eric Reade and John Baxter were soon superseded by the more scholarly work of Andrew Pike and Ross Cooper or of Graham Shirley and Brian Adams, but all these were attempts to say everything that could be said about Australian film. This did not seem such an unrealistic ambition at the time, but as film scholarship developed it became more obvious how impossible that task would be. The next wave of publications, therefore, focussed more narrowly – Sue Dermody and Elizabeth Jacka, for instance, focussed on the seventies, and on film production only.

Jane Landman’s book is part of the next (third) wave. Because she does not attempt to say everything, the time span covered, though still large, is quite manageable: less than forty years. It begins in 1925 with Frank Hurley’s British tour with Pearls and Savages, and ends in 1962 with the distribution of Lee Robinson’s Walk into Paradise. Over this period, those feature films of Hurley, Ken Hall, and Robinson which were set in the Pacific islands are discussed in detail, with occasional references to others of similar genre and period – a total of only thirteen films. These are discussed along what has become the traditional lines of narrative structure and iconography.

But this book is one of the rare breed that pays as much attention to the industrial history as to the textual analysis. That history includes the financing of productions, the fortunes of the crews on location, and confrontations of the producers with government regulations including censorship. In this case, the major concern is the application in practice of that very dated phrase – ‘films suitable for native races’. This is where the story becomes, for white Australian readers, embarrassing, by highlighting the inherent racism of what were considered at the time to be the most ordinary of procedures.

This book also makes a significant contribution to a fourth wave of writing about Australian film, seeking to relate the textual to its intertextual and social contexts. So, Landman links the industrial history and textual analysis of the films to Australia’s colonial ambitions in the Pacific, seeing the films as ‘parables’ of these ambitions. At the beginning of the period, Australians saw themselves as clearly British, and positioned films set in the Pacific as proud national statements, peopled by heroic white adventurers, with the islanders merely as one aspect of the exotic mise-en-scene. Landman suggests some progress over the years, towards crediting Islander peoples with agency: however, even in the 1960s Australian film-makers continued to make films about the Pacific for their own home market. So they still saw the Pacific and its peoples through the lens of the colonialist’s belief in their own innate superiority, interpreted as responsibility (a ‘white man’s burden’).

Readers are taken from one of these three strands – the text, the film industry context and the wider social context – to another, without always integrating them. The absence of illustrations is a pity, and there are places where I would have appreciated the efforts of a more heavy-handed editor. However, the book is overall very readable and covers ground that has not been opened up in this kind of detail before. It has the potential to become the standard text on its subject, but I hope it also generates debate on an area so far little-explored.

Ina Bertrand,

Created on: Saturday, 2 June 2007

About the Author

Ina Bertrand

About the Authors

Ina Bertrand

Ina Bertrand is Principal Fellow, Cinema Programme, School of Culture and Communication, University of Melbourne, Australia. She was foundation editor of Screening the Past.View all posts by Ina Bertrand →