The night before last I was hook, line and sinkered by Peter Weir‘s The Last Wave (’77), which I’d found on the Criterion Channel. The last viewing was in January ’79, which is when it opened stateside. I remember calling a radio talk show that month from my Sullivan Street apartment and praising The Last Wave as “a thinking man’s disaster film.” Which it is.
It’s about an Australian tax attorney (Richard Chamberlain) engaged to defend four tribal Aboroginal males (one of them played by Walkabout‘s David Gulpilil) of a strange murder that didn’t involve weapons of any kind. The victim (another Aboriginal male) may have drowned, but another explanation is that he may have been spooked or hexed to death.
But the film isn’t about the charges as much as a sense of approaching catastrophic doom on a Biblical scale, and how the defendants seem to be much more in touch with the hums and portents of nature and how Chamberlain, who’s been “seeing” apocalyptic visions of floods and frog plagues, seems to understand this more and more as the film moves on.
It’s also about how Australia’s professional-class white-man culture is not only oblivious to what may be coming, but is perhaps the cause of it on some level.
In short, The Last Wave was one of the first “black man pure-of-spirit vs. white man corroded and evil” metaphor dramas. It’s very subtle and quiet for the most part, but at the same time quite spooky.