Australia Day continues with Backroads, a groundbreaking road movie/thriller from 1977, directed by Phillip Noyce.
Gary (Gary Foley) is an Aboriginal who has just spent a night in jail. He meets Jack King (Bill Hunter) and they steal a Pontiac. Along for the ride is Gary’s uncle Joe (Zac Martin), and along the way they pick up French tourist Jean-Claude (Terry Camilleri) and disaffected shop assistant Anna (Julie McGregor)…
Most of the pioneers of the Australian Film Revival of the 1970s were born before or during World War II. Philip Noyce (born 1950) was part of a second wave, amongst the country’s first products of film school. (Another was Gillian Armstrong, born the same year, and Noyce worked as an assistant on her early short film One Hundred a Day.) Noyce’s interest in film began in his teens when a friend bought an 8mm camera and was particularly sparked by a season of American underground films shown by the Ubu Film Group in Melbourne. At the age of eighteen, he directed a black-and-white short called Better to Reign in Hell over the Christmas holidays. This almost got him in trouble when he showed it at a students’ ball, due to a nude love scene – the police were informed but fortunately no-one was arrested.
Noyce was by then at University as a law student, but later transferred to the Film and Television School in Ryde, a northern suburb of Sydney. He was one of the first intake of students, in 1973. Noyce continued to make short films while working as an assistant on such features as the 16mm production The Golden Cage and Let the Balloon Go. One of those shorts, Caravan Park was written by Adelaide writer John (now Josephine) Emery. Backroads originated in another of Emery’s short stories, “The First Day of Spring”, which had an Aboriginal main character. Gary Foley, an Aboriginal activist whom Noyce knew from political meetings, came on board but found the dialogue, especially that of the Aboriginal characters, unconvincing. He agreed to take part as long as he had a hand in revising it. The film’s dialogue is improvised by the actors – hence the credit to Emery, Noyce and the cast.
As Foley points out in his interview on this DVD, although Aboriginal filmmakers had been active before then, they were certainly lacking in resources and experience. (Foley cites two films by Bruce McGuinness, Blackfire (1972) and A Time to Dream (1974). Neither of these have IMDB entries as I write this, but further details can be found in this transcript of an ABC television piece on McGuinness from 2004, the year after his death .)And while films on Aboriginal subjects had certainly been made before – for example, 1955’s Jedda, Australia’s first film in colour – but this was the first feature film where Aboriginals had a creative input other than acting, and a film where they had a say in how they were represented.
Backroads was shot in 16mm on a budget of A$28,000. On camera was Russell Boyd, who had just shot Picnic at Hanging Rock, and had rapidly established himself as Australia’s leading cinematographer of the time. He and Noyce had worked together on The Golden Cage.
Although it begins and ends as a thriller, the real strength of Backroads is as a road movie, with the interrelation between Jack, Gary and Uncle Joe being at its heart. Jack (a role won by Hunter after being asked to improvise on the spot outside a pub after refusing to do a screen test) is at first sight a classic Aussie “ocker”, but the mutual respect between him and Gary is clear to see, and develops as the film goes on. Gary Foley’s charisma is also without doubt, as is that of the late Zac Martin. The other passengers in the car are less successful, particularly Terry Camilleri’s somewhat overdone performance as Jean-Claude. It’s in the scenes in the Aboriginal community in Bourke that Foley’s influence on the film is most felt. The ending is somewhat rushed (the original one couldn’t be filmed due to lack of budget) but Backroads is a tough, gritty film but one clearly impelled by people with talent having something urgent to say.
Gary Foley continued to act occasionally, with roles in Dogs in Space, Pandemonium and, on TV, A Country Practice. He is also credited as “ethnologist” on Werner Herzog’s Where the Green Ants Dream. He is now an academic, on the Faculty of Education at Victoria University, Melbourne. Bill Hunter remains one of Australia’s leading character actors, still working as I write this. Zac Martin died in an incident involving Queensland police in 1986. As for Noyce, he next made Newsfront (which starred Bill Hunter), Heatwave and Dead Calm before moving to Hollywood. Most of his films are made in the USA, though he returned to Australia to make Rabbit-Proof Fence.
Backroads had a run at London’s Scala Cinema, in a double bill with another mid-length Australian film, Stephen Wallace’s Love Letters from Teralba Road, but it has had no British television showings that I can trace, nor any subsequent commercial release.
Backroads is released by Madman on a dual-layered PAL format DVD encoded for Region 4 only.
Backroads was shot in 16mm and, as far as I’m aware, shown in cinemas at a ratio of 1.37:1. This DVD transfer is a digital restoration overseen by Phillip Noyce and Russell Boyd. No issues with this, but Noyce and Boyd have reframed the images into a ratio of 1.78:1, anamorphically enhanced. I can’t mark this down as it’s director/DP-authorised, but I would have preferred a 4:3 version to be available as well. It’s a short film, so there should have been the space. Some scenes do look cropped, it has to be said. (You can see extracts of the film in 4:3, playing in the background to Russell Boyd’s interview on this DVD.) Needless to say, the images are a little soft and certainly grainy, but that’s inevitable given the 16mm source. The colours are vibrant, as they should be, though inevitably shadow detail isn’t as good as it might be had the film be shot in 35mm.
The soundtrack has been remixed from the original mono into Dolby Digital 5.1, with a Dolby Surround alternative. The remix has been respectfully done: the results are mostly monophonic with some separation on sound effects and the surrounds being used mostly for ambience. Again, this is director-approved, or I would have had something to say about it. There are no subtitles available for the hard-of-hearing, which is always regrettable.
The commentary features Noyce, Foley and Boyd. Much time is spent, especially by Noyce, on their background before making Backroads, but once they get onto the subject it’s an informative listen on the whys and wherefores of making a film on a budget which wouldn’t have paid for the makeup bill on one of Noyce’s Hollywood films. Foley ends the commentary on a sober note by saying that in twenty-five years he would be likely be lying in a cemetery, given the reduced life expectancy for Aboriginals. He reckons that as of the commentary recording date (2004), the only Aboriginal actor in the film still alive, apart from himself, is the child playing his son.
Next up are three interviews. The first is with Phillip Noyce (34:05), with some input from an offscreen Gary Foley. Much of what Noyce inevitably duplicates what he says in the commentary, but he’s worth listening to. Russell Boyd is interviewed at the commentary recording session, so Noyce and Foley are also present and join in (17:52). He talks about his career before and after Backroads, including a story about being the only man visiting a wedding shop, to buy the nets he used to put in front of the lenses when he shot Picnic at Hanging Rock. At the time of the recording, he has been Oscar-nominated for Master and Commander, which reunited him with Peter Weir. The third interview is with Gary Foley (23:08) who talks to camera about his beginning as a political activist and his collaboration with Noyce on Backroads. He also discusses the importance of the film to Aboriginals. Although there have been films on Aboriginal subjects since, both by black and white filmmakers, he still reckons it is the best. The Noyce and Boyd interviews are in 4:3, the Foley in 16:9 anamorphic.
The next extra deals with the digital restoration. Extracts from the film play, with the left half of the screen being the HD transfer, the right half being the much cooler-toned unrestored original. There are also text pages describing the process, two for the picture and four for sound. After that, there is a forty-image stills gallery (not self-navigating), with each picture fully captioned.
Biographies are provided for Noyce, Foley, Boyd, Bill Hunter, John Emery, Zac Martin, Julie McGregor, Terry Camilleri and sound recordist Lloyd Carrick. There are some embedded extras here. From both Foley’s and Martin’s biographies there are links to extracts from the 1973 TV revue Basically Black, which featured them both. The extracts run 0:20 and 1:25 respectively, and feature Zac Martin as Superboong. Let racists beware! As you would expect from TV material, these are in 4:3 and in black and white, as Australia didn’t start colour TV broadcasting until 1975. Lloyd Carrick’s biography leads to a short interview with him (3:17) in which he talks about his work on Backroads.
“Reviews” begins with that by P.P. McGuinness in the National Times, read by Gary Foley (3:12). The other full reviews are from London and are presented as text screens: from “legendary film reviewer” Derek Malcolm in The Guardian, Rod McShane in Time Out and V. Digneen in the Morning Star. There are also short extracts over two text pages from Australian reviews, ending with one from the McGuinness review mentioned above.
“Backroads According to Gary Foley” is a text page with the URL of the Koori History Website’s special feature on the making of Backroads. On the disc in PDF format are the original script, an extract from a biography of Noyce, John Emery’s original short story “The First Day of Spring, and articles on the film from Senses of Cinema and Spinach 7.
Finally, “Madman Propaganda” leads you to trailers for other Madman releases: The Old Man Who Read Love Stories, Walkabout, Elephant, The Finished People, Osama, Black and White, The Tracker and Amandla!.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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