Making Settler Cinemas: Film and Colonial Encounters in the United States, Australia and New Zealand, Peter Limbrick

Peter Limbrick,
Making Settler Cinemas: Film and Colonial Encounters in the United States, Australia and New Zealand.
New York and London: Palgrave Macmillan. 2010
ISBN: 978-0-230-10264-4
272 pp
AUD$147.95 (hb)
(Review copy supplied by Palgrave Macmillan)

In his latest book Making Settler Cinemas, Peter Limbrick traverses some essential cinemas of the world, Ford in the USA, Ealing Studios in Australia and a couple of films from settler New Zealand. In this way the book is a simple accounting for some ways in which it is possible to discuss three cinemas in relation to postcolonial theories of place and negotiated space. In other ways the book is a careful, intricate rendering of the competing and complimentary forces that have and continue to shape the relationships between a group of films from the United States, Australia and Aotearoa/New Zealand and the cultures from which they emerged. More specifically, the book is structured in three parts: Part One: Making a Settler Cinema in the United States. Part Two: Empire and Settler Cinema in Australia. Part Three: Film History and Settler Cinema in Aotearoa/New Zealand. Part One deals principally with the 1929 Cooper and Schoedsack Adventure The Four Feathers and John Ford’s Argosy Westerns, principally the “cavalry trilogy” Fort Apache (USA 1948), She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (USA 1949) and Rio Grande (USA 1950), but also Wagon Master (USA 1950) and the post-Argosy The Searchers (USA 1956). Part Two is subtitled Ealing’s Australian Westerns and is concerned with Harry Watt’s The Overlanders (Australia/UK 1946) and Eureka Stockade (UK 1949) and Ralph Smart’s Bitter Springs (UK/Australia 1950). Part Three is about Alexander Markey’s Hei Tiki (USA 1935) and Ken Annakin’s The Seekers (UK 1954).

What makes this book so intriguing is not just its beautifully crafted writing and illuminating analyses of the films, not just its scholarship and sound theoretical foundation, but its considerable inventive and imaginative purpose, the leaps in faith it manages and the manner in which it proposes that we can think about John Ford’s Westerns alongside The Overlanders and The Seekers. Like the best postcolonial film writing, Limbrick grounds his analysis in evocative, close textual readings of the films, enabling the reader to reimagine the films as he does, carrying us along on the refashioning of these films as carefully thought through vehicles of major theoretical import. Take this description of the opening of Fort Apache where Colonel Owen Thursday (Henry Fonda) and his daughter Philadelphia (Shirley Temple) arrive by stagecoach at a trading post:

The shot in which we see their arrival uses a mobile frame, beginning in extreme long shot, with the coach in the middle ground and iconic landscape of Monument Valley in the background. As the camera pans right, however, a building comes into view, along with a fence that separates the small outpost from the desert beyond. The building is modest, just two storeys of cut stone with small windows, a verandah, and a lean-to out the back. While it seems arbitrary, isolated, and out of place within the space constructed by this sweeping pan shot, this building, unlike the fort that we see in subsequent scenes, really did exist in the Monument Valley landscape. It was in reality Goulding’s Trading Post, the business and home of Harry and Leone (“Mike”) Goulding, the first white settlers in Monument Valley, who introduced Ford and his production company to that location in 1938 (for Stagecoach 1939) and enabled their subsequent visits. (p. 59)

Here Limbrick sets a scene, and takes us into a filmic world at the same time as he signals its construction. Then, he takes the scene into the realms of reality from where his argument springs, setting up in this opening page of chapter two, a journey of discovery and erudition—“Fort Apache thus records in its mise-en-scene a real and multilayered history of encounters between settlers, Navajo, and cinema in the West” (p. 59).

Peter Limbrick is a New Zealander who studied for his PhD with Chris Berry and Bill Routt in La Trobe’s Cinema Studies Program, and he is currently Associate Professor of Film and Digital Media, University of California, Santa Cruz. In many ways this book is an example of what might be called Southern Theory, a phrase that some people associate with Raewyn Connell while others make a link to Ross Gibson’s oeuvre. I also have McKenzie Wark’s article on Meaghan Morris’s work in mind here. [1] It belongs to a tradition of intuitive, inventive and serious scholarship that has deep in its structure, a strong sense of reinvigorating the canon of cultural, postcolonial and film studies with attention to the little traversed realm of Australian and Aotearoa/New Zealand film culture in relation with the well worn trail of US film studies, in particular the films of John Ford. It is a book, in this sense, that is peripheral, in the truest sense of that word, of the bounding line below the West, and closer to the South. Limbrick’s research is born of a disciplinary dexterity. His knowledge and understanding of textual analysis, postcolonial theory, reception studies, cultural studies, gender studies, history, film history, literature and archival work is breathtaking, curiously providing for the flow of ideas without hemming in the discussion with the canon of theoretical approaches.

Making Settler Cultures is refreshing and lively, providing a substantial model for cross-cultural film studies. In particular, Australian and New Zealand film studies can look to this book as a model for fashioning a singular research project that, at once, satisfies the demand for intriguing methodologies involving local fields of research, at the same time that the publishing impetus is always Northward.

[1] Raewyn Connell. Southern Theory: The Global dynamics of knowledge on social science. London, Polity, 2007. Ross Gibson.South of the West: postcolonialism and the narrative Construction of Australia. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1992.  McKenzie Wark. “Speaking trajectories: Meaghan Morris, antipodean theory and Australian cultural studies’, Cultural Studies. 6: 3 (1992): 433 — 448 

About the Author

Deane Williams

About the Author

Deane Williams

Deane Williams is Associate Professor of Film and Screen Studies at Monash University. His books include Australian Post-War Documentary Film: An Arc of Mirrors (2008), Michael Winterbottom (with Brian McFarlane, 2009) and the three-volume Australian Film Theory and Criticism (co-edited with Noel King and Constantine Verevis, 2013–2017).View all posts by Deane Williams →